In my best of film noir series, I would be remiss if I didn’t include the fantastic film Sunset Boulevard. This classic movie has all the aspects of film noir: the noir hero (a man using a woman); the femme fatale (a woman using a man); sex (depicted in a seedy kind of way); and dark themes.
The Best of Film Noir – The Noir Hero
William Holden is not a name that comes to mind as a noir hero. In Sunset Boulevard, he plays Joe Gillis, an unsuccessful screenwriter. Gillis’ story is told in flashback, and we wonder what brought this man to his tragic ending, murdered and floating in silent film star Norma Desmond’s pool. What kind of deception did Gillis pull on Desmond that would lead to murder? The noir hero usually wants money or a woman: in Gillis’ case he is so desperate for money that he becomes a kept man for an aging old has-been film star. He essentially sells his soul for money.
The Best of Film Noir – The Femme Fatale
Gloria Swanson definitely does not come to mind when we think of a femme fatale. She plays silent film star Norma Desmond, a has-been who no one remembers anymore. She’s no longer young or beautiful. The femme fatale almost always seduces the noir hero with sex. It is a nice twist on the femme fatale theme when we see Desmond use money to lure the noir hero into his downfall. But by her actions she can certainly be considered a femme fatale.
The Best of Film Noir – What Makes This Noir
Some people don’t want to consider Sunset Boulevard as noir, but as I mentioned above, all the key elements of film noir are in this movie. The movie reflects the grand old days of Hollywood, yet with a harsh, cynical edge. Were the grand old days really grand? We get visions that it was not so. A brilliant piece of directing by Billy Wilder gives us a nice twist on the usual dark and gloomy filming. In this case much of the filming is either in Desmond’s grand mansion or outside in the Los Angeles sun. But we still feel that we are surrounded by decay. Norma is run-down, her house feels unused and so on. As Gillis says: The whole place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis – out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion.
The Best of Film Noir – What Writers Can Learn From Sunset Boulevard
Sunset Boulevard is storytelling at its best. Some call the movie horror because of many of its classic lines, and because of its ghoulish themes (a dead man narrating the story for one). Writers should study the film for its use of sarcasm, its wit, characterizations and story structure. Since Gillis is a hack screenwriter, many of the comments he makes are cynical toward Hollywood and screenwriters. It’s worth noting how successfully these lines are interwoven into a story that dissects Hollywood.
I’ve created a short video with a few extra things and some trivia about Sunset Boulevard and the cast.
This is one of my all-time favorite films. I loved it even before I knew it was film noir. I love old Hollywood and the cameo appearances in Sunset Boulevard by such stars as Cecil B. DeMille and Buster Keaton, and the references to movies and other stars make for an extra treat. And, for a bit of hilarity, watch this classic spoof by Carol Burnett, who plays Norma Desmond.
So grab your popcorn and soda, get comfy on the couch and spend a couple of hours in the hey-day of Hollywood.
If you enjoy film noir, read my Reed Ferguson mystery series. Reed is a wannabe private eye who loves film noir and crime fiction, and these mystery novels are consistently well-reviewed: This Doesn’t Happen In The Movies, Reel Estate Rip-off, and the short story Elvis And The Sports Card Cheat. It’s great reading fun!
5 Star Review
There is little doubt that Renée Pawlish is a promising new voice to the comic murder/mystery genre. Quite noticeable…is Pawlish’s adept development of the plot coupled with her ability to contrive clear, concise and playful prose with almost perfect pacing.
Norman Goldman, Bookpleasures Publisher and Editor