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Down on his luck, Hollywood screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) is broke and desperate to keep his car from being repossessed. While on the run from the repo men, he blows a tire in front of a seemingly deserted mansion and decides to hide his car in the large, dilapidated garage. While exploring the outside of the giant home, he is called in by a butler named Max (Erich von Stroheim) and led to the house’s owner, a washed-up silent film star named Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who mistakes him for the man scheduled to bury her dead pet chimp. Joe takes advantage of Norma’s demented belief in a comeback and offers to help her complete her epic screenplay adaptation of Salome. His plan is soon complicated as Norma has Max move all of his things into her home and announces she’s paid off his debts. In the following weeks, Norma lavishes Joe with expensive gifts and even reveals she’s fallen in love with him. Meanwhile, Joe is falling in love with Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), a young scriptreader he secretly sees at night so that the two can draft an older screenplay.

Sunset Boulevard
While revisiting The Apartment and The Odd Couple for review, I said something about Billy Wilder movies meaning more to me in my 30s than they ever did in my teens or 20s. This makes sense in regards to his Jack Lemmon comedies, because these films can require a certain aged perspective in relating to their characters, but I’m unable to put my finger on what exactly changed about Wilder’s noir and romantic comedies when I hit the three-decade mark. Regardless, I’ve made an effort to revisit Wilder’s filmography recently and the effort has paid off in cinematic riches beyond even my heightened expectations. Sunset Boulevard is an extra special revisit, because I remember so little of it that it’s practically a brand new experience. I even forgotten Wilder had co-written and directed it. There’s generally very little I can say about the quality of a film widely considered among the best American films ever made. The genre-bending, industry-indicting storytelling and endlessly quotable dialogue won it the 1950 Oscar for Best Writing (Wilder, Charles Brackett, D. M. Marshman, Jr.), but the film lost Best Picture and Wilder lost Best Director to the awards juggernaut called All About Eve (a movie that acknowledges similar meta-texts and industry savvy).

In a way, Sunset Boulevard is kind of the high-end Grindhouse or The Artist of its period, recalling bygone era of filmmaking with a slightly fetishistic slant. Wilder doesn’t take a lot of time to recall the style of the silent era, aside from his impressionistic black and white photography, but he hires so-called ‘has beens’ to fill out his cast with silent era superstars Erich von Stroheim, Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton, and Anna Q. Nilsson, many of them playing themselves. I suppose it had the most direct influence on generally more melodramatic Hollywood has-been classics, like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Valley of the Dolls, and Mommie Dearest, along with my personal favourite and arguably the most emotionally overwhelming subgenre entry – Gods and Monsters, which is interesting, since Sunset Boulevard feels almost as much like a James Whale film as it does a Billy Wilder film.

Sunset Boulevard

Video


Presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, this new 1080p transfer meets all the usual expectations set by a prestige catalog release. Sunset Boulevard is essentially shot like a mix of traditional noir and a gothic horror movie. It makes one wonder what Wilder could’ve done with a straight horror movie. The black and white photography is evocative with sharp shadows and highlights, soft middle tones, and reasonable depth levels. Details are moderate in close-up often due to cinematographer John F. Seitz’s use of soft focus on Wilder’s stars, but the wider shots of Norma’s dark and spooky, excessively baroque mansion are brimming with finely separated, complex elements. There are no major signs of DNR or other major digital enhancements. Fine film grain is omnipresent without clumping and smoother elements don’t appear waxy. Print damage is minimal, including only a small collection of white flecks – no noticeable scratches, squiggles or smears. The background grays flutter a bit, but there isn’t an excess of shutter effects or the like. Other artefacts are very minimal, including minor edge enhancements, some noisy pattern blends, and other sharpening effects on the brightest white levels.

Sunset Boulevard

Audio


This Dolby TrueHD 2.0 Mono soundtrack also meets expectations and is presented as crisply and cleanly as we can expect from a 62-year-old single channel mix. Dialogue is a bit tinny and flat, but there is a nice differentiation between normal discussion and Holden’s more rounded and low-end enhanced narration. Sound effects work is minimal, but there are a handful of busy bits, such as brief car chases, rainy outdoor shots, and a party. These bits don’t feature a lot of unexpected depth, but are clean and natural without turning particularly muddy within the single channel. Franz Waxman’s Oscar-winning musical score sits low on the track whenever characters are speaking, especially during Holden’s narration, and is given a solid, warm boost whenever dialogue isn’t an issue. The highest-pitched flutes and strings feature a tinge of distortion on the highest volume levels, but otherwise, the music is well-managed and consistent in terms of overall clarity. The music that comes from an onscreen source, such as the organ or the quartet Norma hires for her party, effectively convey the sound of their placement without the extra assistance of a stereo field.

Sunset Boulevard

Extras


The extras, which match that of 2008’s Centennial Collection release, begin with a commentary track from Ed Sikov, the author of On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder. Sikov’s approach is professional and well-prepared, though much of what he says is covered again throughout the rest of the disc’s extras. These other extras are mostly made up of a whole bunch of featurettes (some of which feature repetitive information).
  • Sunset Boulevard: The Beginning (22:50, SD) is a look at Wilder’s career leading up to the production of Sunset Boulevard including writing and casting.
  • Sunset Boulevard: A Look Back (25:50, SD) covers the film’s original opening, Wilder’s filming process, the studio’s reaction to the film, Swanson and Von Stroheim’s creepy history, and the film’s final release and success.
  • The Noir Side of Sunset Boulevard (14:20, SD), on the film’s dark side with former LAPD detective/writer Joseph Wambaugh.
  • Sunset Boulevard Becomes a Classic (14:30, SD) is a further critical dissection of the film and a brief look at the play version.
  • Two Sides of Ms. Swanson (10:40, SD) explores the real life Gloria Swanson via her granddaughter, Brooke Anderson and various industry people she worked with over the years.
  • Stories of Sunset Boulevard (11:20, SD) recycles various behind the scenes anecdotes from the other featurettes.
  • Mad About the Boy: A Portrait of William Holden (11:10, SD) covers the career of the film’s main star.
  • Recording Sunset Boulevard (5:50, SD) explores the re-recording of Franz Waxman’s Oscar-winning score with soundtrack archivist Robert Townsend.
  • The City of Sunset Boulevard (5:40, SD) looks at historical Los Angeles used in the film and compares the locations to other film locations.
  • Franz Waxman and the Music of Sunset Boulevard (14:30, SD) explores the life of the composer via his son, John Waxman, and fellow composer Elmer Bernstein.
  • Behind the Gates: The Lot (5:10, SD), a fluff piece on the Paramount backlot.
  • Edith Head: The Paramount Years (13:40, SD) a look at Hitchcock’s favourite designer’s work at the studio.
  • Paramount in the ‘50s (9:30, SD) closes the featurettes out with another fluffy look at the studio’s period output.


Other interview subjects throughout the featurettes include Sikov, former Paramount head A.C. Lyles, actors Gloria Swanson, Stefanie Powers (no relation), Glenn Close, Rosemary Clooney, and Nancy Olsen, filmmaker Nicolas Meyer, critic Andrew Sarris, Edith Head biographer David Chierichetti, head of Western Costume Tzetzi Ganev, designer Bob Mackie, and author & LA expert Borislav Stanic. Other extras include script pages from the deleted ‘Morgue Prologue,’ a deleted scene (1:30, SD), a Hollywood location map, three image galleries, and a theatrical trailer.

Sunset Boulevard

Overall


Still a classic, Sunset Boulevard has never looked better in 1080p and sounds about as good as expected in Dolby TrueHD. Though these extras have been ported from a previous DVD release, they still remain informative and entertaining, despite some issues with overlapping information. Now all we need are US release Blu-rays of Double Indemnity and Sabrina, any Blu-ray release of Love in the Afternoon, and Criterion to upgrade Ace in the Hole to Blu-ray and my personal favourite Billy Wilder collection should be complete.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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