Classic Reels: Sunset Boulevard

Sirens pierce the early morning hours and a dead body floats motionless in a swimming pool. Homicide detectives and newspapermen race to the scene. So begins “Sunset Boulevard”, a twisted tale of murder set against the bright lights of Hollywood.

It’s 1950’s Hollywood and struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis, is having trouble making his car payments. When the insurance men come to collect, he tries to weave a web of lies to hold them off until he can scrounge up some cash. He can’t hide forever, and when he crosses paths with them on Sunset Boulevard, he makes a break for it. A high speed chase ensues. He outruns them, but in the process blows a tire, forcing him to park his sputtering car in the garage of what he thinks is an abandoned mansion. Its owner is Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), an aging silent film actress.

In her heyday, Desmond was a star, but now she lives a secluded life, far from the spotlights of Hollywood. She’s planning a comeback though, writing an epic screenplay that will bring her back into the thoughts of her once adoring fans. When she finds out that Gillis is a screenwriter she hires him to edit the screenplay. He moves in to edit full time, but soon finds out that something isn’t quite right.

With the passing of the silent film era, Norma Desmond and her mansion seem to go with it. She continues to live in the glory of her younger years while her house crumbles around her. Her living room is covered with old photographs of herself and an old organ lets out an eerie note with each passing breeze. As Gill and Desmond watch her old silent films, smoke hangs over the flickering light of the projector. Everything is dark and secluded inside Desmond’s mansion, creating an eerie background throughout the film.

Although the film delivers outstanding performances from its entire cast, Gloria Swanson’s portrayal of Norma Desmond was a little over-the-top at times. It isn’t that her acting is bad, in fact, most of the film she genuinely conveys the sadness and tragedy of her character. But every so often, when a scene could have used a more subtle portrayal, she tends to over act.

There is an air of mystery throughout “Sunset Boulevard”. Things aren’t always as they seem, and plot twists are layered throughout, resulting in what feels like a very long film. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though. The story is completely engrossing, but at times it feels as if the film takes the long way to tell something simple.

Throughout the film, Gillis provides no-nonsense narration of the events around him. His quick one-liners and insights into a colorful cast of characters are what make “Sunset Boulevard” so enjoyable. He tells the story as he sees it unfold, and it is through his eyes we see the plot thicken. He’s not the greatest person, he’s flawed and has his own motivations, but he serves as a good filter to tell the tragic tale of Norma Desmond.

Hollywood is known for its glitz and glamour, but what of the stars it leaves behind? No matter how bright they become, most will not shine forever. It is here, on a quiet street lined with the mansions of stars of old, that audiences discover that not everything is as black and white as it seems on Sunset Boulevard.

Grade: B

– Brian

Classic Reels is a weekly blog by Lariat contributor Brian Sanders. Sanders reviews old movies for those looking to brush up on their historic cinema or those that are looking to reminisce on old flicks.

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