Sunset Boulevard: The Relationship Between Viewer and Film

Let me begin by saying that the title of this article is by no means a trivialization of what I believe is one of the greatest films ever made in any genre. That being said, Billy Wilder’s classic film about Hollywood’s dark side is downright frightening in its portrayal of a former Silent-era megastar and her descent into delusion.

The film begins with one of its signature shots: Joe, floating face down in a swimming pool as policemen use hooks to retrieve his body. Immediately through the use of this shot and William Holden’s narration, we know this is a film about a murder at an old, decaying Hollywood Mansion. Sounds like the makings of a Monster movie. When Joe begins his flashback narration we see him elude the debt collectors and end up at the Mansion. It is at this moment when the film takes on an extremely creepy tone that doesn’t let up until the closing credits roll. This is when we meet the “Monster.” Joe is spied by a woman from inside the house, standing in shadow behind the window blinds. Wilder’s judgement to introduce Norma with such a veil of mystery is outstanding. Norma, played by Gloria Swanson, stands attentive at the window, gazing out at Joe, her eyes covered by dark sunglasses. There is a very strong resemblance of this shot in the way Hitchcock introduced “Mrs. Bates” in Psycho. We see Mrs. Bates stroll past the window of the Bates’ house, catching Marion’s attention and letting us know that she is still the “Woman of the House.”

As the plot progresses we see Norma aggressively taking control of Joe through her wild outbursts of mania and sadness. Joe appears to be trapped in Norma’s mansion, his only way out, if any, is to finish her screenplay and deliver it to “Mr. Demille” at Paramount Pictures. This aspect of the film brings to mind Misery, the Stephen King thriller where Kathy Bates holds her favorite writer hostage, forcing him to write for her. Is Joe really trapped? Surely he can leave under his own free will but Norma and Max, the butler are both doing all they can to keep him there. They give the debt collectors the slip as a show of goodwill to Joe but really we know it’s a ploy to keep Joe writing for Norma. The films climactic confrontation between Joe and Norma also proves that Joe really was doomed and that from the moment he steered his broken down car into Norma’s garage that he would never leave her home alive.

Sunset Boulevard is really a film that has it all. A monumental performance by Gloria Swanson. Beautiful cinematography in shots like Norma screaming about her comeback, bathed in the glow of the film projector in her salon. An exceptional script that not only gives the audience the creeps by showing us Norma’s madness but also lets us feel a compassion for a megastar who has now been cruelly cast aside by the very industry that she once owned. Another shot worth mentioning for its “horror” factor is the light shining through the empty doorknobs of the many rooms in the Mansion. It is a sad moment when Max reveals to Joe the reason for the empty doorknobs: “the doctor thought it was a good idea after Madame cut herself.” This line is very chilling in relation to Norma’s deranged mental state but later in the film the doorknobs take on a symbolic tone of how Norma is “watching” and controlling Joe. After an argument in Joe’s bedroom, Norma excuses herself and goes to her attached bedroom and closes the double doors. When Joe turns off the lights in his room we see, in the darkness, Norma’s light shining through the two circles, mimicking her eyes, constantly watching and hovering over Joe.

“An old Hollywood actress lures a young writer to her mansion, manipulating and controlling him. When he tries to escape, the unspeakable happens!” Sounds like a “Saturday Night Horror Film” at the Drive-In right? Maybe. For now it will stand as an indictment of Hollywood’s treatment of its original stars and the one thing all of us “wonderful people out there in the dark” never get to see: The Price of Fame.

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