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Sunset Boulevard (1950)

tomatometer

98

Average Rating: 9.3/10
Reviews Counted: 58
Fresh: 57 | Rotten: 1

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

100

Average Rating: 8.2/10
Critic Reviews: 8
Fresh: 8 | Rotten: 0

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

audience

95

liked it
Average Rating: 4.3/5
User Ratings: 50,389

My Rating

Movie Info

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

Unrated,

Drama, Classics

Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder

Nov 26, 2002

Paramount Pictures

Watch It Now

Cast

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All Critics (61) | Top Critics (8) | Fresh (57) | Rotten (1) | DVD (28)

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

August 14, 2007 Full Review Source: Chicago Reader
Chicago Reader
Top Critic IconTop 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.

June 28, 2007 Full Review Source: Variety
Variety
Top Critic IconTop Critic

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

June 24, 2006 Full Review Source: Time Out
Time Out
Top Critic IconTop Critic

Still the best Hollywood movie ever made about Hollywood.

September 29, 2005 Full Review Source: New York Observer
New York Observer
Top Critic IconTop Critic

What's not recognized enough is the indelible, self-sickened performance of William Holden as Desmond's boy-toy/hired hack.

July 29, 2003 Full Review Source: Village Voice
Village Voice
Top Critic IconTop Critic

This is the greatest film about Hollywood ever put on celluloid by Hollywood.

April 3, 2003 Full Review Source: ReelViews
ReelViews
Top Critic IconTop Critic

[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.

March 4, 2014 Full Review Source: ColeSmithey.com
ColeSmithey.com

One of the great joys of the film is watching the way in which William Holden's naturalistic performance clashes with an actress and performance style from an earlier age.

November 8, 2012 Full Review Source: CinemaBlend.com
CinemaBlend.com

An uncompromising study of American decadence displaying a sad, worn, methodical beauty few films have had since the late twenties.

August 29, 2012 Full Review Source: The Nation
The Nation

Norma is something of a living legend, but she's also an unaware ghost: no longer of the world in which she thinks she lives.

October 14, 2011 Full Review Source: Not Coming to a Theater Near You
Not Coming to a Theater Near You

A must for fans of ruthless black comedy.

January 2, 2011 Full Review Source: Common Sense Media | Comment (1)
Common Sense Media

Sunset Boulevard's entire point of view is based on a gimmick. Whether one considers it an "artistic cheat" or a valid and audacious device depends up his ability and desire to suspend his disbelief.

March 9, 2009 Full Review Source: Bright Lights Film Journal
Bright Lights Film Journal

Tears away at the curtain that keeps reality away from fiction.

December 8, 2008 Full Review Source: Movie Views

if you have the dream to make it to Tinsel Town, you might want to check this flick out because Hollywood is as hard on dreams as it was back in the 1950s

November 12, 2008 Full Review Source: 7M Pictures | Comments (32)
7M Pictures

Dark comedy. Film noir. Tragic romance. Hollywood satire. 'Sunset Boulevard' has it all.

November 6, 2008 Full Review Source: Movie Metropolis
Movie Metropolis

The casting is perfect.

August 14, 2007 Full Review Source: Observer [UK]
Observer [UK]

This cold-blooded satire is at once subtle and savage.

December 30, 2006 Full Review Source: Empire Magazine
Empire Magazine

Gloria Swanson and William Holden give definitive, Oscar-nominated performances as the fading star and hack writer, respectively, in Bily Wilder's darker than dark comedy about the inner workings of Hollywood at a crucial phase of the industry's change.

July 4, 2005 Full Review Source: EmanuelLevy.Com
EmanuelLevy.Com

A cynically dark recognition to Hollywood's forgotten stars.

February 20, 2005 Full Review Source: Ozus' World Movie Reviews | Comment (1)
Ozus' World Movie Reviews

A concentration of classic filmmaking at its peak, a specimen of director Billy Wilder at the razor's edge of his brilliance.

October 15, 2004 Full Review Source: Arizona Daily Star
Arizona Daily Star

Few pictures are greater than Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder's scathing assault on Hollywood's magnetism, aura, and fear of watching it pass you by...

August 15, 2004 Full Review Source: Film and Felt
Film and Felt

Marvelous Hollywood-on-Hollywood satire, balanced exquisitely between All About Eve and Mulholland Drive.

June 24, 2004

Audience Reviews for Sunset Boulevard

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.
May 9, 2014
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.
February 22, 2014
blkbomb
Melvin White

Super Reviewer

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 for 60+ years ago.
August 24, 2013
cchclaw

Super Reviewer

From a writing standpoint, kudos for this script. There is something about getting old, in Hollywood, that is imminently topical. In this movie about making movies, the notion of growing too old to draw an audience echoes a kind of universally unspoken nightmare for everyone who becomes a "star." How ironic that this really was Gloria Swanson's swan song. After this it was all a path to obscurity for her with mostly TV parts until the end. Her melodramatic acting style is almost so over the top that you might be tempted to laugh in some scenes, but the fact that her character's story is so sad keeps you from doing so. Swanson would have had my vote for the Oscar. William Holden is so good in this; dying young is one sure solution to the problem of aging. My favorite player is Cecil B. DeMille as himself. He completely and sympathetically understands the aging star's tragedy. In Hollywood, how old is too old? An interesting commentary on a problem that must plague many Hollywood industry folks even to this day. Okay, here's a question for everyone who might want to think about it: In literature, when a narrator continues to speak after death, is that an artistic problem, or, in this case, is that perhaps a commentary on art and immortality?
February 20, 2013
binky013

Super Reviewer

    1. Norma Desmond: I am big! It's the pictures that got small.
    – Submitted by Dutch E (16 months ago)
    1. Norma Desmond: All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.
    – Submitted by Dutch E (16 months ago)
    1. Norma Desmond: I'm going to be bigger than peanut butter!
    – Submitted by Jesse K (21 months ago)
    1. Norma Desmond: And I promise you I'll never desert you again because after 'Salome' we'll make another picture and another picture. You see, this is my life! It always will be! Nothing else! Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark!... All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.
    – Submitted by Willie J (22 months ago)
    1. Norma Desmond: We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!
    – Submitted by Willie J (22 months ago)
    1. Norma Desmond: Alright Mr.Demille, I'm ready for my close-up.
    – Submitted by Willie J (22 months ago)
View all quotes (15)

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  • Boulevard der Dämmerung (DE)
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