Is it black comedy, film noir, or a heavy touch of both? Sunset Boulevard has elements of comedy and darkness that create a kind of class confusion. However, the wit and oddity that entertain the audience and, in some cases, the film’s narrator-protagonist ultimately result in the noir-est of finales: an ending that is emotionally uncertain until the final moments even though the film begins with the outcome of the events to be recounted.
We see what has happened, and we are told by the voice of the narrator that his story is merely the recounting of the events that transpired. The web woven in the story, as clearly as the narrator tells it, creates moments of opportunity that something might be different this time, that this character speaking to us after his fate is resolved might make different choices now that we know how things will end. That events don’t resolve differently—we see the same ending we saw at the beginning—is more futile and depressing than watching a cast of characters on a charted path of miserable fate. But let us start at the end-beginning.
Screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) is drowned, face-down in a swimming pool against a backdrop of police officers crowding the crime scene, their faces distorted through the water. Director Billy Wilder filmed this shot from below, so that the camera and the viewer looks into the face of Joe Gillis, who begins to speak. Gillis narrates the story of the past six months that led to his demise.
Joe is a screenwriter whose career has stalled. He is evading men following him to repossess his car, asking acquaintances for money and succumbing to debt and constant borrowing and empty deal-making promises. Joe isn’t an innocent; he plans ahead, hiding his car and lying about its whereabouts to the repo men. He name-drops Hollywood elites when pitching a movie script to Paramount. He gives the audience the sense that he is pitching his own narrative the same way he pitches a script to a studio. A script reader named Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) openly criticises his script. Paramount producer Sheldrake (Fred Clark) rejects the script and has no other projects to offer Joe. Joe’s ego won’t allow for him to return to his hometown of Dayton, Ohio, to work at a modest job at a copy desk.
Later, Joe evades car repossessors by hiding his car in the garage of an old, dilapidated mansion, which he calls “a white elephant of a house,” comparing it to the house in Great Expectations, which was inhabited by the jilted Miss Havisham. While observing the disrepair of the mansion, Joe hears a woman’s voice call to him, having mistaken Joe for the undertaker that will arrive to administer burial rites to her deceased pet chimpanzee. The house’s caretaker, Max (Erich von Stroheim) shows Joe into the house, where he meets and recognizes silent film actress Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), whom, he learns as he positions himself as a bright and productive screenwriter, has written an epic-length screenplay about Salome, a female character that has become a symbol of dangerous seduction. Norma is strategising her comeback to the movies with this film, which she anticipates to be directed by her long-time, very former director, Cecil B. Demille (Cecil B. Demille). She tells Joe: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” But nevertheless asks his opinion of her script. Joe anticipates the script will be terrible, but needs money and a place to escape, is curious how bad Norma’s writing will be, and besides, he narrates, “She’d mentioned something to drink.”
Amidst champagne, expensive clothes, and movie nights comprised only of Norma’s silent films, surrounded by an expansive collection of photographs only of Norma, Joe becomes Norma’s collaborator, dependent, and finally, her reluctant lover. After a dramatic and suffocating encounter on New Year’s Eve, Joe runs out of Norma’s house to a fun party with friendly young people that he knew in his former life. His friend Artie (Jack Webb) offers him a place to stay. Artie’s girlfriend happens to be Betty, the script reader that earlier criticised Joe’s screenplay. Betty wants to write. She thinks one of Joe’s script ideas has real merit and wants to work with him. All of the things that Joe needed and wanted before he met Norma are once again available for him to choose. Joe calls Max to ask him to have his possessions packed and sent to him. Max replies that he can’t do that because Norma, whom he had earlier described as prone to melancholy, has taken Joe’s razor and cut her wrists. Joe returns to the house and to Norma, giving up his opportunity to rebuild a life of his own. Joe falls into Norma’s melancholy and psychological disorder.
Twice more, Joe describes chance encounters with Betty and her offers to write with him. He has a brief period of release from his psychological bondage to Norma when he leaves during nights to write with Betty at her modest Paramount studio office. Norma learns of Joe’s collaboration with Betty and threatens to kill herself with the gun she has in her bed. When Norma calls Betty to cast aspersions about Joe, Joe invites Betty to come to see the house, to see the extravagant life that he lives, and to convince her that she should leave without him. He presents himself as a kept man, rather than someone who makes his own way through life. This seems like Joe’s final acceptance of fate, despite the options he has turned down.
However, Joe has decided to leave. He returns the fancy clothes and jewelry that Norma has bought for him and tells Norma that he’s going back to Dayton, Ohio. He has finally chosen that honest life that he left behind. After Joe reveals that Norma’s days of stardom are indeed firmly behind her, Norma says, “No one ever leaves a star,” and shoots not herself, but Joe, three times until he topples into the swimming pool that she had reclaimed from decrepitude during a bought of enthusiasm for his companionship.
For the first part of the film, Joe thinks he is playing into Norma’s fantasies for his own gain, but he is being played into her mental illness, assisted complicity by her servile servant Max, whom we have recently learned is Norma’s former director and first husband. Max, unable to tolerate life apart from Norma, returned to be her house servant. Max’s fate, like most other aspects of the film, suggests that Joe’s life has a fatalistic outcome. That was not the case in production of the movie. Various endings were considered before Wilder decided that Norma Desmond would murder Joe Gillis rather than let him leave her, and that the deceased Joe Gillis would narrate his pathway to demise. Viewers could lose track emotionally of the known outcome of the film—Joe dies—because we see that he has opportunities to change his fate. The film is very dark to offer that hope against the reality of certain knowledge. The noir-ness of the story is not just that Joe’s life is fatalistic, but that he rejects offers to make freer choices.
The score of Sunset Boulevard combines themes of tango and bebop jazz, both more up tempo and high-stepping than the standard noir sound of a single saxophone or lonely oboe. For his score, composer Franz Waxman won the Academy Award for Best Music. The move also won Academy Awards for Best Art Direction-Set Design for Norma Desmond’s Hollywood-star-of-the-1920s house and for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay for the film’s script.
Sunset Boulevard is darkly humorous, if deeply foreboding, at the start, and remains entertaining enough that the impending veil of melancholy and depression, as we see Joe Gillis fall into the obsessive life and mind of Norma Desmond, is difficult to escape. I felt that I was engrossed in their false lives inside the house just as Joe became compulsively mired to his life with Norma. The famous ending, Norma’s “Alright, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup,” is as psychologically haunting as it is cinematically famous.