Simultaneously dark, caustic and humorous, and yet all too real, Billy Wilder’s 1950 Sunset Boulevard, one the greatest of its director’s many masterpieces and arguably the finest film noir of all time, remains fresh as a portrait of desperation, delusion and dependence.
Sunset Boulevard is not only one of the finest film noirs of all time but also, arguably, the greatest and darkest movie about Hollywood to ever appear on the silver screen – a master class by a filmmaker who has made an incredible number of great films. But despite the movie’s focus on the film industry, the story of Sunset Blvd. deals with universal themes and the human condition. In every corner of every city in the world there’s always an aspiring (and yet needy) artist ready to sell his soul to the first devil who offers enough choices to change his life.
Penniless screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) has been defaulting on his car payments for some time. While skipping town, away from his creditors, Joe parks his car and hides in the decadent mansion of former silent-era star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Norma, who lives in the enormous place in Sunset Blvd. (Los Angeles) with her loyal butler and driver Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim), hires Joe to write a scrip for her comeback to the movies. As they eventually become involved romantically, Norma, in her delusion of grandeur, daydreams about her return to fame. At the end, when Joe reveals the truth of the situation (Paramount Studios are not interest in her; her fan mail comes from Max, the butler; basically, she is utterly forgotten) Norma loses her head and kills him.
Cinema is usually thought as simply fantasy, when in fact, it is a serious business indeed. The movies and stories that feed people’s imagination around the world are seen as great entertainment or even, perhaps, fine works of art, but never as pieces of serious intellectual endeavours. However, the endless ways in which ideas can be dealt and dramatized, so we can better understand their significance, makes the movies ideal vehicles for the communication of what is important to us, as human beings. How we face death, the things we do for money or prestige, or the limits of morality when confronted by selfishness and greed are few of the universal themes, relevant way beyond the boundaries of the Hollywood realm.
..Of Men and Madams and Monkeys…
Indeed, Joe Gillis’ corpse in the pool, narrating the whole tale means exactly what it seems, exactly what’s so obvious, and that is, if you play with fire, you end up burnt, or more precisely, when you play with Norma, you end up in the water. The reason his death as punishment for messing with someone’s life seems so apt, albeit outrageously disproportionate, is that from the beginning, Joe condescends on Norma. Despite thinking of her as deluded and eccentric, even weirdly presumptuous, he nonetheless accepts her money and pretends he will help her with the script for her comeback. It is easy money and for someone so desperate there’s nothing wrong with that.
In fact, legally, there’s nothing wrong indeed with messing with other people’s delusions. We might cruelly make fun of their beliefs or take advantage of their gullibility but as long as there’s no intention to commit fraud there’s no crime, right? However, what does it say about the human condition? What message does it send to us, when one may play with people’s emotions, manipulate their psychological weaknesses and at the end, under the law, one may feel as pure as Queen Kelly herself. I definitely feel for Joe. He has been down on his luck, has an interlude of easy comfort, finds his epiphany, and at the end, is ready to do the right thing. Unfortunately, during this long learning process he uses and hurts people unnecessarily.
From a Nietzschean perspective, or more precisely from his aptly titled Twilight of the Idols‘s point of view, Joe was just doing what he had to in order to survive. Norma and Max, stuck in the past, still living life within the ethereal reality of celluloid magic, represent the old guard of Christianity. Cinema is, appropriately, Heaven for Norma. That realm of floating angels and expressive faces, preferably with no sound, feels safe for her. With their well-defined dramatic rules (are these like an ethical code?!), films are similar to the Christian doctrine – it may restrain a person’s freedom, but it certainly helps defines one’s identity. Like Nietzsche himself, Joe has appeared in Norma’s life to shake things up a little bit.
However, there’s a huge gulf between Joe and the ideal moral man aspired by the German controversialist. Gillis may well be very self-centred (which is understandable as destitution was threatening his own survival), and perhaps even a nihilist, but he is hardly the Übermensch, envisioned by Nietzsche. The old horse-hugging cynical would certainly despise Joe’s opportunistic attitude. The same incisive and critical posture that he would assume towards Norma and Max would also apply to Joe’s lack of strength and independence. The great Nietzsche would surely point out the unashamed decadence in an old lady trying to bury a chimpanzee.
And though Billy Wilder‘s masterpiece shows a clear dramatic arc in Joe’s story, ‘What does not kill me, makes me stronger’ would sound almost funny coming out of his mouth if it wasn’t so tragic. Little consolation indeed for a dead man floating on a pool.