Directed by Billy Wilder
Inducted to the National Film Registry in 1989
I first watched it on April 12th, 2021
What It’s About:
The less you know about this film before watching it, the better, but it involves an eccentric has-been movie star, and a young, struggling Hollywood screenwriter. Both of them desperately want to succeed in show business, and when the two of them meet, things get interesting.
My experience with the film:
This film takes you for a RIDE. I knew very little about it going into it, which is probably the best way to watch it, honestly. If you trust my opinion on movies at all, I’d recommend that you go watch it (if you haven’t already seen it), and then come back to read this, so that you too can have the viewing-it-in-ignorance experience. (It’s available for free to those with an Amazon Prime subscription, at current time of writing.)
For those who have seen it (or who aren’t sold on it yet), one of the first things that I noticed about the film (again, knowing practically nothing) is that it felt like a film noir, and as I got further into the film, I began to detect hints of gothic horror as well. It turns out that Sunset Boulevard is indeed considered a film noir (and a dark comedy), and many have noted its gothic horror elements as well. It never goes full on horror-film, but there definitely are plenty of gothic vibes, especially in the first half. As a fan of the creepy/Halloween-y feel of gothic movies, I loved the first half of the film.
While this film is completely enjoyable on its own, it was as I learned about the context of the film that I became even more impressed with it. The lead actress, Gloria Swanson, was indeed a former silent film star (though she found success in other careers once she left Hollywood), and Erich von Stroheim, the actor who plays her butler (and SPOILERS, also her former husband, and a has-been Hollywood director), had been an influential silent film director before falling from popularity (three of his films appear on the NFR). What’s more, there is a scene in Sunset Boulevard where the trio of characters watch a film featuring “Norma Desmond.” In reality, those scenes came from the film “Queen Kelly”—the film that effectively ended both Swanson’s and von Stronheim’s careers!
There were also several other real-life figures in the film. All of Norma’s bridge club members were former silent film stars (including Buster Keaton). Also, Cecil B. DeMille played himself, and the film set that they visited within Sunset Boulevard was the real-life film set for Samson & Delilah, which was filming at the time (several of the real members of the Samson & Delilah cast and crew appear in Sunset Boulevard.)
One last bit of interesting trivia: I try to keep politics out of these film discussions, but it is worth noting that last year, when Parasite won Best Picture at the Oscars, Donald Trump complained about a foreign film winning, and said that we should “bring back” films like Sunset Boulevard. However, had he actually watched Parasite (he seemed to admit that he hadn’t), he may have noticed that it has a lot in common with Sunset Boulevard: both involve working-class people who find themselves intertwined in the lives of wealthy individuals, and who are willing to do some unscrupulous things in order to maintain their newfound access to money. Both films start out as a dark comedy, but as the story goes on, things take an even darker turn, and both end with shocking acts of violence. Though, admittedly, in Parasite the violence comes from the working-class characters, while in Sunset Boulevard the violence is committed by a wealthy character. Since Trump once stated that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” without losing any voters, perhaps that’s why Sunset Boulevard spoke to him. (For more on the similarities between the two films, be sure to see the YouTube video that’s included in the resources below.)
Sunset Boulevard (1950) is available to stream on the services listed here: https://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/sunset-blvd
To learn more about the history and significance of this film, I recommend the following resources:
- The DVD pictured above is one that I obtained from my local library. It contains a few behind-the-scenes features, as well as an audio commentary featuring an author who wrote a biography of Billy Wilder (the director of the film.) It appears to be this version of the DVD. However, a Blu-ray of the film exists, and it looks like it has all of those features and several more.
- The entry for Sunset Boulevard on The Horse’s Head, another blog about the NFR films: https://thehorseshead.blog/2019/01/20/1-sunset-boulevard-1950-2/
- The post for Sunset Boulevard from MerryWatchesMovies, an Instagram account about the NFR films: https://www.instagram.com/p/BsQd1mOgolv/
- The original 1950 review from The New York Times: https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/98/12/27/specials/wilder-sunset.html
- The original 1950 review from Variety: https://variety.com/1950/film/reviews/sunset-boulevard-2-1200416751/
- A 1999 review from Roger Ebert: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-sunset-boulevard-1950
- A video discussing the surprising similarities between Sunset Boulevard and 2019’s Parasite: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1NXt0I8Z3do
- An analysis of the film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5gbknao5D-U
- A podcast episode that discusses the film: https://www.earwolf.com/episode/sunset-boulevard/
- An analysis on how the film comments on the culture of Hollywood, both in the times of silent films, and in the then-contemporary era of 1950: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/aug/01/sunset-boulevard-what-billy-wilders-satire-really-tells-us-about-hollywood
- The Wikipedia page for Sunset Boulevard: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunset_Boulevard_(film)
For the complete list of films in the National Film Registry, including information on how you can view each film, and links to every entry that I have written, please see my NFR Directory.