More than half a century after its release in 1950, Sunset Boulevard is still the most pungently unflattering portrait of Hollywood ever committed to celluloid. Billy Wilder, unequalled at combining a literate, sulphurous script with taut direction, hits his target relentlessly. The humour–and the film is rich in this, Wilder’s most abundant commodity–is black indeed. Sunset Boulevard is viciously and endlessly clever. William Holden’s opportunistic scriptwriter Joe Gillis, whose sellout proves fatal, is from the top drawer of film noir. Gloria Swanson’s monstrously deluded Norma Desmond, the benchmark for washed-up divas, transcends parody. And her literal descent down the staircase to madness is one of the all-time great silver-screen moments.
Sunset Boulevard isn’t without pathos, most notably in Erich von Stroheim’s protective butler who wants only to shield his mistress from the stark truths that are massing against her. But its view of human beings at work in a ruthlessly cannibalistic industry is bleak indeed. Nobody, not even Nancy Olson’s sparkily ambitious writer Betty Schaefer, is untainted. And neither are we, “those wonderful people out there in the dark”. Norma might be ready for her close-up, but it’s really Hollywood that’s in the frame. No wonder Wilder incurred the charge of treachery from his peers. It’s cinematic perfection.
On the DVD: Sunset Boulevard lends itself effortlessly to a collector’s edition of this quality. The film itself is presented in full-frame aspect ratio from an excellent print and the quality of the mono soundtrack is faultless: the silver screen comes to life in your living room. The extras are superb, including a commentary from film historian Ed Sikov and a making-of documentary which includes the memories of Nancy Olson. Interactive features such as the Hollywood location map add to the fun. –Piers Ford
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