Spoilers for "Sunset Boulevard" after the jump:
Like many noir pictures of its era, "Sunset Boulevard" exists in a world of heightened emotions and larger than life characters. That is both a blessing and a curse in this case. Where the film is at its best is as a depiction of three very different people at different stages in their careers and lives. It's also a pitch-perfect portrayal of how the movie business has destroyed two of them. That the narrative loses control in the final few minutes is perhaps inevitable considering the fact that the most stable individuals in the movie are either dead or gone by that point. Oh, well. Like the career of Norma Desmond, it was great while it lasted.
We open with a scene of police investigating a murder. Then William Holden's narration kicks in and begins to tell the whole sorry story. He plays Joe Gillis, a once-promising screenwriter who's now struggling to keep his head above water. When he's chased by a pair of men wanting to take away his car, he winds up in the driveway of a mansion owned by former silent-movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Norma has written a script that she thinks will allow her to regain her former fame, and she decides to enlist Joe with editing and improving it.
From the start, it's clear that there's something seriously off about Norma. The house she lives in has pictures of her all over the wall. At one point Joe's narration says something to the effect of "she lived in another age", and it's plain to see. For his part, Joe doesn't object. He's happy to get paid for punching up a very bad (by all accounts) script. Only it soon becomes apparent that Norma has other things besides script editing on her mind.
Perhaps a part of her really does love Joe, at least initially. But to me her feelings for him stem more from her own deluded sense of self-importance, something that gets more and more obvious as "Sunset Boulevard" goes along. I found Swanson's performance (which many think is brilliant) a bit over-the-top throughout, but it wasn't a major deal as long as the film continued to focus more on Joe Gillis than on Norma Desmond. That's something that eventually changes, unfortunately.
As played by Holden, Joe is a superb creation: a once idealistic screenwriter who's simply grown fed up with his entire existence. This drives him right into Norma's web: which promises an endless stream of fine suits and money. But at the same time, we immediately sense Joe's discontent with his new life at Norma's house. Here was a man who once had a certain degree of self-respect, only to slowly start losing it to the drain of having movie after movie rejected. And now he's hit rock-bottom. It's Holden's performance and not Swanson's that should be remembered as "Sunset Boulevard's" finest.
But I said there are three key characters. The third is Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson). In a nutshell, she's a younger version of Joe: a wide-eyed optimist who believes she can make it in this business. Holden's world-weary attitude contrasts perfectly with said optimism during a few chance encounters between the two, and eventually he's drawn in to working with her on a script based on one of his old ideas. Predictably, romantic sparks start to fly. And it's here that the script takes a turn that is deeply admirable even as it leads to that deeply flawed finish.
All the while it seems as though "Sunset Boulevard" is setting up Betty (and the screenplay she and Joe are writing) to be Joe's salvation. But that's not what happens here, at least not in a traditional sense. Instead, Joe is discovered to have a certain amount of nobility still left in him. He invites Betty over to the mansion and shows her what his life has become: causing her to abandon any romanticized notions of him and (presumably) flee to Arizona to be with her fiancee. He then announces to Norma that he's leaving her to go back to his job in Ohio. Norma then loses control and shoots him dead.
And it's here, directly after this brilliant scene, that the film also loses control. Without Holden and Olson to provide some sort of anchor for Swanson's scenery-chewing performance, the flaws in both it and the character become readily apparent. Her complete descent into self-obsessed madness just isn't believable. And as played by Swanson, it's actually an exercise in campiness. The final shot is sensational and haunting, but the actual aftermath of the crime is anything but. I sat there stunned, wondering how a film that was so strong over its first hundred minutes could suddenly devolve into such a mess.
It's possible that it couldn't have ended any other way, considering everything that transpired throughout the rest of the film. And I suppose you have to admire a film this deeply committed to its vision. But that doesn't mean you have to like it or find it compelling. And this reviewer didn't. Most other critics (professional and amateur alike) vehemently disagree. And let me say that the film is still well worth seeing in spite of the ending's problems: for Holden's performance alone.
I realize I haven't touched on a lot of the film's other elements: from the impressive cinematography to some of its other sharp observations and minor characters (such as Max). But I think "Sunset Boulevard" is best viewed as a study of these three individuals and of their very different states of mind. It succeeds as such, before becoming a caricature of itself at the very end. That's unfortunate, but the movie is still very satisfying and thought-provoking overall. A masterpiece, however, it is not.