Billy Wilder’s 1950 noir masterpiece, Sunset Boulevard, pulls no punches in delivering a Gothic Hollywood narrative that feels decades ahead of its time. Long before Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) or David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) used parody and surrealism to explore Hollywood’s dark side, Sunset Boulevard confronts audiences with the iconic shot of a nameless writer floating dead in a swimming pool.
The writer in Sunset Boulevard is revealed to be our protagonist and narrator, Joe Gillis (William Holden), who backtracks from the grave to explain how he ended up in the pool he always wanted. Gillis is in desperate need of a job whilst avoiding the no-nonsense debt collectors on his tale. He finds refuge in a mansion owned by Silent movie icon, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) – a contemporary Miss Havisham of sorts, though instead of being jilted Miss Desmond is chewed up and spat out by the film industry.
Everything about Desmond’s mansion screams abandon through the dry, rat infested swimming pool, the overgrown shrubbery and the infrequent card games shared with other forgotten emblems of the Silent era (including a cameo from Buster Keaton) – cynically referred to as “wax-works” by Gillis. The surreal gothic mise-en-scene is heightened by a bizarre monkey funeral, the unnerving pitched wind emanating from an old pipe organ and, of course, Swanson’s maniacal facial expressions and clawing, bird-like hand gestures.
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