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By Daniel Lammin
28th April 2013

When people use the phrase "they don’t make movies like they used to", they’re talking about films like ‘Sunset Blvd’ (1950). It might be over sixty years old, but few films today can match it for its vitality, its artistry and its pervading air of menace. At the time, Billy Wilder’s inditement of the Hollywood machine was shockingly modern, both rapturously received and violently damned as a betrayal of the industry, but the combination of intense psychology, cracking characterisation and a towering central performance have elevated the film from a classic to a legend.

The film follows the exploits of screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden), and how he came to be found dead in the swimming pool of one of the stately mansions on Sunset Boulevard. Struggling for money and fleeing from his creditors, he hides his car in a mansion he believes to be empty, only to find it's still occupied by Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a faded silent film star gripping to her past fame. Norma convinces Joe to assist her in writing her comeback picture, and forces him to move into the mansion in order to work more effectively. As their working relationship continues to grow, however, Norma cling to Joe as her will to live, and Joe begins to use Norma’s love for him to his advantage, with disastrous consequences.

‘Sunset Blvd’ is Hollywood melodrama at its absolute best, rich in macabre and surreal detail, with a seething and uncomfortable undercurrent of mental disability. Billy Wilder was well known for his emphasis on character and psychology rather than acts of cinematic grandeur, and with this film, his microscope is focused with razor-sharp precision on these fascinating representatives of an old grand Hollywood and the cynical new Hollywood of its day. Its execution is simple and powerful, gorgeously shot in black-and-white, a symphony of shadow and light reminiscent of the great silent film classics. The screenplay is also a marvel, a taught piece of writing brimming with simple poetry and wicked wit and humour. Even now, its bravery is startling. Nothing like ‘Sunset’ had been seen before, and every film since that has tacked any portrait of Hollywood is in its debt.

And then there’s the performances. Wilder fills out his cast with an extraordinary ensemble. William Holden provides the mannish brute to balance Norma’s opulence. Joe might be our protagonist, but he isn’t a hero, and we are asked to judge his actions as much as we sympathise with him. Eric von Stroheim, as Norma’s manservant Max, proves to be the unexpected heart of the film and our eyes through which to view this bizarre tragedy. His work in the final moments in particular are incredibly powerful. But nothing compares to Gloria Swanson’s legendary performance as Norma. Even now, the immense theatricality of her performance is still startling, her fearlessness crafting Norma into something operatic, a succession of bizarre gestures and striking presence. Norma is unable to shake her star quality, and it pervades every fibre of her being. It’s the moments between, however, where Norma’s mask slips, that Swanson truly sweeps the film away, revealing devastating moments of crushing fragility. Swanson really does need to be seen to be believed, and you’ll never forget her once you do.

‘Sunset Blvd’ is a classic film in every way a film can be a classic. It still has the power to hypnotise and disturb, to amuse and amaze. We are starved for this level of character detail or fearlessness in film today. And that final scene, where Norma’s madness reaches its horrifying heights, is still one of the finest scenes ever filmed, breathtaking and immense and so utterly devastating. They truly do not make films like this anymore, but that just makes ‘Sunset Blvd’ all the more legendary.

‘Sunset Blvd’ is a classic film in every way a film can be a classic. It still has the power to hypnotise and disturb, to amuse and amaze.

Classic films are really where the quality of Blu-ray is tested, determining whether the restoration of the film can stand up to the scrutiny of high definition picture and sound. Often, these great films lose the organic quality that makes them so special in the pursuit of high-def perfection. Thankfully, Paramount has done an astounding job with ‘Sunset Blvd’ - the 1080p transfer perfectly recreates the 1.37:1 image and the cinematic texture of the film. Details shimmer better than they ever had on DVD, but not at the expense of the natural film grain. I doubt this film could ever look better. The same can be said for the Mono Dolby TrueHD audio, giving the sound a crisp extra punch without sacrificing the original intention or quality. Overall, ‘Sunset Blv.’ is a knockout on Blu-ray.

While most recent Paramount catalogue tites have been devoid of any features, ‘Sunset Blvd’ has arrived with a mother-load of material on offer. All the features are from the U.S. Centennial DVD, but for Australian audiences, who never got that release, this is all new and exciting stuff. Included are an academic audio commentary, numerous making-of featurettes covering the film’s development, its style, its music and its legacy, as well as featurettes focusing on its stars. In the case of a film as complex as this, they provide fascinating context for the world in which the film was set and released. The set is rounded off with a deleted scene, galleries and theatrical trailer. All great films should come with such a terrific collection of features, and Paramount should be applauded for going the extra mile with this one.

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