Halloween Special: Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd.


With Halloween arriving on Friday, cable channels are as thick as theaters with apt seasonal programming, meaning you can catch Saw V at your local multiplex or Saws I through IV at home. Which is why we were so impressed with TCM’s inspired broadcast last night of Billy Wilder’s 1950 noir, Sunset Blvd. (Do not even think of mentioning Sunset Boulevard, the 1993 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.)

Scripted by Wilder and his sometime partner, Charles Brackett, Sunset Blvd. is the story of failed screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden), who becomes the kept man of a delusional and forgotten ex-movie star, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Swanson was herself a former silent-era movie queen, and one of the running jokes is that so many of the cast members similarly play versions of themselves. Norma’s washed-up director and chauffeur, Max, is played by the legendary auteur Erich von Stroheim, who was enjoying a long career as an actor, but who had once been the promising director of Greed (1924). And when Norma invites some decrepit old friends to her Sunset Blvd. manse for a game of bridge, they turn out to be Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner (Mr. Gower of It’s a Wonderful Life), and Buster Keaton. Joe contemptuously dubs them Her Waxworks.

Hollywood has always been a place where people go to reinvent themselves, and Sunset Blvd. is about the tragic gap between the way people perceive themselves and the way others see them. “I am big,” Norma roars: “It’s the pictures that got small.” In Wilder’s typically cynical vision, these desperate souls are corrupted by their desire to be someone else, hollowed out until they have become nothing more than the masks they wear. Is there a more appropriate allegory for your Friday night costume party?—Benjamin Strong