Movie of the Week: Sunset Boulevard

Betty Schaefer : I’d always heard you had some talent.

Joe Gillis : That was last year. This year I’m trying to earn a living.

Joe Gillis is a screenwriter in 1950s Hollywood and he’s not having a very good go of it.  He tries to hit up a producer at Paramount for work, but it flatlines.  That’s par for the course for Joe:  he can write but ain’t nobody buying.  If he could just get a nibble, he’d have it made.  He’s a fighter, though, and there’s no way he can give up when he knows he’s on the cusp of success– he’s almost there.

Despite all his dogged determinism, money woes aren’t solved with ‘almost’.  Debt collectors don’t accept dreams and sweat as payment, no matter how much you toil and beg.  Joe has two repo men on his trail for his lack of car payments.  He hides his ride in a lot near his two-bit apartment which is rich in the sound of clacking typewriter keys.  The jig is up when the repo men find him cruising the boulevard.

The repo men give chase, but Joe takes a turn into what he thinks is abandoned property.  The garage is derelict, the pool looks scummy, and the once-grand mansion is shabby.  Joe stores his car in the garage and is surprised to find a butler waving him down from the house.  He’s doubly perplexed when he discovers the butler has been expecting him.

To clarify, Joe learns he isn’t precisely who the butler, Max, thinks he is; Max was expecting the gentleman with the coffin for the monkey.  The house belongs to former silent film sensation Norma Desmond.  Desmond’s career, like her palatial estate, has aged and fallen into decrepitude.  But, back to the monkey…her pet monkey died and she has a funeral planned for it.

Joe comes clean to who he really is, and the eccentric actress takes a liking to him (it helps that he recognizes her).  She has written a screenplay for a movie that will catapult her back into the spotlight and fulfill her millions of fans’ wishes of having her back on the silver screen.  She wants Joe to doctor the script, to help get it in order for when she presents it to the studio for Cecil B. DeMille to direct.  Norma worked with DeMille in the past to great acclaim, so it’s a no-brainer the legendary director, and the studio, will want to fast-track this glamorous project.

All of this, of course, is delusion on Norma’s part.

Back to the monkey…they have a midnight graveside service for it.

Joe becomes Norma’s plaything, more or less.  The role of kept man conflicts him, especially when Norma becomes extremely possessive and unhinged.  The former movie queen tips the crazy scale to eleven when she discovers Joe is messing around with Betty, the cute little  script-reader from the studio.

Sunset Boulevard is an unconventional movie, and I’m not just talking about the dead monkey, that’s only one small part.  It’s pitch-dark comedy, it’s film noir, it’s told from the point of view of a deceased man (Joe is face down in Norma’s swimming pool, dead, when we first meet him).  It’s got a little bit of everything for everyone.  It sails in the atmosphere of ‘things aren’t right’.

If you watch it once, you’re going to watch it again and again and again.  For as much as it can be described, it also defies description.