Sunset Boulevard (1950)



Critic Consensus: Arguably the greatest movie about Hollywood, Billy Wilder's masterpiece Sunset Boulevard is a tremendously entertaining combination of noir, black comedy, and character study.

Movie Info

Aging silent-film star Norma Desmond ensnares a young screenwriter in this poison-pen valentine to Hollywood.

Rating: G
Genre: Drama, Classics
Directed By:
Written By: D.M. Marshman, Jr., Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder
In Theaters:
On DVD: Nov 26, 2002
Paramount Pictures


as Joe Gillis

as Norma Desmond

as Max Von Mayerling

as Betty Schaefer

as Sheldrake

as Artie

as The Undertaker

as Undertaker

as Finance Man

as Himself

as Herself

as Himself

as Himself

as Herself

as 1st Finance Man

as Assistant Coroner

as 2nd Assistant Direct...

as Shoeshine Boy

as Sheldrake's Secretar...

as Gordon Cole

as Doctor/Courtier

as Girl on Telephone

as Courtier

as Courtier

as Phone Standby

as 1st Assistant Direct...

as 2nd Assistant Direct...

as Hisham

as Hair Dresser

as First Prop Man

as Young Policeman

as Hair Dresser

as Second Prop Man

as Fat Man

as Captain of Police

as Captain of Homicide

as Police Sergeant

as Camera Operator

as Camera Operator

as Camera Assistant

as Camera Assistant

as Newsreel Cameraman

as Police Lieutenant

as 1st Finance Man

as Hog Eye
Show More Cast

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Critic Reviews for Sunset Boulevard

All Critics (62) | Top Critics (8)

A tour de force for Swanson and one of Wilder's better efforts.

Full Review… | August 14, 2007
Chicago Reader
Top Critic

...They rate a nod for daring, as well as credit for an all-around filmmaking job that, disregarding the unpleasant subject matter, is a standout.

Full Review… | June 28, 2007
Top Critic

One of Wilder's finest, and certainly the blackest of all Hollywood's scab-scratching accounts of itself.

Full Review… | June 24, 2006
Time Out
Top Critic

Still the best Hollywood movie ever made about Hollywood.

Full Review… | September 29, 2005
New York Observer
Top Critic

Rarely is fiction shot through so glitteringly with real life.

Full Review… | January 22, 2015
Daily Telegraph

[VIDEO ESSAY] Billy Wilder's deft weaving of gothic elements, not the least of which is Nora's decrepit mansion, casts a spell from which Joe is unable to break free. He, like the audience, is stuck in a terrible place awaiting an equally frightful fate.

Full Review… | March 4, 2014

Audience Reviews for Sunset Boulevard

Deliciously over-the-top with a satisfyingly dark turn -- and a hunky, young William Holden to boot! What's not to love? It's also great to see an at-times-unrecognizable bit of LA from 60+ years ago.

Christian C

Super Reviewer


Ever since film became a widely-spread medium, filmmakers have turned the camera on themselves or the industry that produced them. There is a rich pantheon of films about cinema, and about Hollywood in particular, ranging from the satire of Robert Altman's The Player and the mystery of Mulholland Drive to much ropier efforts like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn.

All of these examples, however, owe some kind of debt to two films released in 1950, both of which revolve around the mental frailty of fading actresses. One of these films was All About Eve, Joseph L. Mankiewicz's captivating melodrama with a barnstorming performance by Bette Davis. The other was Sunset Boulevard, the first of many triumphs that would befall Billy Wilder in this decade.

While Sunset Boulevard has become almost universally admired, Wilder's approach is very different to most other directors who have dabbled in this area. Works like Vertigo, Peeping Tom and 8 1/2 are deeply auteurist: they are very consciously the product of a singular vision, with the film being shaped and driven by the director's personal relationship to the medium.

Wilder's approach, on the other hand, is much more understated. Throughout his career he deliberately eschewed the techniques of conscious imagery employed by Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles, believing that it distracted from the material. For Wilder, a film began not with the director's vision, but with the script and the characters that flowed from it. Perhaps this is why his work is more celebrated in film circles than among the wider public: everyone knows the imagery of Hitchcock, while few could name three of Wilder's films of equal quality.

Sunset Boulevard was once described by film critic Richard Corliss as "the definitive Hollywood horror movie", and it isn't hard to see why. There is a ghoulish, almost Gothic feel to the cinematography, similar to what Hitchcock achieved on Rebecca but with a greater emphasis on decay and the grotesque. John F. Seitz had worked with Wilder on The Lost Weekend and Double Indemnity, and reutilised a trick he developed on the latter picture: before every take he sprinkled some dust in front of the camera to give the impression of mustiness.

Aside from the visuals, the horror aspects are also reflected in the plot. Sunset Boulevard is famously narrated from beyond the grave, taking the film noir device of the unreliable narrator and making it seem all the more disembodied. The film begins and ends with the recovery of a corpse, and when Joe Gillis first arrives at Norma Desmond's house, he is mistaken for the undertaker. The whole story is about characters barely clinging onto life, with both Gillis and Desmond in great danger of being swept away by new, younger, better talents.

While the horror aspects draw out the similarities between the characters, Wilder also uses the language of film noir to illustrate their differences, particularly their stylistic ones. Gloria Swanson's character is preening and melodramatic, while William Holden is more naturalistic; they form two different reactions to the underlying atmosphere of cynicism and desperation that film noir does so well. But while the differences are played up, the film never becomes a pantomime, and like on Double Indemnity the narrative is never overbearing or excessive.

Sunset Boulevard has a number of fascinating themes and ideas, all of which are realised in a substantial yet tantalising way. One of its main ideas is the heartlessness of Hollywood, a business built upon glamour that rarely lives up to its reputation. It's a place that turns ambition into world-weariness, success into mausoleums, and shows no mercy regardless of whether you're a penniless writer or an insanely rich (and just plain insane) star of yesteryear. Ultimately, everyone's fate is the same: abandonment, emptiness and death, and we have little control over any of these.

This theme is reinforced by the intimidating architecture, utilising the same sort of technique that Roman Polanski would later apply in his Apartment Trilogy. Even without the Gothic visuals, Desmond's house is an unnerving place to be, with people always being shot in middle- or long-distance so that they look tiny against the staircase, doors and columns. The titular street is almost personified in the opening shot, bringing an eerie, ever-present stillness to an ever-changing world.

The film is also very interested in the fleeting nature of fame, epitomised by Desmond's famous remark: "I am big! It's the pictures that got small". There's a fantastic scene about halfway through where Desmond has shown up on Cecil B. De Mille's set, and a spotlight happens to fall on her. While the spotlight is on her, people recognise, crowd round and adore her - but then the director orders it away and the movers and shakers move on. It's a beautifully sad metaphor, realised cinematically through an unfussy but meaningful gesture - that really is Wilder in a nutshell.

There's also a minor comment in the film about the rivalry or rift caused by the introduction of sound. Desmond's comments about faces being replaced by endless talking make an interesting point about changes in acting styles, and how technological changes can lead to art forms being lost. While The Artist approaches this issue in an optimistic manner, arguing that there is room for every kind of style of filmmaking, the characters in Sunset Boulevard have very little to hope for.

The film also deals with the issue of madness, offering a number of explanations for Desmond's mental state. Rather than simply under-write her as non-specifically senile, the film explores how her madness may spring from a fear of abandonment, arguing that such attitudes are an inevitable product of the star system, where people are raised up and then quickly forgotten. Equally, her dismissive attitude towards the "mediocre" talent of the day presents a different position - that madness is the product of obsessive nostalgia, and that insanity results from failing to embrace change.

On top of all its richly-layered themes, the film is a self-reflexive treat in terms of its casting. Aside from the brilliant central performances by Holden and Swanson, it boasts a supporting cast of Hollywood greats playing themselves (or versions thereof). Erich von Stroheim, who worked with Swanson on the ill-fated Queen Kelly, channels into his character all the humiliations he had suffered at the hands of Hollywood studios. Buster Keaton looks as melancholy as ever as one of Swanson's "waxworks", and Cecil B. DeMille remains deeply powerful, even without his iconic jodphurs.

Sunset Boulevard is a truly great film with a wealth of fascinating ideas, which remains one of the greatest films ever made about Hollywood. While Mulholland Drive and Peeping Tom are ultimately more mesmerising, it is still an all-round triumph with a great script, a fantastic cast and inspired direction from Wilder. It is essential viewing for anyone interested who is interested in Hollywood - in other words, it's essential viewing for everyone.

Daniel Mumby
Daniel Mumby

Super Reviewer

Norma Desmond: I am big! It's the pictures that got small.

"A Hollywood Story"

Sunset Boulevard is one of those timeless classics that every film buff must see in their lifetime. It's some of Billy Wilder's best works and only the second film of his I've seen, the other being, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which is considered to be one of his lesser efforts. So it was nice to see Wilder at the top of his game, and was he ever. Sunset Boulevard is a masterpiece, there's absolutely no doubt about that.

A struggling screenwriter named Joe Gillis stumbles on what he thinks to be an old abandoned Hollywood stars home while running from repossessors who want his car. When the home isn't actually abandoned, but actually occupied by an aging silent film star, Norma Desmond. Norma is delusional, self absorbed, and downright crazy. She is trying to stage a comeback with a screenplay she has been working on for years and asks Joe to edit it. He agrees thinking it will be some nice, quick cash. The stay on Sunset Boulevard doesn't happen to be as brief as he thought though.

The performances from William Holden and Gloria Swanson are phenomenal. The story is great, no matter what you want to call it; a film noir, a character study, whatever, it's fantastic. There's a lot of dark material, but the writing manages to allow for some comedic moments. The house is almost another character altogether and an amazing setting for a film.

Sunset Boulevard is a must see film. Film lovers will love the movie driven story, fantastic performances and great direction. It's one of the few movies that will be well known forever and never forgotten. A complete masterpiece.

Melvin White

Super Reviewer

Sunset Boulevard Quotes

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– Submitted by Joakim A (6 months ago)
– Submitted by Dutch E (2 years ago)
– Submitted by Dutch E (2 years ago)

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