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“Sunset Boulevard” by Billy Wilder Case Study

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Updated: May 5th, 2020

Sunset Boulevard is one of the most famous films by Billy Wilder. This movie is considered to be one of the prominent examples of the popular genre, which is called film noir. It is possible to distinguish several peculiar features that are typical for this genre.

It is characterized by a criminal plot, a gloomy atmosphere of fatalism and pessimism, an absence of an obvious distinction between a hero and a villain, and a dark stage lightening. As a rule, women in this genre are represented with deceitful and trustless characters. All these peculiarities of this genre may be found in Sunset Boulevard.

It has been argued that the main female character of the movie has been copied from the scandal star of silent films Mae Murray (Eyman, 2005). At the same time, many film critics are apt to think that the image of Norma Desmond is a generalized character of several silent screen actresses. Sunset Boulevard is full of numerous examples of allusions to real silent films.

For instance, the old movie viewed by Norma in her personal cinema is nothing more than the famous feature film Queen Kelly by Erich Stroheim (Maclin, 2009). Moreover, in Sunset Boulevard, many actors play themselves. It is known that on the first private viewing of the movie, there has been a big scandal as many producers have thought that Sunset Boulevard has been a dishonor for Paramount Pictures.

The opening scene of Sunset Boulevard gives a viewer a clear understanding that there will be no happy end in the film. The movie begins with a shot of Joseph’s corpse swimming in a pool. After that, his off-screen voice tells the story of his death.

Joseph Gillis is a young scriptwriter who is trying to find his place in Hollywood, but his scenarios are unclaimed. He has run into debts, and his creditors chase him in order to take back his car, which has been bought on credit. After several unsuccessful attempts to sell his scripts or to find a job, Gillis comes face to face with his creditors. Trying to run away from them, he seeks refuge in a mansion that seems to be deserted.

The owner of the mansion Norma Desmond by name, is the famous silent-film actress who has been very famous in the past. From the very beginning of their acquaintance, Norma wants Gillis to leave her house. Then the young man recognizes her.

Norma lives in a world of illusions created by her memories of the past. She cannot accept the fact that she is forgotten by her admirers. She cannot get used to the idea that her talent is no longer in demand by the contemporary cinematography. And the fact that such a young man as Gillis remembers her seems to Norma gratifying.

She has devoted to the cinema all her life, and even now, she writes a script. Having known that Gillis is a professional scriptwriter, Norma wants him to edit her own scenario. Gillis, being limited to means, accepts her proposal. At the same time, Norma insists on Josephs living in her mansion. From the very beginning, she acts so because of her fear that her script (which is rather poor it must be admitted) may be stolen by Gillis. Later on, she falls in love with him. Gillis tries to resists all Normas advertences.

He does not want to accept all her presents that are too rich for him. Moreover, his stay in the mansion depresses him. Nevertheless, in the course of time, Joseph is completely kept by Norma, feeling himself like in prison. He lives in Normas luxurious mansion, like in a gilded cage.

Soon Joseph falls in love with Betty Schaefer, who is a young girl just breaking the grounds in scriptwriting. Gillis realizes the hopelessness of their relations with Betty. He is completely kept by the rich woman almost twice his age, while Betty is betrothed with his friend Artie. Nevertheless, during their cooperative work on one of the scripts written by Joseph, they fall in love.

However, their romantic relationships do not escape Normas notice. She tries her best in order to ruin their love affair. Gillis becomes a happenstance witness of the telephone conversation between Norma and Betty, during which she tells the truth about Josephs life. After that, he makes a decision to leave Norma. The famous actress in the past cannot get used to the idea that she is left, and she kills Joe.

Norma Desmond is a typical femme fatale character, the presence of which is one of the essential features for this genre. The famous American movie critic Roger Ebert (1995), while defining the most important peculiarities of a film noir, states that in the majority of movies, there are a “women who would kill you as they love you, and vice versa” (para.5). Moreover, Ebert (1995) states that women in such films use “low necklines, floppy hats, mascara, lipstick, dressing rooms, and boudoirs” (para.6).

There are many examples in the movie of Normas excessive use of a powder and a cosmetic of any kind. Moreover, she also smokes too much. “Everybody in film noir is always smoking” (Ebert, 1995, para.4). All these additional details of Normas character help to create an image of the true femme fatale. As Ricci (2008) puts it, “Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond can be considered a queen amongst femme Fatales; locked in the immortal memories of golden cinema” (p.4).

Moreover, it should also be added that Joseph Gillis is not the only victim of Norma. Max Von Mayerling, who is the butler in her mansion and the only loyal servant, is her first husband. It is Max who has brought Normas talent to light. Nevertheless, she has left him. Being a famous producer in the past, he prefers to serve her as the butler rather than to continue his career. And Normas attitude towards her servant is far from being gentle.

One of the specific features of a film noir is that there is no distinct subdivision into good or bad characters. The same goes for Norma. In spite of the fact that she kills Joseph, and in spite of all her obvious disadvantages, her image excites mixed feelings. She is suffering from the superiority complex bur at the same time; it must be admitted that she is a talented actress. It may be proved by the scene of the movie when she stages a pantomime imitating the footstep of Charlie Chaplin.

She does it with a great artistic impression and professionalism. During her visit to a producing studio, the famous Hollywood producer Cecil DeMille, who plays himself in this movie, shows respect to her. While paying tribute to her contribution to the development of the cinema, he says: “Thirty million fans have given her the brush. Isnt that enough?” (Sunset Boulevard, 1950).

Norma has devoted all her life to cinema. She cannot imagine her existence without cameras, actors, and her admirers. All her motives and deeds are subdued to the only desire to return to the cinema industry. Having met Joseph, she is interested in him just because of the fact that he is a professional scriptwriter whose skills may be useful for her plans realization. However, in the course of time, she falls in love with him.

The character of Joseph Gillis cannot be viewed just as positive or negative. His desire to earn some money has led him to the love affair with the woman almost twice his age. It must be admitted that he is not satisfied with this state of affairs.

It may be illustrated by the examples of numerous presents given to him by Norma, and by his irritation with all these expensive purchases. “But gradually, his self-respect is corroded by easy comforts, and he does nothing strenuous to thwart her unsubtle romantic blandishments” (Pryor, 2015, para.5).

Nevertheless, Normas luxurious mansion looks like a prison for Joseph. Like any person, Joseph has a need for self-actualization. First, he has made a decision to leave Norma during their celebration of the New Year. Nevertheless, when he has been told that Norma has made at attempt to commit suicide, he returns. Josephs tragedy lies in the contradiction between his desire to realize himself as a scriptwriter and his bad financial situation.

The final shot of Josephs corpse floating in the swimming pool looks like a logical end of this dramatic story. This movie which has been shot in accordance with all the peculiarities of the genre may be considered as one of the best stories about “behind the scene Hollywood”, revealing such problems as “spiritual and spatial emptiness, the price of fame, greed, narcissism and ambition” (Dirks, 2015, para.1).

Reference List

Dirks, T. (2015). . Sunset Boulevard (1950). Web.

Ebert, R. (1995). . Web.

Eyman, S. (2005). Lion of Hollywood. The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer. New York, USA: Rockefeller Center.

Maclin, T. (2009). Suspension of Disbelief in Sunset Boulevard. Web.

Pryor, T. (2015). . Sunset Boulevard. Web.

Ricci, J. (2008). Attractions and negotiations of film noir in American cinema and culture. Web.

Wilder, B. (Executive Producer). (1950). Sunset Boulevard [DVD]. Hollywood, USA: Paramount Pictures.

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