Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Paramount Home Video
Cast: Gloria Swanson, William Holden, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson
Extras: Commentary Track, Documentaries and Featurettes, Photo Galleries, Theatrical Trailer, Script Notes & Clips from Morgue Prologue

Billy Wilder’s 1950 masterwork "Sunset Boulevard" seems all the more miraculous given the circumstances and times in which it was made. 1950 was the height of the Communist witch-hunts; anyone named "un-American" whether in front of HUAC or in polite conversation, would find themselves instant pariahs. Paramount, one of the oldest "major" studios, green lighted a movie that not only showed the "inside" of Hollywood, it zeroed in straight on the bowels. Wilder got historic names to play themselves or "skewed" versions of themselves. However you analyze it, "Sunset Boulevard" should have been DOA at the Story Department, much like the film’s hero, Joe Gillis. Instead, also much like the resilient Mr. Gillis, the film lived beyond its original conception, becoming one of the most tarnished depictions of Tinsel Town ever filmed. Befitting its legendary status, Paramount Home Video really went all out in capturing the film for DVD, with a beautiful-to-behold transfer and a generous helping of interesting supplements.

The opening credit says it all: the title plastered on a curbside gutter. (Within the first few moments, Wilder sets up the tone.) Down on his luck screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) remains just a few steps ahead of despair as well as the landlord after the rent. While on the run from repo men after his car, a tire blow out along the famed thoroughfare places Joe in the garage of a seemingly abandoned mansion. When a commanding voice beckons him in, Joe enters a world of rotted dreams and frustrated hopes.

The voice belongs to Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a former silent film star. What at first starts as a misunderstanding eventually leads Joe to "work" for Norma on a script about the Biblical temptress Salome that will mark her "return" to the screen, especially since she abhors the (correct) word "comeback." What starts as a simple ghostwriting assignment slowly spirals into an "unprofessional" relationship between Joe and Norma. However, in Billy Wilder’s grim Hollywood milieu, what would be a May-December romance plays out as "from womb to tomb" for the hapless Joe and the deluded Norma.

"Sunset Boulevard" still amazes fifty-two years after its release. The casting borders on the magical: Swanson playing an exaggerated version of herself. Crowned in his heyday as "The Man You Love to Hate!" former silent film director Erich von Stroheim shadows the proceedings as Norma’s pathologically faithful manservant Max. Cameos by Cecil B. DeMille, H.B. Warner, Buster Keaton (he’s funny but also a bit sinister here) and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (who takes the phone away from a policeman trying to call the coroner) add an air of authenticity, but in Wilder’s and writing partner Charles Brackett’s hands, they simply represent dusty cogs of the infernal Dream Nightmare machine. Tying it all together is Holden as the quintessential Wilder anti-hero Joe Gillis. Filled with quick retorts and snide comebacks, Gillis really isn’t worthy of audience interest as his life becomes increasingly less his own, starting with his death at the beginning of the film. (I’m not giving anything away.) Even with the audience knowing the ultimate outcome, we sympathize with Joe as navigates a perdition decorated with handmade cars with leopard skin seats and everyone, EVERYONE, on the take. Above all, "Sunset Boulevard" is a writer’s picture, not a director’s film in the "auteur" sense. Dripping with venom and yet somehow musical, the dialogue is so good the visuals are practically optional; ironic, given the topic is about how films were ruined with the advent of sound.

In the early days of laserdisc, Paramount released "Sunset Boulevard" that looked like it was sourced from a well-worn print. Amazingly, Paramount never returned to the title for the entire run of the format. Making up for lost time, Paramount has delivered a "Sunset Boulevard" to DVD that more than makes up for the wait. Presented in its proper 1.33 aspect ratio, the black and white transfer looks not only brilliant and sharp, but also perfect. Literally. Gray tones, blacks and contrast are in exactly the optimum balance. As a result, details almost assault your eyes, like the shine on DeMille’s riding boots (he always wore them on the set). Shadows exhibit detail when called for and other times properly hide what Wilder and cinematographer John Seitz don’t want the viewer to see. As for the source print, I made a concerted effort to find flaws. I couldn’t find any. Not one. Coupled with a lack of digital or compression artifacts, I’m not exaggerating when I say that the image is a complete revelation from what I thought was "Sunset Boulevard."

The mono audio sounds nice and clean and in perfect complement to the picture. Dialogue comes across without distortion (all the better to hear such gems "I am big! It’s the pictures that got small!") and during the moments when Franz Waxman’s score swells to histrionic proportions, the center channel never congested or peaked.

In the past, Paramount held back on the extras for their DVD releases. They would throw in a stray trailer or photo gallery and slap the words "Special Edition" on the label. Lately, this has turned around and it’s gratifying to see that "Sunset Boulevard" also benefited from this reversal. One caveat before I dive into the goodies: with the recent passing of Billy Wilder, it’s sad to think that if this title had been tackled just a year earlier, there could have been some participation from the man himself. Anything would have been wonderful — a quick video interview, a few audio comments, a simple introduction. Chock it up to another one of those "might have been" missed opportunities.

The supplements start with a feature length <$commentary,audio commentary> by "Sunset Boulevard" expert Ed Sikov, author of "On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder." Ed really gets into the film, offering anecdotes on the film (he goes into great detail about the disastrous Evanston, Illinois preview, more on that later), it’s making and its longevity. For instance, it was Erich von Stroheim’s idea that the film Norma and Joe watch at home is "Queen Kelly," a 1928 film starring Swanson and directed by…Stroheim. Ed also delves into the symbolism and thematic elements, explaining how the use of cameos ties into Wilder’s overall storytelling plan. (I do think Ed is a little hard on DeMille’s section. For me, DeMille comes across much more avuncular and less calculating that Ed speculates.)

Ed appears on-camera for the newly produced video documentary "The Making of ‘Sunset Boulevard.’" Running about 25 minutes, the featurette also includes sound bites from film critic Andrew Sarris, actress Glenn Close (who portrayed Norma in the Andrew Lloyd Webber stage redux), and actress Nancy Olson, who plays the screenwriter ingénue Betty Schaefer in the film. Everyone speaks reverentially about the film, but the examination doesn’t come across as a PR-type gush piece.

Two additional features focus on the contributions to the film by costume designer Edith Head and composer Franz Waxman. Each runs about fifteen minutes and mixes historical overview with conceptual interpretations. The Waxman segment includes such heavy hitters as composer Elmer Bernstein, conductor John Mauceri and Franz’s son John. The Edith Head doc offers thoughts from biographer David Cherichett, designer Bob Mackie and actress Rosemary Clooney.

Earlier I referenced the Evanston, Illinois preview. That event is legendary because it changed the beginning of the film. Originally, the film opened in a morgue with the dead Gillis "talking" to the other cadavers, which sets up the start of the flashback. Well, audiences in Evanston found the prologue laughable. (A famous anecdote has Wilder outside the theater accosted by a woman unaware of his connection to the film and bemoaning her distaste of the film to him. In typical Wilder fashion, he retorted: "You’re absolutely right, madam. Pure sh–.") Wilder reshot the beginning, as we now know it. The "Morgue Prologue" section finally resolves this apochyphral bit of Hollywood lore. With a combination of script pages and outtakes, viewers can piece together the original prologue and decide for themselves. The clips have no audio and can be accessed through icons on the script pages. (In the making of documentary, Olson has the right take on the matter: "On the page it worked. On screen it didn’t.")

Another interactive extra is the "Hollywood Location Map." Several of the film’s locations are highlighted on a map including Schwab’s Drug Store, the Jetty Mansion, Paramount Pictures studio and the Alto Ned apartments (Gillis’ residence). Access it using the remote’s cursor and a film clip comes up featuring the highlighted subject. A narrator then explains its significance within the film and the "real" Hollywood. Finally, a worn theatrical trailer, presented in full-frame and mono, rounds out the goodies.

I’ve been critical of Paramount Home Video in the past regarding what they considered "special edition DVDs." Well, Paramount has won my respect as well as gratitude with their DVD treatment of "Sunset Boulevard." Bravo!