This is the first film of the month that I’d already seen before, but decided to revisit for noir month. On no fewer than a whopping 26 of the official lists compiled at iCheckMovies, Sunset Boulevard isn’t just one of the most celebrated noir films of all time, it is one of the most celebrated films of any genre or type. In the opening we, along with our narrator, follow police to a murder scene on Sunset Blvd. We find a body in a pool, the camera appearing to rest at the bottom of the water, shooting up at our victim. From there our narrator, the victim himself, takes us back to tell us his sad, deranged, ghoulish story.
Darkly and sarcastically funny at times, the film plays as much like a horror film as it does like a noir, with former silent film megastar and Cecil B. DeMille cohort Gloria Swanson delivering a chilling performance as the mentally unhinged former silent film megastar and Cecil B. DeMille cohort Norma Desmond. The story takes place mostly in a huge, decrepit 20’s era Hollywood mansion in which Desmond keeps herself hidden from the world, with an organ that plays by itself when the wind blows through the pipes. Surrounded by photos of her youth, Desmond is desperately trying to cling to immortality. It’s as if she wants to be Dracula, but isn’t actually immortal, making her creepiness pathetic rather than terrifying. Her butler is a bizarre sycophant, an Igor type. And the entire film is narrated by a dead man. Horror themes abound.
The performances of Swanson and her butler, played by Erich von Stroheim, are also unapologetically informed more by horror than noir. It’s somewhat like times when great comedy is funnier because the actors play it like a drama, although in this case it is a great noir film in which some of the actors play it like a horror movie, yet only the actors playing characters in the weird little make believe world of Norma Desmond, into which our protagonist is pulled by his own mild greed.
Unlike any film I’ve ever seen, and featuring iconic lines that rank among the most famous in film history, (such as the film’s most famous line, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”) Sunset Boulevard is singular, not only as film noir, but within film history.
Also, Buster Keaton (among others) plays one of Desmond’s bridge partners, as an unnamed former silent film great. Just a little wink, you know, for the fans.