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Described as Billy Wilder's ascerbic look at Hollywood, this classic focuses on two main characters, an ageing silent movie star anxious to clutch on to whatever piece of the limelight she can and a struggling young scriptwriter whose work just isn't wanted. Wilder combines the two of them to interact their personalities and see if they can each offer the other just what they've been looking for.
It pitches at us very much like a film noir, an explanation of death at the beginning resulting in the flashback to meet the narrator, writer Joe Gillis, evading debt collectors and being knocked back at every working turn. When he parks his car in the grounds of a seemingly abandoned house, he is unaware that it's the home of failing silent movie star Norma Desmond, who is looking for a writer to pen her next movie.
It's a jab in Hollywood's gut, really. At the same time as showing the greedy nature of showbusiness, it also makes a dig at how people can be fawned over one minute and completely passed by the next. William Holden and Gloria Swanson do an excellent job in the two lead roles, and bounce off each other perfectly. Wilder certainly manages to get the best out of them throughout the film.
The magic though is in the clever way that the two characters find themselves stuck in the rut of dependency. Norma is kidding herself, ignorant to the fact that her career, her ego and self-absorption blinkering her to the fact that she should bow out gracefully but not hide away like a hermit. On the other hand, Joe's financial worries dictating his life and making him need to stay with Norma and do her bidding despite wanting desperately to be free from the constraints of living under her control.
It makes for riveting viewing, and the little digs, sterotypes, nods and subtleties in the film are like little gems littering the running time. The dialogue switches between being wistful and determined, while living in the past and conversely living for the future. The balance is brilliant throughout, and the patience from Wilder at the start allows for the viewer's concentration to be grabbed much as you'd expect from a Hitchcock film. It's all about the control.
What I wouldn't say about the film is that it's a stroke of genius. There are moments of movie magic, for sure, but I was surprised to see it riding as high as number 63 in Empire's top 500 movies of all time. It's not the highest entry for Wilder - that of course goes to The Apartment. Sunset Boulevard talks about the glamour of the wonderful world of Hollywood, and gives us great contrasts, but although it's a very good film, I was surprised to see it ranking so highly.
I'd probably watch this again if it was on. I enjoyed it thoroughly all the way through, and thought the acting and direction were superb. The pace is controlled, the balance is pinpoint - highly recommended.