In just about every possible aspect, Sunset Blvd. is a remarkable film. For starters, it may be the first film in movie history (just a wild-ass guess) that has a title gutter instead of a title card:
Second, it’s narrated by William Holden. But one of the first images of the film is this:
That’s right, William Holden, floating dead in a pool, while his spectre narrates a story about how the body got there. Interesting choice. It does take a bit of the drama out of the movie, or at least changes the focus a bit. It’s a mistake to believe that it’s Joe’s (that is, Holden’s) story – he’s dead. Then whose story is it?
Well, the movie starts with Joe Gillis, a down-on-his-luck scriptwriter being generally down on his luck. His car is about to be repossessed for lack of payment, and he simply can’t have that. So he heads on down to Paramount (coincidentally the studio that released the film) to try to sell a script, or get an advance, or even a bit of spare change. About the only thing he’s not looking for is a hot young aspiring scriptwriter working as a reader for the studio.
That’s a good thing, because she trashes his script right in front of his face, before being informed of who the William Holden in the room was. Boy was her face red!
After striking out with the studio, and not even coming up to bat with the girl, Joe completes his FML entry by being spotted driving around in his car by the repo men, whom he has previously kept off the scent of the now-to-be-repoed vehicle. A chase ensues, and following an untimely blowout, Joe makes a sneaky turn up the driveway of an abandoned-looking estate on Sunset Blvd. (Well, not really, but West Irving and Wilshire would have been a lousy movie title.) Somehow his pursuers miss the turn, and Joe stows the vehicle in a garage and goes to check the place out. When he reaches front door, the curt butler Max mistakes Joe for somebody else and ushers him upstairs. Who does he mistake him for?
The monkey undertaker.
See, the mansion is occupied by eccentric, thrice-married former silent film star Norma Desmond, whose career went south once the “Talkies” started coming out. Desmond is appropriately played by Gloria Swanson, a former silent film star who had one film credit in the 16 years prior to Sunset Blvd., having fallen out of favor when the “Talkies” came about. Yeah, it gets weirder.
Norma is completely lost in her former life, having set up her home as a shrine to herself, and spending all of her time (or I suppose, all of her time that she didn’t spend with the monkey) answering fan mail.
Well, that and writing a really bad screenplay of the Salomé story intended to star herself – it’s her big comeback, see? Once the mix-up about Joe being the monkey undertaker gets cleared up, Norma forces Joe to read her screenplay, and sensing an opportunity, Joe accepts, finally working his way into a full-time job reworking her script. His car is saved!
Actually, it’s not. Norma allows the repo men to take it away while Joe’s not looking, and his gig as a ghostwriter kind of turns into a gig as a kept man. He manages to ignore the situation until New Year’s Eve, when Norma plans an extravagant party, with chamber musicians and everything. But the guests never seem to arrive, and Joe finally realizes that…nobody was invited. It’s a nice, romantic evening! PANIC!
So he runs out the door to his old friend Fred’s house, knowing that there would be a party on there. And lo and behold, who is Fred’s new girlfriend? The dismissive reader Betty from Paramount! Never one to let a life-long friendship get in the way of a hot girl, Joe puts the moves on Betty. It’s going to work, too, until he phones “home” and finds out that Norma has slit her wrists in despair. So it’s back to being a kept man for Joe, but he keeps trying to get a bit of Betty on the side while working on Norma’s comeback.
It doesn’t go so well, as you might expect, but Joe does get treated to a great selection of films in Norma’s home theater. Starring…Norma, of course. The script is finally submitted to Paramount (again, coincidentally) and Norma gets some call backs, but not from Cecil B. DeMille, so she plays the diva and doesn’t respond. DeMille himself does make an appearance in the film, and oddly enough, DeMille did direct Gloria Swanson in at least five films. And in the meantime, while Norma is learning about Betty and also that Paramount was interested in renting her classic car for a film shot, and not in her script, Joe is learning a bit about Max, the butler.
Max, it turns out, is played by Erich von Stroheim, an actual former film director who even directed Gloria Swanson, so you know you’re in for a twist, right? Yep. Max was not only a former film director who got Gloria her big break, but he was also her first husband. The hell? And he’s so dedicated to her, he’s become her butler. All those fan letters? Yeah, he writes them.
Well, with things finally going south for the last time, Norma has acquired a gun and threatens to kill herself if Joe leaves. And finally, he decides that Betty is worth having a dead body on his conscience. Little did he know that it would be his, in the pool. We viewers kind of had that figured out, though.
Naturally, the murder at the house of the former actress causes a media scene, and as the police come to pick her up Max is no longer able to protect her from reality. However, in the heat of the flash bulbs she is perfectly capable of doing that herself, and the film ends with one of the most famous lines in film history, more ironic than I could have imagined before seeing the film: