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Sunset Boulevard Blu-ray Review

Sunset Blvd. (1950) movie poster Sunset Blvd.

Theatrical Release: August 10, 1950 / Running Time: 110 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: Billy Wilder / Writers: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D.M. Marshman, Jr.

Cast: William Holden (Joe Gillis), Gloria Swanson (Norma Desmond), Erich von Stroheim (Max Von Mayerling), Nancy Olson (Betty Schaefer), Fred Clark (Sheldrake), Lloyd Gough (Morino), Jack Webb (Artie Green), Cecil B. DeMille (Himself), Hedda Hopper (Herself), Buster Keaton (Himself), Anna Q. Nilsson (Herself), H.B. Warner (Himself), Franklyn Farnum (Undertaker), Ray Evans (Himself), Jay Livingston (Himself), Larry Blake (1st Finance Man), Charles Dayton (2nd Finance Man)

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You can make the claim that there have been better filmmakers than Billy Wilder, but it's tough to find a writer/director with a filmography as voluminous and varied. Most of the legends who would feature in a discussion of cinema's greatest masters are celebrated for one type of movie: epics (David Lean), romantic comedies (Woody Allen), samurai movies (Akira Kurosawa), westerns (John Ford), thrillers (Alfred Hitchcock), and so on. By contrast, Wilder's canon can largely only be linked in the most general of terms: sharply written, often humorous works involving utterly human characters.
Wilder wrote and directed movies that are considered among the very best in three genres: comedy (Some Like It Hot), film noir (Double Indemnity), and drama (Sunset Boulevard). One of his best films of all, winner of 1960's Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay Oscars, The Apartment, defies classification, as a romantic workplace comedy about infidelity with an attempted suicide at its center.

Like today's filmmakers, Wilder valued versatility. Unlike today's filmmakers (Allen excluded), he also prized productivity. From 1942, when he began directing American films, to 1966, Wilder kept very busy, directing a film almost every year and many years writing another two films on top of that, some without credit. Though it sounds difficult to maintain a high quality of work on such a schedule, Wilder's output is full of films revered as classics and almost entirely devoid of anything considered bad. Of his three lowest-rated writing credits on IMDb, two are remakes of his work and the other is the James Bond spoof Casino Royale, for which Wilder shares responsibility with ten other scribes, credited or not.

Wilder's top-ranked work on IMDb and both AFI "100 Years...100 Movies" countdowns is Sunset Boulevard, a 1950 release that boasts some of the finest writing, directing, acting, cinematography, and production design ever committed to film. Ahead of its time in its dark content, nonlinear structure, and critical inside view of Hollywood, this is a movie to show anyone resisting black and white fare and anything older than themselves. It is a masterful piece of storytelling whose influence is clearly felt on some of the most admired of modern day films (among them, L.A. Confidential, American Beauty, Memento, and The Artist). When compared to just about anything else in cinema history, Sunset's structure, character depth, mise-en-scθne, and dramatic weight emerge victoriously. Along with Citizen Kane and Casablanca, this is one of the quintessential films by which all other old and new dramas are measured.

"Sunset Boulevard" presents this haunting distorted image of a dead body in a swimming pool at its beginning and end. Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and Joe Gillis (William Holden) get different amounts of enjoyment out of her private New Year's Eve party for two.

The film opens on its protagonist, Joe Gillis (William Holden), being approached by finance company employees looking to repossess his car. Joe is a young, broke screenwriter with a few credits to his name and a few ideas in his head, but none of interest to any studios. While trying to shake the repo men, Joe parks his car in the garage of what he takes for an abandoned mansion. He comes to learn that the residence, which he likens to that of Great Expectations' Miss Havisham, is indeed occupied, by one Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), an aging former star of silent movies.

Norma insists that Joe stay in the room above the garage and that he doctor her extremely long and lacking script for a movie about the Biblical figure of Salome. Norma believes that this project is the very thing she needs for a comeback return to the spotlight she desperately craves. With no other work waiting for him, Joe reluctantly stays. This immediately develops into an unusual arrangement, which for Norma is romantic in nature. The thrice-divorced diva uses her considerable wealth to shower gifts on her new houseguest, from fancy clothes to pricey accessories. Joe isn't especially comfortable with this set up, but what else is a broke and jobless man to do?

The repossessors find and take Joe's car, while late December rains and a leaky roof move him inside Norma's castle, a shrine to her film career. A New Year's Eve party for two illuminates how this relationship is progressing, with Joe becoming a kind of psychological prisoner to his unstable, attention-starved 50-year-old financial provider. Joe does manage to sneak out at night to meet with Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), a young third generation of a filmmaking family who is looking to break out of Paramount's script reading department and into screenwriting. She and Joe collaborate on the one idea of his in which she sees potential. Meanwhile, Norma undergoes an assortment of beautification procedures for her anticipated resurgence, baseless delusions her old director turned first husband turned dutiful butler Max (Erich von Stroheim) propagates.

Accomplished director Cecil B. DeMille appears as himself to reluctantly meet with Norma Desmond while shooting a picture. At nights, Joe (William Holden) begins sneaking off to work on a screenplay with Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson).

Sunset Boulevard is so rich in story and technique. It starts at the end, its title spotted on a curb, and then shows us with perfect clarity how we got to such a grim scene. Wilder penned this with his Ninotchka and Lost Weekend co-writer Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr., a young former Life magazine editor and Time film critic.
Their screenplay demolishes the accepted notion of the film business as a dream factory, exposing the seedy reality of short memories and stardom's fleeting nature. Their cold, textured Hollywood is more convincing than the prevalent fantasy and it benefits from several touches of authenticity.

Norma Desmond may be one of the most compelling characters created for film but this larger than life personality is not pulled from thin air. Gloria Swanson undoubtedly must have sympathized with the part, herself a silent movie star whose career came to a screeching halt at age 35 during the early days of talkies. Sunset was just her second film of the past sixteen years. When Norma, her own biggest fan, is shown revisiting her past glories in her home theater, we see clips of Swanson's 1929 silent Queen Kelly, which was truly directed by von Stroheim. The unforgettable lines spoken by Desmond ("I am big. It's the pictures that got small.", "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!") must have resonated with the actress, who delivers one of the medium's most powerful performances with relevance that reaches from the infancy of film to this very day.

Norma doesn't just want an acting job, she wants to headline a movie at Paramount for the biggest director of the day, Cecil B. DeMille. The veteran DeMille, who repeatedly directed Swanson in the silent era, plays himself, quite effectively. Paramount, this film's producer and distributor, also plays itself, allowing it to be the face of an industry shown in an unflattering light. Other aging movie stars, including Buster Keaton and Frank Capra veteran H.B. Warner, appear as themselves as Norma Desmond's card-playing friends who Joe fittingly and unkindly refers to as "wax works." When scandal occurs, legendary gossip columnist Hedda Hopper is on the scene to report.

These unfakable cameos and details add weight and elevate Sunset Boulevard to a grand scale. It grants us a choice view of perhaps the world's most glamorous industry at the height of its splendor near the end of its Golden Age. But it slices through the artifice for a dark, haunting, atmospheric tale involving figures of opposite experience each seeking fame on one side of the camera. This might just be the greatest film about film there's ever been. It utilizes the talents and perspectives of all involved to reach lofty dramatic heights and without a scene, a shot, or a set put to less than perfect use.

Former silent film director Erich von Stroheim plays Max Von Mayerling, Norma Desmond's strangely complicit butler and ex-husband. Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) performs a comedy routine with blinking eyes and a twirling umbrella for her young houseguest.

Oscars are mentioned a few times in Sunset Boulevard and even without that, you would expect the Academy to take notice of a film pouring such thought and admiration on the profession. But, the eleven Academy Award nominations would result in just three wins, for black and white art direction, dramatic or comedic musical score, and story/screenplay. This is one of the best films to ever lose the Best Picture Oscar. At least the loss didn't reek of politics or conspiracy, as the defeats handed to Citizen Kane did. Sure, some in the industry may have taken exception to Sunset's unforgiving portrayal of the business. But it's more plausible that they just preferred another one of the year's biggest hits, All About Eve.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz's less bleak show business story about the cutthroat world of Broadway actresses is still highly regarded in its own right. It hasn't trailed Sunset by much on AFI's lists and also ranks among IMDb's modern-skewed Top 100 Films. It won seven Oscars out of fifteen nominations, including Picture, Director, and one of the two other screenplay categories. It's kind of unfortunate that the two films were released in the same year, as they are two of the very best released over several years in either direction. The Best Picture Oscar would hold more meaning with the superlative Sunset among its winners instead of any of the following 1940s and '50s films: All the King's Men, Laurence Olivier's Hamlet, DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth, Gigi, Around the World in 80 Days, and Wilder's own The Lost Weekend.

Alas, it doesn't matter all that much. Film fans are much more likely to know and love Sunset Boulevard than any of the aforementioned. And this film will continue to be recognized and treasured for a long time to come.

Starting Tuesday, you can recognize and treasure Sunset Boulevard on Blu-ray Disc, as it is given the November slot on Paramount's centennial calendar of monthly catalog BD releases. Though given no special moniker, rest assured that this disc comes with the many bells and whistles you hope and expect.

Watch a clip from Sunset Blvd.:

Sunset Boulevard Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.33:1 Fullscreen (Original Aspect Ratio)
Dolby TrueHD Mono 2.0 (English), Dolby Mono 2.0 (French, Spanish, Portuguese)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese; Movie-only: English for Hearing Impaired
Not Closed Captioned; Video Extras Subtitled
Release Date: November 6, 2012
Suggested Retail Price: $26.98
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50) / Blue Eco-Friendly Keepcase
Still available as Centennial Collection DVD ($14.98; November 11, 2008)
and Amazon Instant Video
Previously released as Special Collector's Edition DVD (November 26, 2002)


The cover boasts that Sunset Boulevard has been "meticulously restored in all its cinematic glory", a claim that Paramount's handsome Blu-ray transfer supports. Its original Academy Ratio upheld (which yields black side bars in this 16:9 format), the film looks great with a spotless element. It's right on the edge of breathtaking. The visuals meet but do not exceed one's high expectations born out of the film's age and prestige. It's tough to imagine more sharpness or detail being uncovered in 1080p.

Sound is offered as 2.0 Dolby TrueHD mono. The recordings are evidently aged, but they are clear enough. Volume levels are steady. Hiss is minimal. Distortion is non-existent. Though both of the engaged senses won the film an Oscar, the visuals are more striking than the sound and the Blu-ray maintains that relationship.

Gloria Swanson discusses her most iconic film role in a 1970s television interview featured in "Sunset Boulevard: The Beginning." In "A Look Back", Ed Sikov's earring proves that film historians can be cool guys too.


The full slate of extras assembled for the film's 2002 Special Collector's Edition and two-disc 2008 Centennial Collection DVDs runs well beyond the "Over 2½ hours" that the back case states if you count the commentary. All are in standard definition unless otherwise noted.

First up is an audio commentary by Billy Wilder biographer Ed Sikov. His screen-specific 2002 commentary is full of information, not only on Wilder, but this film, and the careers of its cast members.
Sikov performs the script for the deleted morgue opening and proves illuminating on many moments and details, finding real-life parallels and symbolism to read (and over-read) into when he's not sharing documented production considerations. It's a solid track that leaves little room for another.

The video side kicks off with a pair of documentaries. 2008's "Sunset Boulevard: The Beginning" (22:47) addresses the film's creation, with insight from Sikov, longtime Paramount producer A.C. Lyle, actress Nancy Olson, filmmaker/historian Nicholas Meyer, and William Holden's "companion" Stefanie Powers. There's also archival footage from a Gloria Swanson interview to dispel characteristics she is believed to share with Norma Desmond. The piece turns our attention to Wilder, his principal cast, and costume designer Edith Head.

2002's "Sunset Boulevard: A Look Back" (25:52) covers much of the same ground, further discussing Wilder, the cast, and Cecil B. DeMille. There is a good amount of overlap with other supplements, which employ the same interview sessions. Critic Andrew Sarris and Glenn Close add their voices to the mix, the latter to represent the subsequent Broadway musical in which she starred. This featurette was included on the film's original 2002 DVD, where it was titled "The Making of Sunset Boulevard", but then dropped from the Centennial Collection. It's a bit redundant here.

Lone surviving cast member Nancy Olson shares her perspective in several featurettes. Actress Linda Harrison remembers her late "Airport 1975" co-star in "Two Sides of Ms. Swanson."

"The Noir Side of Sunset Boulevard" (14:19) allows LAPD detective turned best-selling author Joseph Wambaugh to voice his appreciation for the movie as a piece of fiction and film noir. He points out symbolic details and its departures from certain conventions.

"Sunset Boulevard Becomes a Classic" (14:29) heaps further praise on the film, touching upon its initial reception and its legacy, including Close on the aforementioned Broadway musical.

"Two Sides of Ms. Swanson" (10:37) reflects on Sunset's leading lady personally and professionally with comments from granddaughter Brooke Anderson and Airport 1975 co-star Linda Harrison.

"Stories of Sunset Boulevard" (11:22) has Sikov and Sarris discussing the film's original morgue opening, deleted for the excessive laughter it provoked, while Nancy Olson remembers her production experiences in detail (which you may have already heard in other featurettes).

A soft-lit Stefanie Powers recalls her companion William Holden in "Mad About the Boy." Elmer Bernstein weighs in on Franz Waxman's score.

"Mad About the Boy: A Portrait of William Holden" (11:13) considers the film's leading man, with A.C. Lyle, Stefanie Powers, and Nancy Olson fondly recalling their experiences with the actor.

"Recording Sunset Boulevard" (5:51) covers record producer Robert Townson's 2002 project to record Franz Waxman's score, including a composition written for the film's deleted opening, with Joel McNeely composing.

"The City of Sunset Boulevard" (5:36) reflects on the film's depiction of Los Angeles with authors and Nancy Olson sharing information on its locations.

"Franz Waxman and the Music of Sunset Boulevard" (14:27) gathers thoughts on the composer and his work from his film historian son John Waxman and composers Elmer Bernstein and John Mauceri.

Script pages and a handful of silent clips are provided for the film's deleted opening scene, in which corpses at a morgue conversed with one another. The one all-new bonus feature is this deleted scene that finds Artie Green's New Year's Eve partygoers singing "The Paramount Don't Want Me Blues." Paramount Pictures' iconic lot is among the sites addressed in the Hollywood Locations Map.

"Morgue Prologue Script Pages" give us two script versions of the film's aforementioned original opening scene, which was cut after one preview screening. The pages are a fascinating read and in the first, we even get to see six of the silent surviving shots described. There probably ought to be an option to watch the shots edited together and set to score, but that would probably seem a tad random and it's good as is.

Next comes the one all-new inclusion, the never before released deleted scene "The Paramount Don't Want Me Blues" (1:26), which is aged but in high definition.
It has a crowd singing an apparently original song about movie studios and executives when Joe arrives at his friend's New Year's Eve party. It's obviously pretty cool to be digging up an outtake from over 60 years ago.

A "Hollywood Location Map" gives us a little bit of information on Los Angeles sites and sights featured in the film: Schwab's Drug Store (0:46), Joe Gillis' apartment (0:19), Norma Desmond's Isotta Fraschini touring car (0:44), the Getty Mansion (0:51) used for exteriors, and three parts of Paramount Pictures (0:26, 0:26, 0:20). It's a little redundant after "The City."

"Behind the Gates: The Lot" (5:05) provides a brief history on the origins of Paramount and the studio's iconic Hollywood lot led by Lyle and Rudy Behlmer.

"Edith Head: The Paramount Years" (13:43), a featurette that has shown up on other relevant Paramount DVDs and Blu-rays, celebrates the studio's decorated longtime costume designer. Black-lipped biographer David Chierichetti and others give us an overview of Head's forty years of costuming Paramount films, starting with Clara Bow in 1927's Wings and spending much time on Sunset and other '50s hits.

Paramount made many movies in the '50s, some of them (like "White Christmas") in Technicolor. Billy Wilder stands next to his leading lady Gloria Swanson in this photo gallery image. "Unusual" was apparently a strong selling point for a 1950 trailer.

"Paramount in the '50s" (9:33) samples the decade's output chronologically, starting with Sunset. A narrator provides some film facts (including Oscar tallies) and a bit of national history. It's promotional, self-promotional, and silly, but I love highlight compilations like this.

Three galleries present black and white photographs in high definition: Production (46 stills of seemingly posed set candids),
Movie (25 stills of scenes), and Publicity (16 stills of totally posed character shots).

Last but not least, we get Sunset Boulevard's original theatrical trailer (3:16), which is a bit worn, but presented in high definition.

The menu silently rests on an unremarkable single film still. The disc supports bookmarks, but does not resume playback after your player powers down.

The unusual use of vintage poster art for a new home video release can easily be explained: over the summer, Paramount gave Entertainment Weekly readers a choice between this poster art and something more graphically hip that a studio would be more likely to use. The public picked the former (leaving the latter to be reworked and colorized for the rear cover). I have a feeling that if they didn't, this might have gotten a slipcover, as it does not here. An insert promotes the Delta sweepstakes honoring Paramount's centennial.

"All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up," says Norma Desmond in the film's unforgettable closing line.


Few movies are as effective on every level as Sunset Boulevard. Billy Wilder's outstanding drama holds up remarkably well as one of the finest films ever made. Easy to watch and marvel at again and again, no classic film collection is complete without it.

Paramount's Blu-ray doesn't have many surprises, but it serves up a great presentation of the film along with an abundance of featurettes covering all the appropriate bases. It's a little disappointing that the BD debut of a film of this stature only elicits 86 seconds of unseen extras, but that newly unearthed deleted scene is the cherry on top of this otherwise terrific treat you're certain to enjoy and never tire of. It is incredibly easy to recommend this excellent disc.

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Related Reviews:
Written and Directed by Billy Wilder: The Apartment
New to Blu-ray: Rosemary's Baby • Ed Wood • Cinderella • Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures
1950s on Blu-ray: The Killing • Kiss Me Deadly • To Catch a Thief • Hondo • A Night to Remember • Lady and the Tramp
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies: Chinatown • North by Northwest • The Godfather • The Graduate • It's a Wonderful Life • Jaws
Mansions: Rebecca • Dark Shadows | Filmmakers: Midnight in Paris • A Star is Born • Annie Hall

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Reviewed November 2, 2012.

Text copyright 2012 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1950 Paramount Pictures and 2002-2012 Paramount Home Entertainment.
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