Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Sunset Boulevard

A lot has been said about Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard. Which is as it should be, because there's a lot to say about it. But for me, having a lot to say often means that when it comes to writing something, I find myself at a loss for words.

Maybe that was why Joe Gillis had writer's block. He had too much to say. So much so, that he had to narrate his own story from beyond the grave.

I was tempted to say that the famous opening scene shot of William Holden floating on the pool's surface is the film's Best Shot, because I see no reason to include the prologue (and, frankly, Joe's narration) in the film at all other than the fact that it presents practically the whole story of the film in one image. Because the fact is, Sunset Boulevard is perfect, but the story and performances are so engrossing that we really don't need the whole thing to be a flashback. Except that it's too good. The film's story proper opens with Joe evading officials, and from that moment it's clear he's pretty low, but not quite at rock bottom yet. The whole film, he's looking down and slowly sinking into that pool, and he doesn't even know it... except that he does, because he's narrating his own story from beyond the grave.

Narrative semantics aside, I found myself most surprised this go-round on Sunset Boulevard that it's largely about the dangers of hero worship. That makes it incredibly timely given our increasingly obsessed celebrity culture... or maybe that culture hasn't really changed at all, only that it takes less and less to actually be a celebrity. But there's a reason why the film ends with Norma not just creepily walking towards the camera, like a vampiress (seriously, Gloria Swanson is giving some serious Bela Lugosi realness in that final shot) coming for her prey, but with her delivering the last third of her closing monologue straight into the camera, directly to the audience.

She's doing it all for us, you see. It's all our fault. You want to know why Sunset Boulevard didn't win Best Picture and Best Actress in 1950? That right there. It directly implicates the audience in Norma Desmond's downfall. Without a public, those "wonderful people out there in the dark," she wouldn't want to make a comeback return. Without us, she wouldn't even exist, in every possible way. The way she looks right at the audience even calls back to this fantastic earlier shot:


As Norma adjusts herself in the mirror, her reflection is looking straight at the audience. It's almost as if she can see us - that she doesn't spy herself in the mirror so much as the people watching the film, and realizes that she still has the pieces of her beauty regiment on (and actually, earlier in the film she runs right by the mirror without even noticing it). She cannot present herself to her public (or Joe) like this! She she takes them off, adjusts herself, and continues on with the scene.

But enough about all that, because according to Nathaniel we aren't allowed to pick the last shot as the film's Best Shot. And I toyed with making that mirror shot the best, but it will have to settle for runner-up status this time around.

Each time we watch a movie it becomes a little different; different circumstances in our lives cause our sympathies to bounce around between characters, another plotline or detail of set design attracts our attention, etc. This time I had to pause the film during the New Year's Eve party Norma throws for herself and Joe, so when I came back and started the film up again, I was paying closer attention than on previous viewings. And as Joe storms out of the house, this happens.


A little insignificant detail, but Joe's watch chain getting caught in the door, I realized, is a perfectly sly way of setting up the end of the film. He's already too attached to Norma and her gifts. He's tangled up in her life, and there's no getting out now. He won't even get out for long that night, as Norma's suicide attempt brings him running right back. It's reiterating what we know from the prologue - that poor Joe is a dead man - but it's a clever, surprising way of doing so. I don't know whether this happened by accident or not, but either way, it's what makes Billy Wilder one of the greats.

*                    *                    *

...AND now that that's done, I'm just going to leave this here, without commentary, just because.


  1. Great subtle choice of shot. I’ve noticed his getting his chain caught but never thought about that implication.

    The film is so wonderful and full of layers. I struggled with so many choices even though the last ultimate shot was disallowed. One thing I often notice is that despite the film being sympathic to Norma it still presents her as a form of succubus drawing the life out of Joe. Throughout the film she is often costumed in some spidery way. Her hats, often the way she wears her stoles or coats and the way she moves or holds Joe conjures up images of enfoldment.

    Some of the shots I considered were Max deep in the shadows where he has always remained revealing he was her first husband. The shot between Joe and the salesman when he snarkily advises getting the vicuna where he first realizes he is being bought. Norma’s lost look of desperation as she realizes Joe is leaving her with the gun in her hand. The profile shot as she feels the light from the projector off her face after having decried her abandonment by Hollywood. All great but I would chose the shared shot of Norma and the enemy microphone as it brushes her hat, again covering her face like a spider web when she is waiting for DeMille. The look of disdain on her face is perfect.

    A couple of asides. Who knew that Jack Webb could ever be so relaxed on screen! Also I think Hedda Hopper’s reaction at Norma’s final descent is very well played, as the room full of strangers impassively watch her descend Hedda, who probably would have known her is clearly moved to anguish at her destruction, it’s subtle and moving.

    LOVE the Nora Desmond clip!! I always got a kick out of them but this particular one was always my favorite.

    1. Yeah, I've seen the chain getting caught before but honestly thought it was a mistake they left in, but this time, it just hit me the right way!

      I, too, love the way Max is nearly always lurking in the background of shots, ever the watchful eye over Norma. And that business with the microphone is perfection.

      LOVE Hedda Hopper in that scene! Wilder chose her over Louella Parsons, whom he was closer with, because she had acting experience, and it definitely shows in that scene. Also love how she tells the cop to get off the phone because her dictating the story to the newspaper is what's REALLY important! Really lovely work.

      Carol Burnett's face as Nora Desmond is just brilliant, but my favorite is the physicality of her walk down the stairs and the tumble to the floor as she tosses her pearls over her shoulder. It's guaranteed to make me laugh.

  2. Great choice and analysis. This film really is ripe for discussion and as you said, each viewing brings new fascinating aspects to ponder. I love that you mentioned Gloria's Bela Legosi realness, as the film made me sad that we never got to see a Billy Wilder horror movie. I bet that would have been great, based on the filmmaking we see here.

    1. Thing is, if all you'd seen of Sunset Boulevard was that final scene with the monologue, you'd totally think it WAS a horror film!