Studio: Paramount Pictures
US Rating: Not Rated
Film Length: 109 Minutes
Video: MPEG-4 AVC 1080P High Definition, B&W
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Audio: English Mono Dolby TrueHD, French, Spanish and Portuguese Mono Dolby Digital
Subtitles: English, English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese
Release Date: November 6, 2012
Review Date: November 10, 2012
“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small”
Sunset Blvd. announces its darkness in the opening moments, as the camera pulls away from the stenciled Sunset Blvd. sign on the pavement gutter and on up to a lavish estate, to the pool where a poor soul has met his unfortunate end. The narrator positions that this man’s story be told before the media frenzy, obscured by those involved, set about ignoring the circumstances that led to the man’s demise. We are introduced to Joe Gillis, a mediocre Hollywood writer down on his luck and desperate for cash, who strikes out when looking for work from the movie studio and, leaving disappointed, how he is pursued by men looking for his car payment. Joe is in trouble. The debt collectors give chase and Gillis ducks his car up a strange driveway along Sunset Blvd. A seemingly abandoned mansion with qualities that suggest it was once of envious palatial quality. But now it is in disrepair. Gillis will soon discover that the home is indeed not abandoned but rather the home of one the great stars of the silent era. A peculiar yet ostentatious woman by whom Gillis is pressed to provide his writing services to finish up the screenplay she has long-been perfecting. It is the screenplay that she intends to ‘allow’ her filmmaker friend Cecil B. DeMille to make and provide her the means to mark a grand reentrance into the lights and adoration of Hollywood stardom. In need of the money, the immediately ill-at-ease Gillis acquiesces to her request. It is a dangerous decision.
Isolated, smothered, suspicious and ever-resistant, Gillis nonetheless gives way to all better judgment, selling his soul a little day by day, unable to pry himself away from the discomfort and lure of the creature comforts, as he smacks away at the typewriter under his ‘employers’ heavy eye.
Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and D.M.Marshman Jr. constructed a biting and exquisite screenplay. Between the cracks of wit and banter rule blistering portrayals of a former star unaware she has been forgotten and a failing writer unaware that his artless dodging of his debts would ultimately rob him of far more than money.
At the film’s beginning, Joe Gillis, played superbly by William Holden, is lost more seriously than even his myopic sensibilities would have him know. Holden had seen a little of his glory vanish in the 40s as several of his pictures underperformed. Sunset Blvd. would give his career a significant second wind and he would appear alongside his Blvd. co-star Nancy Olson three more times as well. The most outstanding performance in the film comes by way of Gloria Swanson. Swanson, a former Silent star herself, may not have been the first choice for director Wilder, but her casting is the absurdly perfect core for this tragic story. At first a grandiose performance seemingly reaching for the rafters, Swanson imbues her Norma Desmond character with an unsettling mix of obliviousness and despair as the film progresses, grasping at the glories that have long since passed her by while scratching madly for the chance to rekindle the flame she openly refuses to acknowledge has flickered out.
Wilder, clearly one of cinema’s greatest auters, confidently and swiftly unravels several lives beneath the secondary shadows of Hollywood lights. Sunset Blvd. was immediately embraced by critics and played well in metropolitan areas though it struggled to connect with broader audiences in places like the Midwest. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards and winning three (for Best Score, Art Direction and Writing, Story and Screenplay), it remains timeless.
Sunset Blvd. is an extraordinary piece of cinema; a surprisingly modern and relevant tale of desperation, the curse of fame having discarded a fleeting partner, and the shadowy part of our souls that can so easily lead us to places beyond our ability to pull ourselves back. It is a story of exploitation (as Nancy Olson astutely stated) and an intriguing tale of Hollywood’s glamour and glare having the covers peeled back to show that not all is magic in the land of dreams.
Paramount has been delivering a wonderful slate of classic films on Blu-ray over the last few years. Wowing with greats like The Ten Commandments and Wings, it would seem to be a golden age for the Golden Age. Sunset Blvd. continues the same loving, careful and faithful treatment of some of cinemas most important films.
The original negative is alas no more, thus Sunset Blvd’s road to high definition home media comes by way of dupe negatives. As Robert Harris quite rightly says in his valuable ‘A Few Words About…” thread, deriving from duplicate negatives can be dodgy proposition, but the work that has gone into preparing Billy Wilder’s Oscar winning classic is to be celebrated.
Black and white films are still too rare on Blu-ray, and watching Sunset Blvd. demonstrates once again that such a lack of B&W on HD is a shame. The image is beautiful with impressive shadows, lovely crispness and grain intact. Presented in 1080p and framed at 1.37:1, you won’t be disappointed.
Paramount provides Sunset Blvd with a solid Dolby TrueHD mono track. Heavily focused on dialogue, with Waxman’s score providing the fullest use of the audio, the sound is entirely fitting for the film. For a mono track the sound is surprisingly full and the narration that opens the film – and continues through – draws us in.
Audio Commentary: On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder author Ed Sikov provides a thorough examination of the film, covering everything from the performances, Franz Waxman’s score, the filmmakers and just about everything in between. The delivery may be a tad stilted (Sikov is reading), but the analysis is terrific.
Sunset Boulevard: The Beginning (22:47): Producer A.C. Lyles begins this piece discussion Billy Wilder and others, including Stefanie Powers, Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan), and others talk about the greatness of the writer/director.
Sunset Boulevard: A Look Back (25:52): Author Ed Sikov and others (including Nancy Olson, A.C. Lyles, film critic Andrew Sarris) talk about the original opening sequences (scrapped because test audiences found it funnier than it was intended to be), the great Cecil B. DeMille’s participation, and how the terrific shot of the man floating in the pool, seen from beneath the body looking up, was accomplished.
The Noir Side of Sunset Boulevard (14:19): Joseph Wambaugh, a former LAPD detective, talks about his fascination with Sunset Boulevard and his families excitement over Gloria Swanson whom they knew of from her silent film days. Wambaugh discusses his attraction to film noir and how Sunset Blvd. deploys certain noir techniques.
Sunset Boulevard Becomes a Classic (14:28): Again, many of the same folk from previous special features here offer their thoughts on how Sunset Blvd. ascended to greatness.
Two Sides of Ms. Swanson (10:37): The actress is remembered by her Granddaughter and others discussing her life in front of and away from the camera.
Stories of Sunset Boulevard (11:22): Critics, authors and actors talk of the film’s opening and how Billy Wilder worked. Some repetition.
Mad About the Boy: A Portrait of William Holden (11:13): William Holden is fondly remembered.
Recording Sunset Boulevard (5:51): Franz Waxman’s menacing and lyrical score is discussed by film critic Andrew Sarris and album Producer Robert Townson.
The City of Sunset Boulevard (5:36): The street is home to a number of classic movie scenes.
Franz Waxman and the Music of Sunset Boulevard (14:27): Film historian and son of Franz Waxman, John Waxman, and others discuss the composer and his work.
Morgue Prologue Script Pages (HD): A look at two existing versions of the script for the original morgue opening.
Deleted Scene (1:26): The Paramount Don't Want Me Blues.
Hollywood Location Map (HD): Click on map icons to watch videos on the different locations.
Behind the Gate: The Lot (5:05): A look back at how Paramount Pictures began and how the wonderful Paramount lot grew from humble beginnings.
Edith Head: The Paramount Years (13:43): Designer Edith Head who designed costumes for Paramount films, including Sunset Blvd.
Paramount in the '50s (9:33): A brief retrospective of Paramount’s films from the 1950s.
§ The Movie
The stars are aligned in Sunset Blvd. Snappy and fraught dialogue, fascinating characters, brilliant performances, a gorgeous score by Franz Waxman, and performances that deserve high praise. The film is absorbing from the opening scene and through its unusual conclusion remains a dark and tragic tale. Paramount must be commended for working to prepare and release Sunset Blvd. with such care. A must own for fans of the film and a must-see for anyone who considers themselves a fan of the medium of cinema.
Overall (Not an average)