Four years ahead of the studio’s anniversary, Paramount Pictures has begun to release DVDs under the Centennial Collection banner. According to the press release, “this library of films will showcase Paramount Pictures’ best and brightest films with remastered picture and new bonus materials. Paramount also takes a design note from Criterion and each title will have a number on the sleeve.” Even though the numbers don’t appear to be a ranking system, one could certainly make the case of the significance of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard being bestowed with “1.” It’s as perfect as a film can get, and no matter what point you come into the story, it hooks you and won’t let go, much like the film’s antagonist, former silent-screen star Norma Desmond (played brilliantly by Gloria Swanson, herself a former silent-screen star.
The narrator (William Holden) opens the story telling us a murder has taken place. He wants to set the record straight before you “read all about it in the late editions,” or “get it over your radio, and see it on television — because an old-time star is involved. One of the biggest.” Then we see the dead body of a young man floating in a pool. He took “two shots in his back and one his stomach. Nobody important, really. Just a movie writer with a couple of ‘B’ pictures to his credit.”
The narrator takes the audience back six months, revealing that the dead man in the pool is our narrator, Joe Gillis. He has been struggling to sell something to the studios, which is why the repo men are after his car. As Joe considers giving up on the movie business and going back to Ohio, the repo men see him driving around town. Joe speeds off to escape them. His tire blows out and he quickly pulls into a driveway, losing his pursuers, but unknowingly goes from the frying pan into the fire.
Joe meets Norma, and after she learns he’s a writer, she pitches a movie she has written: Salome to be directed by Cecil B. DeMille. After looking at her collection of scrawled notes, Joe thinks it’s terrible, but sees an angle and gets himself hired to rewrite it. He stays the night in a room over the garage and in the morning finds all his stuff moved in. He is angered, but relents after she demands it.
Their relationship slowly evolves. She clutches him when they watch her old movies in the living room, she buys him clothes for New Year’s Eve, and she moves him into the main house. Once there, he discovers the truth behind the illusions. There’s no locks or knobs on the doors because she previously attempted suicide. Her butler, Max (director Erich von Stroheim), secretly sends her fan mail. After Joe learns the New Year’s Eve party is just for the two of them and the extent of her feelings, he rejects her, causing her to storm out. Joe heads to his friend Artie’s (Jack Webb) party and meets Artie’s fiancée, Betty (Nancy Olson), a reader at Paramount who liked some of Joe’s material and thinks they can develop a salable script from it. While there, Joe decides to make a break from Norma, but gets pulled deeper into her life.
Norma gets a call from Paramount and even though a meeting with DeMille results in no guarantee, she begins a regimen to prepare for a return in front of the camera. This results in her retiring early for the evening, allowing Joe to slip out and meet up with Betty to work on the script, but they work on more than that. Norma soon discovers this and contacts Betty, forcing Joe’s hand that ends the love quadrangle. The story comes full circle, “back at the pool again. The one [Joe] always wanted.”
Sunset Boulevard is a compelling tragedy. Much like The Maltese Falcon statuette, the film also is about “the stuff that dreams are made of,” specifically love and Hollywood. Joe and Betty each want a taste of both, with Joe breaking a lot of rules to achieve his goal, which is a path that doesn’t end well for many characters. Norma provides a cautionary tale about how much the cost of getting want you and then losing it can be, although Joe finds out too late.
Sunset Boulevard excels on every level. The direction of Wilder; the Oscar-winning story and screenplay by Wilder, producer Charles Brackett, and D.M. Marshman, Jr.; the cinematography by John F. Seitz; the Oscar-winning musical score by Franz Waxman; and of course, the cast all deserve kudos. The film is also great for fans of old Hollywood because there’s a lot on inside baseball, like Norma’s friends being real silent film stars like Buster Keaton, or gossip columnist Hedda Hopper on scene to report on the murder.
The special features are a mix from the previously released 2002 (Special Collector's Edition) DVD and 50 minutes of new material. Disc one has a commentary track by Ed Sikov, author of On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Time of Billy Wilder. He sounds a bit stiff like he is reading notes rather than reacting to what he is seeing, but he provides a lot of good information. Disc two, the special features disc, has nearly two and a half hours of material. Featurettes cover the making of the film, author Joseph Wambaugh discussing its similarities to film noir, Gloria Swanson, William Holden, legendary Hollywood costumer Edith Head, Waxman’s music, script pages and available footage from the original prologue set in a morgue, Paramount Pictures, its studio lot, and more.
The gorgeous, black and white, remastered picture of Sunset Boulevard adds to its overall greatness and is a must-have for fans of movies and Hollywood. However, unless the condition of the 2002 DVD’s picture is average or worse, it’s not worth replacing. The Centennial Collection series also presents #2 Roman Holiday and #3 Sabrina out now and in the next wave on January 19, 2009 #4 Funny Face and #5 Breakfast at Tiffany’s.