Trying to come up with a fresh angle on Billy Wilder’s essentially undisputed 1950 masterpiece Sunset Boulevard is a thankless task, and probably close to impossible unless one is willing to dabble in some serious critical revisionism. Suffice to say, the film is an invigoratingly acerbic blast of Hollywood satire with a pitch-black heart that hasn’t faded at all over 60-plus years. Is it Wilder’s best dramatic film? Maybe not — in my mind, the equally dark skewering of media hoopla in Ace in the Hole is even more biting and prescient than Sunset Boulevard’s takedown of Hollywood self-mythologizing. Nevertheless, Sunset Boulevard is a towering giant of cinema — bitterly funny, immensely heartbreaking and a stunning high wire act of self-reflexivity.
William Holden stars as Joe Gillis, a down-on-his-luck screenwriter more likely to be dodging repo men than doing any actual writing. An escape attempt from some thugs he owes money to leads Gillis to the mausoleum-like estate of faded silent star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), presided over by her taciturn butler Max Von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim). She insists she’s just one step away from reclaiming stardom in the movie business, and though Gillis senses her delusion, he also sees an opportunity. Offering to write her comeback screenplay and live in the lap of luxury while doing so, Gillis tumbles head over heels into a toxic relationship with Desmond.
All of this is well and good for Gillis — Wilder doesn’t hedge when it comes to portraying his protagonist as both morally vacant and only marginally talented — but when an opportunity to write an actual script with the comely Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) comes along, he’s torn. Norma Desmond is as insanely jealous as she is prone to delusions of grandeur, and soon it becomes clear how Gillis’ posthumous storytelling got its start.
The Blu-ray Disc
Paramount offers up Sunset Boulevard on Blu-ray with a 1080p high definition transfer in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Paramount has proven itself dependable with its classic film transfers, and Sunset Boulevard is no less of a knockout than a title of its prestige ought to be. The transfer is exceptionally film-like, with a clean, stable grain structure and superb clarity. The high-contrast photography looks fantastic, with rich, deep blacks and clean, sharp whites. There are no evident crushing or blooming concerns, and print damage is nonexistent. Audio is presented in a Dolby TrueHD mono track that is clean and crisp, handling dialogue and music with equal aplomb.
This release is packed with extras, though only a single deleted scene is new to the Blu-ray. The rest has been ported over from the previous DVD editions and includes extensive featurettes on the music, costumes, shooting locations, noir influence, production, Swanson’s performance, Holden’s performance and more. An audio commentary by author Ed Sikov offers some more in-depth observations on a number of these topics. Also included are several interactive features offering information on shooting locations and a discarded alternate opening. A stills gallery and the original theatrical trailer round out the disc.
The Bottom Line
Every halfway respectable film library needs to feature a copy of Sunset Boulevard, and Paramount’s beautiful and well-appointed disc is the version you’ll want in there.