Hollywood Retro Film Festival – Sunset Boulevard

1950s flick Sunset Boulevard is a defining and essential piece of Hollywood cinema – boosting its cast, writer/director, and an entire genre.

Tom Munday

Film noir, coming to fruition throughout the 1940s and 50s, is an essential aspect of Hollywood’s social and cultural impact. 1950 film Sunset Boulevard has helped set the tone and mould for the genre’s influence and allure, and also marks a shocking, but glorious look at the early years of America’s film industry.

Sunset Boulevard kicks off with one of cinema’s most definitive opening sequences. Struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) is depicted floating face down in a swimming pool. His narration explains that he, in the present, has been murdered. The film then leaps six months back into the past, and Gillis is alive and well aiming to strike fame and riches in Los Angeles.

He, struggling to obtain a steady income from his screenwriting endeavours, is continually chased down by repossession men. One day, after escaping from people seeking his car, Gillis conceals himself in a Sunset Boulevard mansion owned by forgotten, manic-depressive silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson).

On the same pedestal as The Maltese Falcon and Touch of Evil, Sunset Boulevard raised the stakes for filmmakers to warp the genre to fit ever-changing trends. Gillis and Norma become inseparable, with Gillis taking advantage of her good will to get close to studio executives. The lead characters’ push-and-pull dynamic, while avoiding sexual tension unlike most film noirs, succumbs to increasing levels of manipulation, delusion, and paranoia from both sides.

Writer/director Billy Wilder is known as one of cinema’s most influential comedy and drama filmmakers. With films including Double Indemnity and Some Like it Hot, he became a defining part of the influx of foreign filmmakers at the time. Wilder’s prowess, and the film’s skewering of tinsel-town are made all the more prevalent by cameos from stars including Cecil B. DeMille and Buster Keaton. Time Magazine referred to Sunset Boulevard as: “Hollywood at its worst told by Hollywood at its best”. Despite the film’s polarising reception upon its release, the film is still revered for examining the system, star power, and the price of success with originality and detail.

Sunset Boulevard is just one slither of the director’s influence over Hollywood. Continually turning convention on its head, the non-linear storyline highlights the value of narration, flashbacks, and point of view.

Overall, Sunset Boulevard is an essential example of a writer/director creating an honest work of art. The film immediately won audiences and critics over, nominated for eleven Academy Awards and winning three for its screenplay, art and set decoration, and score. The film’s impact has since resonated, deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the US Library of Congress in 1989.

As a sublime, but ultimately dark mix of satire and crime-thriller, this film remarks on the good, bad, and ugly of America’s glamourous allure.

Sunset Boulevard screens at Windsor Cinema 1 Dec & 7 Dec

Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures

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