Sunset Boulevard




After watching Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) as a class we did some analysis on it. I found this film incredible, and therefore worthy of a very in-depth analysis, mostly relating to week 2 where narrative was the focus.

sunset boulevardWhat I found most interesting about this film, was the subtext and how Wilder communicated it to the audience through not so subtle means.

First I’d like to comment on the fact that most of the plot presented to us was shown in a big flashback. The plot opens with a man lying dead in a pool, which happens to be the narrator who then, through use of flashback, explains how he got to be in that situation only 6 months earlier.

The temporal order of the film used one big flashback which took up most of the film, within that flashback, classical narration was used which presents events in a linear order. But overall a post-classical narration technique was used as the film started with the same event used in the ending, so it used temporal frequency. This was used to highlight the fact that Joe Gillis’ death was a very important event in the film.

I really like how they played with time in this movie, it started as if someone was drawing us in to one event (Joe’s death) then retracing their steps to explain to us this important story, as if listening to a grandparent tell an important past story. Immediately Wilder had the audience’s attention and we wanted to know what happened, and why it was so important. The way the audience had restricted knowledge placed us in the same wild boat as Joe, we were on a journey with him and had to find out the truth behind it all aswell. He was no longer alone on his quest.

The subtext was revealed to be the harsh nature of Hollywood, how they use and abuse the stars and spit them back out, thus creating victims who use others, ensuring a deadly cycle.

This overall message was put together through various metaphors and symbols, like puzzle pieces all fitting together to present one overall picture. The picture of the brutality within Hollywood. Below I’ve listed some of the pieces that I find contributes to the overall subtext.

  • The monkey is one of the most important metaphors used in the movie. Upon first meeting Norma Desmond, she is grieving her dead monkey. On the same day she enlists the help of Joe Gillis to help edit her script to put her back into a Hollywood film. If you compare these events, especially in the short linear order they’re presented in, it is clear she is merely replacing her monkey with a new monkey. She uses him for his writing skills, and he uses her for money. A relationship built on use. But the metonym shows that Norma is a victim. This scene alone represents hollywood. One monkey dies, another is instated. The grief was incredibly short-lived. It is clear Norma was merely seen as a monkey to Hollywood, and with that learnt behaviour, that’s all she knows how to treat people. She is a victim of use and abuse, and that’s her identity now. She is a dead monkey.
  • Fame is fleeting and ephemeral. Both Joe and Norma were big at one point in their lives, and all they’re searching for is to go back to that. The events of them using each other to get back to their former days of stardom insinuates the desire to get back into Hollywood once you’ve been spat out.
  • I found the idea of justice interesting also. Norma was incredibly manipulative, controlling and cruel. But at the end, even after she’d shot someone, she was treated with an overwhelming amount of grace. This may be because of two reasons I’ve deduced, either it’s because: as she is a victim, she deserves to be treated with grace and have her fantasies played out. On the other hand, maybe it symbolises the justice used in Hollywood that says it’s fine to kill people and ruin your life, as long as we get the shot! It shows their twisted priorities that have turned film into a very successful business. As they say, the quickest way to the top is by stepping on people.
  • Now in class, his death was theorised to be a sacrifice to the tainted love, whether it was with Norma or Hollywood I’m not quite sure, I was lost in my own thoughts thinking he was trying to take back his own identity. He was done being someone’s monkey, however that was not granted back to him. He died in ownership (as a monkey) and so has Norma lived and will die a used monkey. This may be how Wilder intended Hollywood to appear, as if once you have ‘sold your soul’ to Hollywood, you will forevermore live and die their property.
  • I also found the relationship between Max and Norma extremely interesting. One question I couldn’t put to rest was, “why would he choose to be her servant?” He was her director who had a promising career, he feeds her ego with letters every day, he was her first husband, he watches her marry other men and does all this without complaint. WHY!?!? I figured, if none of these issues bother him, it’s not about jealousy of seeing other men with her, it’s not about any of that. He came from Hollywood, so his intentions mustn’t be pure, as is the theme in this movie. So I deduced, he must see her as is career. In other terms, she was her own biggest fan, what does that say about the man that created her? Every day that she gloats over herself, she’s actually gloating over a masterpiece that he has created. He stays with her because his ego inflates every single day. As I said he came from Hollywood, so to him it’s not about love, it’s about his work. His creation. That is all he cares about. This was a metonym, it was slowly revealed and was finally completely brought to light at the very end of the film.
  • Finally, when she addresses the ‘people in the dark’, she is addressing us. This is the last piece of the puzzle that urges the audience to take a second and understand that Sunset Boulevard isn’t merely just a film. It is a desperate message to the audience, not to be taken lightly.

Many of these issues can get fairly deep, but I feel this movie reaches these depths as easily as the drop of a stone. Sunset Boulevard presents deep issues in a way that is easily digestible for any range of analytical audience. Predictably, it has left me wanting more! Now I am wanting to find the depth and subtext behind every film, but sadly the truth is that many popular films today aren’t built with this level of subtext, with such a deep emotional and thought provoking message. But as I am early in my analytic film stages, I hope to be pleasantly surprised!

I only wish to create films with such heart and a message that can be enjoyable for the most analytical down to the people who just want some entertainment. I feel like Sunset Boulevard has, without a doubt, wonderfully manipulated all types of film form to gain the success it has and which has given the director, Billy Wilder, the reputation he has earned.

billy wilder



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