The writer in trouble. The silent star rejected. The director who gave it all up out of guilt. It’s Sunset Boulevard.
A cast of characters as memorable as all of Paramount’s iconic output, Sunset cannot be categorized aside from a scathing look at Hollywood and the business that dumps people to the wayside. It’s a psychological examination, an unflattering romance, a murder mystery, and film noir. It’s an all encompassing shakedown of the system, and an exhilarating story.
The idea of desperate Joe Gillis (William Holden), lost in his own writer’s mind without stable ideas, is genius as he has lived his greatest story for six months – one he will never get on paper. It’s a fluke as he stumbles into the home of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), himself escaping from the eyes of creditors who want his car; she’s mentally captured herself inside of a shrine dedicated to her silent career.
Desmond has it all. Lavish furniture, absurd decoration, and pictures of herself on every table or wall. It’s horrifying with even a little consideration, yet Gillis is desperate. Hollywood has ignored him, no one will give him work, and studios reject everything he writes. He joins in on this facade Desmond has made for herself by working on her script, one meant to take her back into stardom. It’s a failure, but it pays well for a rewrite.
Sunset was nominated in every major acting category, from an often sleazy Gillis who takes advantage of a clearly ill woman to Swanson who lives her silent film lifestyle. Desmond still lives inside of a silent, stuck in a past that saw her rise to stardom, and a future with no answers. Her mannerisms are eerie and unsettling, acting for a camera that hasn’t been in front of her for decades. She can’t escape the life she once had.
Gillis is willing to play for a paycheck, while on the side bringing together a script with another young, ambitious (and engaged) writer in Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson). The system hasn’t weighed her down yet, so Gillis acts as a tutor of sorts and as lover. He sees hope in her ideas and styles, while jealously reigns in on Desmond.
Desmond plays one of the great screen villains, even if it’s a character that isn’t performing actions directly. Instability is a powerful trait, her manipulations, wide-eyed stares, and gritting teeth terrifyingly unwound. It’s easy to classify Hannibal Lecter, but Desmond not so much. She’s more difficult to pin down as the story draws to a close, and until her closing lines, it’s never definitive. What has happened to her is squarely on the studio, and it’s entirely unconventional to portray one of their own on screen with such scathing detail. She’s vicious, even if it’s to herself.
Paramount’s Blu-ray debut of their cinematic classic is presented with care, beginning with a high-resolution scan that draws the full breadth of the cinematography from these locations. Wide shots of the courtyards with overgrown plants, weeds, and more are striking in their definition, plus entirely natural. While opening shots of the police closing in on the pool carry distinctive ringing, it’s more analog than digital in nature. It also clears up and isn’t seen again.
Gray scale is exceptional, with fantastic variances in shades (along with exquisite black levels) providing a dense visual playing field. No shot will go without depth, and the use of shadows permeates the style. No elements feel lost to unnecessary crush, and any tweaks have been performed with care. Depth feels natural.
Grain spikes, of which there are few, are handled delicately. No visible compression mars the typically consistent source material. Neither does damage for that matter, this print incredibly clean without so much as a stray speck of dirt. It’s marvelously restored and preserved.
One instance of judder outside of Betty’s office is the worst technical gaffe this transfer will commit, and given the preservation of texture, it’s more than acceptable. Clothing of the era is presented with clean lines, stitching, and more. Desmond’s lavish, often over-the-top style is meticulous, her home more so. The introductions to the set work is impeccable, with exaggerations fully visible along the walls or the frames of pictures. Sixty plus years out and Sunset has aged with grace.
Franz Waxman composed a score of a lifetime for Sunset, and Paramount has done wonders to preserve it in full. Age is an easy excuse for a loss of fidelity, and it’s generally a way out when bottoms drop out and highs lose their peaks. That doesn’t happen.
As sensationalist as it may seem, this is one of the best pre-1980 mono mixes on this format. From the stirring opening credits to the closing cues, the measure of clarity is something to hear. It’s consistently astounding as to how little has been lost, and it could be argued nothing has. This track warrants praise for seeming so clean – free of pops, hiss, or distortion – and yet completely natural. Any audible evidence of digital removal is gone.
It’s more than Waxman’s score too. Dialogue feels spacious without losing natural qualities. In Desmond’s barren home, loneliness is accentuated with wide echoes. That’s typically a sign of potential trouble for these older features, while Sunset handles it with grace. The idea is preserved as well as the fidelity.
It’s a TrueHD mono effort that won’t soar at the end of the year in the award giving simply because of what it is, but it should. With any familiarity of vintage sources on Blu-ray, this should astound with how well put managed all of these elements are.
There’s a ton here, so if you’ve glanced at the back of the case and wondered where the rest of it is, rest assured there’s a lavish set of bonuses here. There simply wasn’t room on the back of the materials for everything. You can begin with a commentary from author Ed Sikov who charted director Billy Wilder’s life.
Fourteen featurettes follow, and while they’re not individualized (some material repeats in lengthy chunks), all of it is worth a watch. Consider it at a base level all-encompassing towards this production at well over two hours. The Beginning is a 22-minute piece that charts the film’s origins, along with Wilder’s career up to that point. A Look Back is a breakdown and appreciation for the film via select scenes.
The Noir Side captures the style and look of this classic, along with why those choices fit. Becoming a Classic discusses impact and long-lasting impressions. Two Sides of Ms. Swanson focuses on the personal life of Swanson through those that knew her best, including family.
Stories of Sunset Boulevard is the foulest of the repeats, telling a variety of stories from the set and most of them are held elsewhere on the disc. Mad About the Boy is a look at William Holden, certainly deserved. Recording and City of Sunset Boulevard focus on the score and locations respectively. A featurette on Franz Waxman himself is nicely pieced together afterward. Two versions of the alternate opening inside a morgue are presented in script form, deleted because audiences found the scene hilarious. A deleted music musical number from the New Years party is here for the first time, and in solid condition.
Behind the Gates and Paramount in the ’50s both are celebrations of the studio during that era. Edith Head: The Paramount Years focuses on an unsung hero of this and many other studio classics, the costume designer. A trailer and location map round off a sterling set of bonuses.
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