The Stars Are Ageless
If you’d never seen Sunset Blvd. before — if you knew nothing about it, about its unique place in cinematic history, about the curious effect it had on both the public and the town it opened up like and old and ugly pornographic magazine — you’d be forgiven for wondering why it’s considered film noir at all. While it ends with a murder, it’s not a crime drama in any real sense; its characters are tragic figures and not desperate professional criminals, and Norma Desmond’s is a crime of passion, not of profit. It takes place as much in the day as it does at night, and aside from a few moments at the beginning and interspersed in the middle, it’s set in the glorious twilight world of wealth and fame, however faded. Norma and her cadaverous waxwork friends may no longer be stars, but they were once, and no matter how decayed, her house in the hills may only be a few miles geographically from Joe’s dump of an apartment, but metaphysically, it might as well be halfway across the galaxy. Tonally, it goes for comedy as much as it does tragedy, and thematically, it seems to belong more to the beloved Hollywood genre of “Hollywood Looks at Hollywood” more than it does the dark universe of noir. It’s not even a B-picture — with its cast of faded motion picture icons and A-list actors, its big-money Paramount budget, and its stamp of quality with the legendary Billy Wilder at the helm, it’s marquee material all the way.
Look a little closer, though — just a little closer — and its noir bona fides are obvious. You don’t have to look very far; the opening credits are enough, with its text scrolling over a cool strip of tarmac as police cruisers scream past in the wee hours of the morning. Big Bill Holden might have been a top-shelf celebrity when he made the movie, but his Joe Gillis is a pure noir protagonist: self-deluding, blaming his every failure on bad luck and his every shortcoming on other people. When we first meet him, he’s cranking out pure hackwork and barely manages to shrug off the repo man; movie critic David Thomson, in his curious little noir novel Suspects, had Gillis pegged right off the bat as a man almost handsome enough to make it as a movie star himself, but too lazy and unfocused to really turn his heart into it. We’ve come to associate noir with elegantly cut suits, but Gillis’ is anything but: it’s hard to tell without color, but he dresses like a louche loser, and Norma has him pegged right away, saying he looks like he should be working at a filling station. He puts the touch on the only producer who’ll give him a chance, strongarms his own agent (and ineffectively, at that), and hits on his best friend’s fianceé, who he clearly doesn’t care about except as an expression of his own restlessness and insouciance. Joe Gillis is, in the short and the long of it, a fucking creep, and no one with any sense would be surprised to hear he’d ended up floating in someone else’s pool riddled with bullets.
Norma Desmond, though, is a monster of her own making. No femme fatale, she’s much closer to the desperate moneymen and manipulators who put up a front to detract from their own mistakes; her closest onscreen kin in the noir universe isn’t Phyllis Dietrichson, but Alonzo Emmerich. While she’s clearly mad — and thus more akin to post-Psycho movie villains than the cons and heavies of the noir era — she’s calculating and cruel enough to make you constantly suspect that she’s not more aware of things than she lets on. In her behavior we see a funhouse mirror version of the scandals rocking the entertainment industry today; she clearly meant to dig her hooks into the hapless Gillis the moment she laid eyes on him, and if a man tried the trick of dragging a woman into bed by threatening to kill himself if she left him alone, we’d call him a sexual predator. She may be delusional and sad, but her misery is the result of her own ego and her insatiable need; Cecil B. DeMille only feels sorry for her because he’s just as entitled and egotistical as she is, but has managed to luck into a better gig. She may be a moral lesson in the way Hollywood chews up starlets and spits them back out, but she also wields privilege and power that’s every bit as deadly as the revolver she empties into Gillis’ torso.
But it’s in its little moments and visual flair that Sunset Blvd.‘s noir sensibilities come roaring through. The film is full of the sort of little humiliations and frustrations that make its spiral downwards so inevitable and so painful: Max Mayerling’s half-sinister, half-kind machinations; the weirdly predictive funeral of the chimp; Joe Gillis, full of bluster and utterly wretched, sneering “I need three hundred dollars” at his agent and making it sound like a threat against himself; and that exquisitely cruel moment where the men’s clothing store clerk, in a serpentine voice, asks why he doesn’t just buy the more expensive coat since “the lady is paying for it” — and the word immediately forms in his mind to describe what he has become. He knows he will never escape it. The cinematography is by John F. Seitz, whose noir credentials were already well-established (he was behind the camera for, among others, This Gun for Hire, Double Indemnity, and The Lost Weekend), and he delivers a number of shots that are unforgettable. First and last are the best remembered — Joe’s body floating face down in the pool, and Norma gazing wild-eyed out at an invisible audience — but there are so many more that are equally great: Norma turning her face into the dying light, reviving the face that once made millions swoon; the darkness of the mansion broken only by clouds of smoke drifting through the light cast by a film projector; rats scurrying around the bottom of an empty swimming pool. Sunset Blvd. is most atypical of the, but if it is really a film about film, it is truly a film about film noir as well.