In today’s poll-obsessed conception of the cinematic canon, Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot (1959) is invariably rated best comedy, alongside Citizen Kane (1941) as best film. But for my money Wilder made something better than either: Sunset Blvd (1950). Wilder’s darkest film is a fusion of film noir and eccentric melodrama, laced with a self-referential post-modernism that’s way ahead of its time. Right from the opening sequence, in which William Holden’s hapless screenwriter Joe Gillis delivers his opening voiceover as a corpse floating face down in a swimming pool ("the poor sap, he always wanted a pool"), we know we’re in for something out of the ordinary. Astonishingly, the actual sequence is toned down from an original draft in which Gillis addresses his fellow corpses in the city morgue. The celebrated opening has rarely been matched for its narrative audacity and savage cynicism, and the film that follows is just as daring.
Gillis is a hard up writer who uses up all his favours trying to raise a few hundred dollars to pay off the heavies who come to repossess his car. Pursued into the Hollywood suburbs, he pulls into a secluded driveway and stumbles on a mansion exuding a dilapidated grandeur. It belongs to a forgotten silent movie queen, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). who mistakes Gillis for an undertaker charged with laying her beloved pet chimp to rest. Despite the misunderstanding, he ends up staying to help with her sprawling version of Salome, a misguided bid to stage her triumphant screen comeback as if the intervening quarter of a century had never happened. Her delusion is fuelled by an unwaveringly loyal assistant, Max, the only other living member of the household, who fakes her fan mail and pampers her delicate ego. Gillis takes the job and eventually, to his shame, becomes Norma’s gigolo, dressed in her choice of grand and antiquated clothing, the sole audience to screenings of her silent masterpieces and home cabarets.
The greatest coup Wilder achieved for his project was the casting, responsible in no small way for the success of the film. Norma is played with a chilling authenticity by a real silent diva, Gloria Swanson, whose enormous fame, like Norma’s, had faded to obscurity by the time the film was made. Not until Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) would there be such an unflinching exploitation of faded glamour and its insidious effects. It’s testament to the performer that the role still maintains a kind of dignity that seems implausible on paper. At times it’s extraordinarily moving. There’s an intensity to her self delusion that gives her far more life than the humiliated Gillis, also brilliantly played by William Holden, and undoubtedly the real buffoon of the piece (as the character himself announces from the outset).
In a subtler, but equally astonishing role is another icon of a former age of cinema: Erich von Stroheim, the great director behind silent classics like Greed (1924) and Queen Kelly (1§928), who plays Norma’s devoted manservant Max. He contributes a self-effacing, down-to-earth human warmth which prevents the film from toppling under its own towering cynicism. There are also a number of other cameos: Buster Keaton crops up as a fellow washed up star and one of Norma’s bridge playing companions, and the director Cecil B. Demille appears playing himself. Despite consistent claims to the contrary, never before or since has Hollywood held the mirror up to itself with such unflinching honesty.