Each week, this column will cover one film on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American films of all time, covering my general thoughts on the film and whether or not I think it belongs on the list. You can also see my personal ranking here. To celebrate Noirvember, I’ll be covering some remaining film noir from the list. This week’s film is #16 on the list: Sunset Boulevard (1950).
Sunset Boulevard is a lot of films in one: a film noir, an incisive critique of Hollywood, and most notably, a character study of an ageing film star whose delusions of a comeback swallow those in her orbit. The script and direction are excellent, managing to balance the dark comedy and satire with more serious subject matter—a talent Wilder also displays in another film featured on the AFI list, The Apartment—and it’s immensely entertaining, while also packing an emotional punch. But there’s one specific aspect of the film that doesn’t seem to get much attention: it’s a perfect deconstruction of an abusive relationship, which initially begins as codependent but soon turns toxic. Though the film’s story is told from the perspective of an unsuccessful writer, Joe Gills (William Holden), the star of the show is actually Norma Desmond, and Gloria Swanson delivers a deliciously extravagant performance, appropriately chewing the scenery in her depiction of a deranged former silent film star who is in denial of her obsolescence. At first, Desmond seems pitiful and her persona is amusing, but by the end, her wide-eyed stare is utterly haunting; it takes an immensely talented actress to pull off the transition.
The only major failing of the film is framing the narrative as a flashback and revealing in the opening moments that the protagonist is already dead. It creates tension throughout the film as the audience is trying to guess the who, what, and why of his death—though we have a pretty good idea very quickly—but it does more damage later on when the film diverts some of its focus toward the burgeoning romance between Gillis and his young co-writer. Knowing that Gillis will be dead by the end makes it difficult to invest emotionally in their connection, and by extension, that plot line which represents Gillis’s reignited passion (both romantically and professionally) feels more perfunctory than natural. It doesn’t dampen the impact of the film’s extraordinary final scene, but it feels like an unnecessary gimmick which detracts from the strength of the narrative overall.
Does It Belong on the List?
I’d say so. It may not be my favorite Wilder film on the list, but it’s one of the best films about filmmaking and earns its spot on that alone.