Sunset Boulevard, a genre-bending (and defying) Hollywood classic, tells the tragic story of Norma Desmond, a washed up silent picture star, and Joe Gillis, a failed second-rate screenwriter.
The film opens infamously with a dead body floating in a swimming pool, as Gillis narrates from beyond the grave, telling of the events that lead up to his untimely death.
Gillis, a struggling writer, has not produced a viable screenplay in some time and is in desperate need of money. Gillis then stumbles on the crumbling Desmond estate, as if by fate, as he looks for a place to hide from people who want to repossess his car.
Norma Desmond, the eccentric lady of the house, mistakes Gillis as the undertaker for her dead pet chimpanzee. Gillis recognizes her as Norma Desmond, a former star of silent pictures whose career (and star) has faded since her heyday in the 1920s.
Desmond immediately takes to Gillis and puts him up in a room in her decaying mansion, taking him on as her editor—she is working on a screenplay of her own to facilitate her long-awaited comeback—and, eventually, her “kept man.” It becomes apparent that Desmond is, at the very least, slightly unstable, and growing attached to Gillis.
What makes this film so compelling to me is the several different genres to which it belongs, pays homage to, and defies. First and foremost, Sunset Boulevard is very much a gothic horror. Norma Desmond is a take on the traditional gothic villain, and, indeed, many comparisons have been drawn between Desmond and Count Orlock of Nosferatu. Desmond is presented as a metaphorical vampire, and an immediate and direct threat to Gillis in more ways than one. Desmond drains him emotionally and psychologically, but she will also lead to his ultimate demise.
Other aspects of the gothic are present as well, in the form of Max Von Mayerling, Desmond’s creepily devoted butler—and so much more—and Desmond’s decaying mansion. Desmond’s dramatic, dark wardrobe and the furnishings of her mansion also contribute to the overall gothic feel. There are also several scenes which seem to cast Desmond in a supernatural light.
In the scene where Desmond and Gillis watch her old silent movies, Desmond steps in front of a film projector and appears almost as a ghost:
All of this—the costumes, the furnishings, the atmosphere, the acting—expertly weaves a stifling atmosphere of foreboding and dread. Sunset Boulevard is more than a drama, more than a film noir, more than a satire, more than a horror—it is a masterpiece.