“Sunset Boulevard” is a backstage melodrama using a filmland, instead of a legit, locale. Because it is tied in with a pseudo-expose of Hollywood, the peek behind the scenes undoubtedly will fascinate a considerable slice of the theater-going public, lured to the ticket window by all the drumbeating Paramount calculates to put behind it. B.O.-wise, the ballyhoo possibilities are strong and returns will reflect the selling.
Producer Charles Brackett and director Billy Wilder, along with co-scripter D.M. Marshman Jr., have used an iconoclastic approach that will help shatter the public’s illusions and which does much to perpetuate filmland myths and idiosyncrasies. On this count 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.
The expose of the land of the swimming pool opens with a shot of a dead man floating in the plunge of a Beverly Hills mansion. The voice of the dead man then narrates the story, going back six months to explain why he eventually reached such a sorry state. He is a young writer with a few minor credits and many creditors. Fleeing one day from a pair of auto repossessors, he finds refuge in what he believes to be an abandoned mansion. The decadent palace is not deserted: It is occupied by a former great femme star. She takes a fancy to the young man, employs him to write a script that will return her to past glory. The association segues into an affair, he as a not-too-resisting captive and she as a woman as decadent as her life, trying to seize a last whiff of romance.
Plot moves relentlessly toward the climax when the aged star shoots down her young paramour as he seeks to escape from her idiopathic demands. There is scant relief from tragedy in any of the footage, and the futile note is driven home when the dead writer continues his narration after his body has been hauled from the pool and tagged for the morgue.
Brackett, Wilder and Marshman Jr. have made their story extremely “trade-y,” and the film industry family circle will appreciate the exposure of studio foibles. Picture bares with considerable sting a lot of half-truths that are generally accepted as fact, plus adding quite a few glib cracks of its own.
Performances by the entire cast, and particularly William Holden and Gloria Swanson, are exceptionally fine. Holden’s stock within the industry should mount after there has been a general viewing of his standout job as the young writer, enmeshed with an old woman. Miss Swanson, returning to the screen after a very long absence, socks hard with a silent-day technique to put over the decaying star she is called upon to portray. Erich von Stroheim, as the butler and original discoverer, delivers with excellent restraint.
Only two other members have a chance at more than a few lines but they come over with a wallop. Nancy Olson, comparative newcomer, more than holds her own in trouping with the more experienced performers. Her work as the studio reader who falls for Holden is splendid. The other performer rating more than a mention is Cecil B. DeMille. He plays himself with complete assurance in one of the few sympathetic roles.
“Sunset Boulevard” is a long picture, running 110 minutes, and is supported by topnotch technical skills in all departments. John F. Seitz’s photography realizes on the tragic mood, as does Franz Waxman’s score. The settings, art direction and other physical factors are of high order in fulfilling production and directorial demands.
1950: Best Story & Screenplay, B&W Art Direction, Score for a Dramatic Picture.
Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actor (William Holden), Actress (Gloria Swanson), Supp. Actor (Erich von Stroheim), Supp. Actress (Nancy Olson), B&W Cinematography, Editing