Joe Gillis (William Holden) is one of the great screen losers. He’s down on his luck when the film begins, desperate for work, but he has no idea what desperation tastes like until a series of circumstances lead him into the orbit of the once-great Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). This is one of those films that has been so thoroughly digested by pop culture that lines of dialogue are frequently quoted by people who have no idea where those lines came from, like “Ready when you are, C.B.!” It’s also one of those rare films that has lost absolutely none of its power in the decades since it was first released.
The first five minutes of “Sunset Boulevard” contain more good ideas than most movies released this year. Billy Wilder’s darkest impulses drive this disturbing power game that says everything that needs to be said about the relationship between the people who have money and who can give an opportunity and the people who need the money desperately and who will do anything for that opportunity. William Holden’s cynicism is so thick it’s like a fog, and Gloria Swanson gives great crazy from the moment she arrives. These days, actresses have robust lives after 50, and some seem to do their best work at that age, but Swanson paints an indelible portrait of what happens when stardom is left to curdle in the dark. Swanson’s final scene is one of the great endings in all of cinema, disturbing and horrible and so chokingly sad that you can’t believe a major studio ever released it.
Like Wilder’s other best films, what makes “Sunset Boulevard” a classic is the way it tells a bracing, shocking, adult story, and yet there’s nothing explicit about it. It is witty, literate, dense with visual invention. This newest release of the film on DVD is a two-disc set, and the transfer on disc one is crisp and rich. Disc two is fairly stuffed with material about the development of the film and the cultural impact of it, and it’s a great treat for a fan.