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Noir-comic classic about death and decay in Hollywood. Joe Gillis, a handsome but bankrupt screenwriter, is hired by washed-up silent screen star Norma Desmond to pen her a comeback star vehicle. Gillis has had his latest screenplay rejected by the studios, and, desperate, takes up Desmond's offer to write Salome for her. She demands that he stay with her while he writes, and soon he becomes a virtual prisoner of the actress and her gloomy house.
For more about Sunset Boulevard and the Sunset Boulevard Blu-ray release, see Sunset Boulevard Blu-ray Review published by Martin Liebman on October 22, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Director: Billy Wilder
Writers: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D.M. Marshman Jr.
Starring: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Fred Clark, Lloyd Gough
» See full cast & crew
Sunset Boulevard Blu-ray Review
Paramount's Blu-ray is ready for its close-up.
Reviewed by Martin Liebman, October 22, 2012
I am big. It's the pictures that got small.
Through its examination of a faded star still yearning for the bright Hollywood spotlight, Writer/Director Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard tells the tale of life's progressions and the dangers of desperately clinging to the past and also holding onto dreams of an implausible future. The picture's focus on an aging starlet seems a metaphor for a broader picture, serving a purpose beyond telling the tale of a woman holding her future hostage for a second chance only she seems to demand. It's a story of the perils of illusion, the denial of the linearity of life, of the dangers of stubborn refusal to accept the natural process. On the flip side, there's almost something admirable in the character's refusal to sink into obscurity, in her inability to give up on a dream. What Sunset Boulevard does so well to show the negative side of dreaming, replacing hard work and determination with fantasy, the dangers of plotting a course and sticking to it come hell or high water, refusing to make corrections on the way towards the goal. It's a dark and dangerous picture, extraordinarily performed and expertly crafted at every level. Sunset Boulevard is cinema at its most absorbing, telling a harrowing and gripping story with deep meaning and life insight with the sort of skill reserved for the finest of motion pictures.
Joe Gillis (William Holden, The Bridge on the River Kwai) is a down-on-his luck Hollywood screenwriter who's short on cash, behind on his car payments, and who has just had his latest script shot down by Paramount, thanks in large part to the sharp, harsh, and honest criticism of the young Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson, Pollyanna). To make matters worse, Gillis is being chased down by a pair men looking to repossess his car. In a desperate move, Gillis pulls into what he believes to be an abandoned garage, attached to a run-down mansion. He's called inside, mistaken for a mortician, and meets Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson, Queen Kelly), a washed-up silent film star with dreams of a major comeback and a bloated script from her own hand that she believes will be the ticket to a return to prominence. She hires a reluctant Gillis to edit the script and polish it in preparation for sending to none other than Director Cecil B. DeMille. The longer Gillis stays, the more attached Norma becomes. She screens her films for him and grows ever more fond of her new, unwitting companion. When Gillis tries to set out on his own once again, Norma goes to great length to keep him at bay as she prepares to make her move to reconquer Hollywood and rediscover past greatness.
Sunset Boulevard overflows with fascinating character arcs and themes. Norma's life is one all but destroyed by fantasy and propped up by illusion. Everything in her life -- everything but her own overblown sense of self-worth -- is a lie. She lives in denial, fooled into a false sense of hope by past success, the perpetuation of the lie by her butler, and her refusal to view the world through any lens not filtered by her own delusions. That idea that she lives for the dream by living a dream makes for one of the most complex and dynamic character studies in film history, packed with complex and dark psychological overtones that manifest in the physical as the picture moves along to a startling conclusion of violence and delusion. Just as interesting is the Gillis character. He's a man torn between three lives: the life he wants to live, the life he is forced to live, and the life he cannot live. The first, defined by a budding romance with one of his harshest critics, seems destined for failure because of his inescapable entanglement with Norma. The second is brought upon by personal failures and debt; the former is slowly assuaged by Betty's acceptance of his work and the latter by Norma's charity, but both with dire consequences. Lastly, Gillis finds himself entrapped by Norma's overbearing ways which prevent him from finding personal success either as a screenwriter or in a life with a girl he might love. As Norma unwittingly keeps herself down through delusion of her own making, so too does she keep Gillis down from finding his own life path. Lastly, there's Max, Norma's butler. He's a man hiding a shocking revelation that speaks to the power of undying love and both the positive and negative impacts of life shaped through falsehoods and illusion for the sake of keeping the peace and maintaining a fragile psyche's ego and mental, emotional, and physical stabilities intact.
One cannot overlook the role of fate in Sunset Boulevard. Gillis happens to pull into Norma's garage in an effort to escape his problems but finds only greater emotional upheaval, mental hardship, and physical danger in said escape. Both characters just so happen to work, or worked, in show business; both just so happen to write; both just so happen to be single. It's more than just coincidence, however; the movie seems to pull on some cosmic notion of destiny, though it would seem destiny demands sacrifice, whether for Norma's fulling of her dream or Gillis' escape from Norma's overbearing and self-centered fantasy world. Sunset Boulevard draws on powers of the darkened mind through the prism of the ultimate in glamour and worldly sense of self worth and success. However, the film's dark themes spread and speak beyond the confines of Tinseltown. The mystery, uncertainty, and tale of personal struggles defined by money, denial, blown chances, and big dreams are relevant worldwide. Sunset Boulevard expertly weaves broad themes into a tight and focused story that centers on the world of glamour but truly enjoys a more universal significance. The film's ideas of fate are perhaps as mystical as its noir stylings and dramatic arc centered on a life defined by the intangible and unreachable, but they all come together in very real, very accessible, very watchable, very meaningful ways, in ways cinema rarely achieves with such dramatic, emotional, and technical precision.
Sunset Boulevard also excels as a technical triumph of cinema. The movie is simple, yes, and from an era with greater reliance on smarts and scripts and set pieces and performances. The picture captivates from the outset; Holden's voiceover work gives the movie the feel of a dark and absorbing novel sprung to life. His cadence reflects a sense of mystery and doubt, subtle fear, and great concern. The narration builds the story dramatically but also sets the tone for its themes and establishes a rhythm and style that remains through the picture. Holden's on-screen performance is just as good, a classic effort depicting a man slowly beaten down by the demands of the life he suddenly finds himself living. Gloria Swanson excels as Norma, painting a picture of frightening accuracy in depicting a woman incapable of escaping her own false reality and living only for a moment that absorbs her mind, body, and soul. The movie never hides her character's qualities, often surrounding her with her own portraits, watching her own movies, talking endlessly about herself, her work, her past, her present, her future. The focus on Norma and the effects of her selfishness as they spill into other areas of the world around her -- nearly all of them parts that want nothing to do with her -- construct a fascinating narrative, a depiction of people frightened to intervene, afraid of what it will do to them and of what it will do to Norma, to burst her proverbial bubble, to set her straight, to offer to lead her down a healthier path. The performers all capture an obvious pain that runs deep but defines the superficial, too, even for Norma, who in the film's final moments seems defined as much by fear and surprise and uncertainty as sheer joy, and all, certainly, shaped by the delusion. The performances are matched by superb production design, wonderful direction, great music, and polished editing that all come together to make one of the best movies in cinema history.
Sunset Boulevard Blu-ray, Video Quality
Sunset Boulevard rises on Blu-ray with a faithful and film-like 1080p, 1.37:1-framed transfer that retains the picture's original aspect ratio, placing vertical black bars on either side of the 1.78:1 high definition display. This is a gorgeous image and one of the finest catalogue titles on Blu-ray, particularly amongst those photographed in black-and-white. Grain remains over the image, and the transfer offers brilliant details across the board, from clothes to faces, from old camera equipment to textured exteriors. The image is generally very crisp and naturally sharp; there are certainly a few softer shots, but the sturdier and more well-defined moments dominate. Black levels are fabulous, whether dark suits or shadowy backgrounds. The print is meticulous, very clean and exact. Paramount's efforts are to be commended; this is a top-flight transfer and it most certainly does this classic and historically significant film the justice it deserves.
Sunset Boulevard Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Sunset Boulevard makes its Blu-ray debut with a minimalist yet true-to-srouce Dolby TrueHD Mono soundtrack. Paramount's audio presentation is largely dialogue-focused and plays the spoken word with clear syllables and grounded, front-center location. As for the other elements, range is obviously limited to practically nothing. The presentation hangs right in the middle of things, only presenting sound effects and music rather than immersing the soundstage in them. In this case, that's perfectly acceptable. The soundtrack's music can be a touch crunchy at times, lacking precise definition but replicating the original elements to satisfaction. Minor ambient and general sound effects both are presented with suitable clarity, such as the clack-clack-clack of an old movie projector as heard in an otherwise silent environment. To be sure there are some slightly muddled and unkempt sound elements, but generally this is a very good, classy presentation that should please purists and satisfy Blu-ray aficionados.
Sunset Boulevard Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Sunset Boulevard contains fairly exhaustive assortment of extra content. Much of the information repeats -- quite literally, in places -- viewers will discover as they dig through the pieces, but these supplements are nevertheless quite fascinating and worth the effort, all of them together painting a vivid picture of the entire story of Sunset Boulevard.
Sunset Boulevard Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Sunset Boulevard is one of those movies on which one could pen a dissertation, and in any number of academic fields. The movie's that complex and interesting, that layered and nuanced, that well-developed and revealing with multiple watches. Constraints of time, space, and format permit only a scratching of the surface here, but hopefully that's enough to pique interest and open avenues of dialogue as to what, exactly, Sunset Boulevard has to offer as a character study, a superbly crafted film, and a simple slice of classic entertainment. Much has been made of Sunset Boulevard's rather scathing portrayal of the dark side of Hollywood, and rightly so, but the stronger fascination lies in the character studies that are the source from which all else springs. The film is deservedly hailed as one of the best movies ever made, and now it's to be cherished on Blu-ray. Paramount's high definition release offers fantastic video, good audio, and plenty of insightful, if not occasionally repetitive, bonus content. This is easily one of the best blu-ray releases of the year, and Sunset Boulevard earns my highest recommendation.
Sunset Boulevard: Other Editions
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• Sunset Boulevard Blu-ray - August 15, 2012
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