Sunset Boulevard Film Directed by Billy Wilder: The Basics

This Resource is for students in Year 12 studying ‘Sunset Boulevard’ Film Directed by Billy Wilder in AOS1: Unit 3, Reading & Responding to Texts, Analytical Text Response, in the Victorian VCE 2024 Mainstream English Curriculum

Director Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder fled Germany in 1933 after witnessing first-hand the Nazi seizure of power and the central importance of the Fuhrer cult in lending the nascent [emerging] movement a coherent and compelling identity for its followers.  Wilder brought with him from German Expressionist cinema technical expertise in the creation of a dark, ominous, atmospheric mise-en-scène, he also retained a clear understanding that the cinema had a unique power to capture the wider ‘dream life’ of a society, even as it helped to shape the dreams themselves.  ‘Sunset Boulevard’ (1949) and the two films that directly followed, ‘Ace in the Hole’ (1951) and ‘Stalag 17’ (1953), all examine the moment of American supremacy but discover flaws and contradictions that reveal a society far less confident and assured than its surface appearance might suggest. Wilder’s films seek to expose the illusions that can come to be accepted as truth.


It can be classified as a 1950’s film noir, a melodrama and a dark comedy with a cynical criticism of the destructive impacts of the American film industry in Hollywood.  The film title is named after a major Street, Sunset Boulevard, that runs through Hollywood and the centre of the American film industry.  The musical score was by Franz Waxman with a series of snippets of jazz and popular song, along with more haunting themes that signify Norma’s insanity in the film.

Cinematic Elements of Film Noir

Film noir literally translates to ‘black cinema’ used to describe Hollywood films that were saturated with darkness and pessimisim not seen before. There are specific film noir cinematic elements students should look for when viewing the film:

  • Anti-hero protagonist – Joe Gillis – talented but disillusioned scriptwriter – becomes Norma’s gigolo (toy boy lover) bought and sold by the aging actress
  • Femme fatale – Norma Desmond – a grandiose aging dame who emasculates her male victims – juxtaposed with Salome the Biblical figure who has John the Baptist beheaded
  • Tight concise dialogue – use of flashbacks and voice over narrative of a dead man (Joe) – his dialogue is unsympathetic, cynical and pessimistic
  • High contrasting lighting – in particular the style of lighting called ‘chiaroscuro’ that uses special placement of spotlight – juxtaposition between light and dark – the film drenches dramatic moments in atmosphere – Wilder also uses a filtered light from candles and lamps as well as reflected light from mirrors – during some mise-en-scenes a flat light accentures Norma’s appearance, in others a chiaroscuro-style lighting reinforces her anxieties and dilemmas
  • Post war disillusionment – a sense of bleakness – sombre narrative exposing the sinsister under belly of Hollywood that Wilder was critiquing

Voice-Over Narrator

The voiceover narrator informs the audience that the dead man is a young writer and this will be his story, ‘The whole truth’, told in flashback.  Joe’s narration is unsentimental, pitiless and cynical.

Story of the Film in a Nutshell

Narrated by the voice over of Joe Gillis (played by William Holden), a struggling screenwriter, he gives the audience a retelling of the events leading up to his death 6 months earlier.  As the Police and press gather around Joe’s dead body in the swimming pool of former silent film star Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson), Joe’s voice over tells us how he came to be in Norma’s old mansion on Sunset Boulevard. 

His story follows how the ageing Norma draws Joe into her demented fantasy world, where she dreams of making a triumphant return to the screen.  Joe agrees to help edit Norma’s terrible script she has written about Salome and her delusional intention of sending the script to Cecil B. DeMille at Paramount Studio.  Norma is completely unaware of her faded stardom and controls Joe’s life buying him expensive clothes and gifts to keep him living the life of a gigolo. 

Joe tries to extricate himself from the toxic situation living under Norma’s roof and tries to leave but she threatens to shoot herself.  In a moment of passion, she instead shoots Joe, leaving him floating dead in the pool.  Even as the Police and press arrive to arrest her, Norma believes the news cameras are actually a film crew waiting for her to be back in movies.  As Norma sweeps down the staircase, she makes a short speech about how happy she is to be back and delivers the film’s most famous line “All right, Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up”.

Sunset Boulevard is a Cautionary Warning about the Artifice [pretence] of Hollywood

Sunset Boulevard is a cautionary warning about the artifice of Hollywood.  Norma’s massive stardom was entirely constructed around her youthful beauty and once that freshness faded as she aged, the movie industry had no use for her.  The celebrity image is ephemeral [short lived], a vicious cycle of championing youthful sex appeal and marginalising older women.

‘Sunset Boulevard’ Explores the American National Psyche

‘Sunset Boulevard’ is the first of Wilder’s remarkable sequence of films that explore the national psyche. It begins as an ostensible crime drama, albeit with an unusual narrative perspective, but quickly moves into an investigation of the wider crimes of the film industry. Wilder moves from the individual crime of Joe’s murder to consider all of Hollywood as a crime scene, the betrayal of its early promise, its abandonment of the creative talents that founded its studios, and the criminal neglect of the potential of the medium itself – these are all under investigation in Wilder’s vision of the film industry at mid-century.

The American psyche is concept of America itself – out of this small, relatively homogenous community, a vast nation gradually emerged.  So, deeply embedded in the American psyche is the sense of having leapt into the dark, of having rebelled and started something new, something whose end is unknown.  The USA is, in a sense, an experiment, a work in progress.

Stylistically, Sunset Boulevard Develops a Portrait of the Toxic Culture of the Film Industry

The film is an extended allusion to the great German Expressionist films of the silent era, as it develops a psychological portrait of the film industry, the ‘toxic’ culture of stardom and celebrity used to attract audiences, and the willingness to exploit creativity and then to abandon these talents in the relentless search for innovation and profit. Throughout the film, Wilder alludes to the darker impulses behind the worship of stars: a fascination with gossip and scandal, the transformation of actors into God-like figures, and the readiness to dispose of these ‘gods’ – all symptoms of a society that has become mesmerised by the manufactured fantasies that Hollywood has perfected across its short history.

Joe Gillis Investigates the Events that led to his Own Murder

Failed screenwriter Joe Gillis investigates the events that led to his own murder and uncovers a far larger ‘plot’. In ‘Sunset Boulevard’, Hollywood is exposed as an industry that pitilessly manufactures and then abandons its ‘stars’, that ruthlessly exploits youth and beauty, that values profit over artistic worth and that has become locked into a system of competing studios that act as business rivals, mirroring the larger economic system of capitalist competition, a true ‘culture industry’. In the contemporary Hollywood of ‘Sunset Boulevard’, Wilder makes it indisputably clear that a star of Norma’s impossible grandeur and other-worldly gestures and mannerisms has no place amidst the now reduced, quotidian world of Hollywood’s post-war austerity. ‘Sunset Boulevard’ is a film that explores madness, derangement, delusion and loss, but these are symptoms of a much wider cultural disturbance than merely the case of one former star.

Main Characters
Joe GillisPlayed by William Holden a struggling young screen writer transforms into Norma’s gigolo making him dependent on her and impossible to escape the ‘femme fatal’ figure
Norma DesmondPlayed by Gloria Swanson a faded, narcissistic, eccentric, former silent screen star demoralised by Hollywood but obsessed with her own needs to the detriment of Gillis as she manipulates him dragging Joe into her deluded world
Max Von MayerlingPlayed by Erich von Stroheim Norma’s first husband and butler feeds Norma’s obsessions and shields her from the brutal fact her career is over and exacerbates her illusions
Betty SchaeferPlayed by Nancy Olson a budding writer and Joe’s love interest is the antithesis of Norma
superficial celebrity imagecontrollove
deceitDeath & murderself-delusion & insanity
discontentHollywood’s post war roleThe role of art and the artist as an individual creator
The price of fame & the dream factory of HollywoodLegacy of the film industry’s pastcruel star system in Hollywood
Norma’s mansionJoe’s carthe dead chimpanzee
swimming poolimportance of faces 

All Resources created by Online Tutoring using Zoom for Mainstream English Students in the Victorian VCE Curriculum 2024

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