Sunset Boulevard / 1950
There is perhaps no better example of a voice speaking from the dead than the man lying face down in the pool at the beginning of Billy Wilder’s film Sunset Boulevard (1950), a voice which, despite the murder of the body it inhabits, proceeds to “narrate” the rest of the movie.
Few films have attempted such audacious narrative stances—even Raymond Maté’s movie of the same year, D.O.A. (Dead on Arrival), in which a poisoned Edmond O’Brien (as Frank Bigelow) must convince the police of his murder before he actually dies, cannot compare with Wilder’s talking corpse. Sunset Boulevard continues, moreover, in a manner that alternates between film noir and the macabre and absurdist worksof Tod Browning two decades earlier. In between these extremes, writer-director Wilder, along with Charles Brackett and D. M. Marshman, Jr., conjure up fairly realist episodes of ordinary folk, fellow writers and other young people whose lives are subject—both financially and spiritually—to the whims of studio heads.
dismissal of her attentions, for example, (“…I’m all wrong for you. You want a Valentino, somebody with polo ponies, a big shot.), Nora histrionically reacts: “What you’re trying to say is that you don’t want me to love you. Say it. Say it! [slaps him hard across the face].” The wild gestures and eye flutterings of Swanson’s Norma Desmond evidently resulted—according to a Paris Review interview with Wilder—in a “strong reaction,” as actress Barbara Stanwyck “went up and kissed the hem of Gloria Swanson’s robe, or dress, or whatever she was wearing” the night of the film’s preview. It is, in fact, quite extraordinary, a performance I cannot help but think of as what later would be described as “high camp.”
In short, as the spider-like Desmond weaves her web around the increasingly trapped young writer, Wilder and his co-writers weave their own web of relationships and circumstance around their actors and the fictional beings they portray, helping us to understand exactly how the studios entrapped and continued to hold their actors and actresses, gradually sucking them into an unreal world from which they could never again return to the normality of everyday life.
*One is reminded here of the abandoned mansion in Nicholas Ray’s 1955 masterwork, Rebel without a Cause.