The first time I saw it, I tuned into the middle, on late night TV. A scene at the derelict mansion, Norma with her stilted grandiose expressions, the melancholy, ominous butler and William Holden, the straight man. It was surreal, came off like Abbot and Costello Meet Dracula, without Abbot and Costello. I was hooked. I got the title, turned it off and rented it the next day.
Sunset Boulevard was conceived as a comedy and mutated into a noir narrated by a dead man. The hero is down-and-out, on the run from repo men, not above conning a rich old lady. The victim is cannily manipulative and not shy about using her money as a bludgeon when subtler means fail her. She’s sustained, like Gatsby, by the strength of her illusions. The butler’s fate is already played out, as haunting as anything you’ll see on film.
It’s a gritty noir of petty deceptions, including self-deception, a lacerating satire of Hollywood culture, a meditation on celebrity and fickle fame, a masterpiece by Billy Wilder, who was there when the pictures got small.
Bijou Art Cinemas screens Sunset Boulevard March 8-15 as part of UO’s Cinema Studies program; times at bijou-cinemas.com or 686-2458, free with UO student ID.