SUNSET BOULEVARD – Blu-ray review

Note:  In the following joint Blu-ray review, both John and Eddie provide their opinions of the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.

“I didn’t know you were planning a comeback.”
“I hate that word.  It’s a return, a return to the millions of people who have never forgiven me for deserting the screen.”

The Film According to John:
It’s a shame that after leading ladies turn thirty or so, Hollywood generally relegates them to motherly roles, character parts, or villainesses.  A few folks like Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, or Judi Dench slip by with bigger roles, but for the most part studios treat older women as second-class citizens.  Meanwhile, leading male actors often continue to romance younger ladies on screen–much, much younger ladies–well into their fifties and sixties.  Life is unfair, and in Hollywood it has always been thus.  And never has anyone offered a better or more sardonic vision of the faded movie star than Billy Wilder in his bizarre, creepy, 1950 black comedy “Sunset Boulevard,” now on Blu-ray.

The first time I saw the film, it was about a decade after Paramount had first released it.  I was in my mid-teens, and while I remember liking the film, it meant little to me in terms of thematic content.  I thought the movie was weird with its big, old, dark mansion, its nutty old lady, and its sinister butler-chauffeur.  But I had no idea who Gloria Swanson was, no idea that she used to be as big a star in silent films as the character she portrayed.  I had no idea who Erich von Stroheim was, no idea that he used to be as big a director as Swanson was a star or that he had actually directed Ms. Swanson in the early days.  I had no idea who William Holden was, except that he was a handsome leading man.  I had no idea who Cecil B. DeMille was, even though I had by then seen and enjoyed “Samson and Delilah,” “The Greatest Show on Earth,” and “The Ten Commandments.”  I had no idea who Billy Wilder was, even though I had seen “Some Like It Hot” a year or two before and put it at the top of my comedy favorites.  And I had no idea that Wilder intended “Sunset Boulevard” as an exercise in black humor and satire, or that he intended the relationship between the Holden and Swanson characters as a love match of convenience or that there were so many Hollywood in-jokes and allusions strewn about.  I just thought the movie was strange and a little bit spooky.

You can tell that, as a teen, even though I loved movies, I was not too keen on the details of who made what, nor did I have much of a sense of film history other than having watched a whole lot of things that people today consider classics.  So, the nuances of “Sunset Boulevard” took a while to grow on me.  By the time I was in college and taking my first film classes, I saw the movie again with a heightened admiration.  Today, it’s one of my all-time favorite movies, regardless of genre.

“There’s nothing tragic about being fifty.  Not unless you’re trying to be twenty-five.”

In any case, those first impressions of “Sunset Boulevard” are what stand out in my memory, probably more so than what I’ve learned about it since.  I loved the struggling writer, Joe Gillis (Holden), the all-American boy-next-door, seemingly naive and innocent, being debased by his own laziness and greed.  I loved the has-been movie star, Norma Desmond (Swanson), a totally bonkers, suicidal egotist, living out her dying fantasies in a decaying Hollywood palace.  “Poor devil,” says Joe, “still waving proudly to a parade that had long since passed her by.”

I loved the exchange between Gillis and Desmond when they first met: “Wait a minute.  Haven’t I seen you before?  I know your face.  You’re Norma Desmond.  Used to be in silent pictures.  Used to be big.”  Desmond replies:  “I AM big.  It’s the pictures that got small.”

I loved the mansion’s broken-down tennis court and its crumbling swimming pool.  I loved the ominous figure of Max Von Mayerling (von Stroheim), the butler, playing Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue” on the living-room organ (an instrument that played by itself, too, when the wind blew through the pipes), and loved the peculiar scenes involving the burial of a dead chimp.  I loved Ms. Desmond’s magnificent, ancient touring car, an Issota-Fraschini, one of the most expensive automobiles ever built.  I loved Franz Waxman’s eccentric background music.  I knew it was a special film; I just didn’t know how special.

As Gillis says of the house, “The whole place seemed to have been stricken with the kind of creeping paralysis… out of beat with the rest of the world… crumbling apart in slow motion.  There was a tennis court… or rather the ghost of a tennis court… with faded markings and a sagging net…  And of course she had a pool.  Who didn’t then?  Mabel Norman and John Gilbert must swum in it ten thousand midnights ago…  It was empty now.  Or was it?”

However, as I say, I had no idea at the time how deeply “Sunset Boulevard” got behind the scenes of the Hollywood movie trade, how penetrating and substantial its insights were into an industry that exploited and corrupted so many of the people it employed, just as it used and threw away Norma Desmond and Joe Gillis.  I didn’t understand how the rotting mansion symbolized the corruption of the movie industry itself.  I didn’t know what “yes-men” were all about; what the Macombo or Romanoff’s represented; what history lay behind Schwab’s Drugstore; who silent stars Buster Keaton or H.B. Warner or Anna Q. Nilsson–Desmond’s over-the-hill “waxworks” friends–were; who Hedda Hopper was; or where in the world Sunset Boulevard was, for that matter.  Heck, I didn’t even understand what a paid “companion” meant (or a kept man, a gigolo).

I saw only a film that got stranger as it went along, until by the end it was downright frightening.  I saw the development of a love triangle involving Joe, Norma, and a pretty, young script reader named Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson).  I saw the absurdity of Norma’s dreams, her obsessive possessiveness, and her perverted dependence upon her butler, Max.  I saw Norma Desmond’s increasing craziness, so melodramatically yet perfectly portrayed by Ms. Swanson.  I saw Max’s increasing singularity, culminating in his startling revelations to Joe.  I saw the climax as a total and shocking surprise.  And I saw that surrealistic ending with Norma Desmond descending the staircase as something I wouldn’t forget.

Later, I learned to appreciate the film more, enjoying its finer points.  For instance, I learned from the book “Retakes” by John Eastman that Gloria Swanson was herself a faded movie star by 1949, the time she made the film; and like her character, she longed for a comeback (and a terrific one it was, even if it was to be her last big hurrah).  Nevertheless, as it turns out, Ms. Swanson was not the first choice for the role; Mae West, Pola Negri, and Mary Pickford had all turned it down.  William Holden was not a first choice, either; the studio had previously offered the part to Montgomery Clift, Fred MacMurray, and Gene Kelly.  The excerpt of a silent movie starring Norma Desmond that appears within the film was actually an excerpt from “Queen Kelly,” a controversial silent picture starring Gloria Swanson and directed by none other than her co-star here, Erich von Stroheim.  Wilder had to fake the scenes involving Max driving the town car because von Stroheim couldn’t drive; the filmmakers had to tow the car.  The studio shot the movie’s exteriors at the old Getty mansion on Wilshire Boulevard (also used in “Rebel Without a Cause” in 1957 and then demolished).  Finally, and among many other things, they shot the segment with Cecil B. DeMille directing a big Biblical feature on the very soundstage that DeMille was in reality shooting “Samson and Delilah” at the time.  Fascinating stuff.

Yet more trivia:  The fronts of the DVD and Blu-ray edition keep cases spell out the movie’s title, “Sunset Boulevard,” as do the back covers, all the extras, and the discs themselves.  However, in the movie the actual title appears abbreviated, “Sunset Blvd.”  Take your choice.

“They took the idols and smashed them, the Fairbankses, the Gilberts, the Valentinos!  And who’ve we got now?  Some nobodies!”

John’s film rating:  10/10

The Film According to Eddie:
Sunset Boulevard is one of the most well-known streets in the world.  There’s a certain glamour associated with a celebrated name, but as the street’s name implies, there’s a world-weariness associated with the location.  No wonder Billy Wilder titled his withering exposé of the Hollywood system “Sunset Boulevard”–what more could be sadder or scarier than an avenue of broken dreams?  The film observes pitiful characters heading towards their dooms.  However, the movie is the kind of glorious achievement desired by many a filmmaker.

“Sunset Boulevard” begins with a dead man narrating his own story from beyond the grave.  Joe Gillis (William Holden), a reporter-turned-screenwriter from Dayton, Ohio, has had some dry spells and problems with creditors.  He accidentally stumbles upon a decaying mansion inhabited by Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a movie star during the silent film era, and her butler/chauffeur (Erich von Stroheim, director of the legendarily lengthy “Greed”).  Neither one being in demand, Gillis and Desmond begin to have a relationship based on deception and delusion–of the “self” varieties.  Given the morbid beginning and the grimly humorous tone of the film, you can safely anticipate a downward spiral.

As a wise person once said, the rewards are not found at the end of the journey but during the journey itself.  Watching “Sunset Boulevard” means reveling in the over-the-top Gloria Swanson performance, being frightened by the eerie presence of Erich von Stroheim (a once-famous director who had fallen on hard times by the time the movie was made), falling in love with the moral and optimistic Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), and admiring the calm anchoring of William Holden’s subtle central performance.  The performances are only a part of the story.  The film is gothic in the truest sense of the word.  In fact, there’s a touch of guignol in every shot, what with Desmond’s weird cigarette holder, the contrast between the opulence of satin and the ugliness of peeling paint, a luxurious Issota-Fraschini mounted on cinder blocks, and many other items with singular existences.  “Sunset Boulevard” has moments of great humor, but we laugh with sadness in our hearts, knowing that all that glitters is not gold.

I’m surprised that a story so critical of the way Hollywood uses and then discards people could have been made in 1950.  The studio system was alive and well during that period of time, and a glossy, cheery lifestyle image was sold to the public as the “reality” of Hollywood.  Yet, the Paramount bosses were brave enough to green-light Billy Wilder’s sophisticated vision and deconstruction of movie glamour, and they gave the world one of the all-time greats.

Eddie’s film rating:  9/10

Paramount use a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4/AVC codec to transfer the movie to Blu-ray disc in a 1.33:1 screen ratio, closely approximating its original 1.37:1 dimensions.  The screen is exceptionally clean, and you won’t find a scratch, a fade, a line, or a smudge anywhere in sight.  What’s more, the high-definition image is fairly sharp, with good black-and-white contrasts.  The indoor shots, especially the studio shots of the inside of the mansion, look best of all.

The Blu-ray disc offers lossless Dolby TrueHD monaural sound.  Its frequency and dynamic ranges appear limited, as we might expect, but its midrange is exceptionally good, better, in fact, than we find in most movies today.  Voices are very clear and very natural, with Franz Waxman’s musical score coming across smoothly in the background.

The Blu-ray disc carries over all of the extras found on the DVD two-disc “Centennial Collection” edition, plus a couple more.  They start with an audio commentary by Ed Sikov, the author of “On Sunset Boulevard:  The Life and Times of Billy Wilder”; his comments are informative, insightful, and, most important, fun to listen to.

Next, we find “Sunset Boulevard:  The Beginning,” twenty-three minutes with longtime Paramount producer A.C. Lyles, various other filmmakers, and actors commenting on the movie and its making.  The most prominent among these commentators is the co-star of the film, Nancy Olson, who has the best inside info on the movie.  After that is “Sunset Boulevard:  A Look Back,” more of the same, about twenty-six minutes.

After those items, there’s “The Noir Side of Sunset Boulevard by Joseph Wambaugh,” fourteen minutes with the best-selling LAPD policeman-author discussing the darker aspects of the film.  Then, there’s “Sunset Boulevard Becomes a Classic,” fourteen minutes with critic and film historian Andrew Sarris among others talking about the film.  It’s kind of an extension of the first documentary.  After that is “Two Sides of Ms. Swanson,” ten minutes with Ms. Swanson’s granddaughter and people who knew Ms. Swanson talking about her; “Stories of Sunset Boulevard,” eleven minutes of anecdotes about Billy Wilder and his film; “Mad About the Boy:  A Portrait of William Holden,” eleven minutes on the star; “Recording Sunset Boulevard,” five minutes on Franz Waxman’s music score; “The City of Sunset Boulevard,” five minutes on the locations in Los Angeles used in the film; “Paramount in the 50s,” nine minutes on the studio; and “Behind the Gates:  The Lot,” on the Paramount studio itself;

Following those extras, we get “Morgue Prologue Script Pages,” on the original and revised footage that initially introduced the story and that the studio later deleted; a deleted scene, “The Paramount-Don’t-Want-Me Blues,” an extension of the party scene; “Franz Waxman and the Music of Sunset Boulevard,” fourteen more minutes on Waxman’s music hosted by the composer’s son, John Waxman; “Edith Head:  The Paramount Years,” thirteen minutes on the famous costume designer; a “Hollywood Location Map” that shows the positions on a map of places in the movie and gives some further information on them; three still-photo galleries on the movie:  the production, and the publicity; plus an original theatrical trailer in high def.

The extras conclude with nineteen scene selections; bookmarks; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages and subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
Dark comedy.  Film noir.  Tragic romance.  Hollywood satire.  “Sunset Boulevard” has it all, one of the best films ever made about Tinseltown and its effects on the people who work in it.  Hollywood never made a better film about the industry eating its own.

“All right, Mr. DeMille.  I’m ready for my close-up.”