(director/writer: Billy Wilder; screenwriters: Charles Brackett/D.M. Marshman, Jr.; cinematographer: John F. Seitz; editor: Arthur P. Schmidt; music: Franz Waxman; cast: William Holden (Joe Gillis), Gloria Swanson (Norma Desmond), Erich Von Stroheim (Max Von Mayerling), Nancy Olson (Betty Schaefer), Fred Clark (Sheldrake), Lloyd Gough (Morino), Jack Webb (Artie Green), Franklin Farnum (The Undertaker), Cecil B. DeMille (Himself), Hedda Hopper (Herself), Buster Keaton (Himself), Anna Q. Nilsson (Herself), H.B. Warner (Himself); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Charles Brackett; Paramount; 1950)

A cynically dark recognition to Hollywood’s forgotten stars.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Billy Wilder’s (“Double Indemnity”) acidic spellbinding noir masterpiece is a cynically dark recognition to Hollywood’s forgotten stars and a reminder of how cruel Tinseltown can be to the icons it no longer cherishes, forgetting about them as if they were disposable products. The wonderfully creepy and spacious mansion used was borrowed from J. Paul Getty’s ex-wife, who received it in her alimony settlement. The writers Charles Brackett, D.M. Marshman, and Wilder base the story on their own Hollywood experience and offer an insider’s slant on things. The filmmakers name real Hollywood figures (Cecil B. Demille) and places (Paramount and Schwab’s Drugstore), and in their caustic observations spare no one from their biting humor and their sour pronouncements on Hollywood’s fickleness and amoral behavior as the narrative intertwines fact with legend.

Wilder first offered the William Holden self-centered gigolo part to Montgomery Clift and then Fred MacMurray; the Gloria Swanson tragic-figure part to Mae West, Mary Pickford, and Pola Negri. He settled on Swanson when the others turned him down, or in Pickford’s case wanted too much control, and the silent screen star who hadn’t made a film in 16 years (except for a starring part in the 1941 Father Takes A Wife) turned out to be perfect for the part. Swanson earned an Oscar nomination. Erich Von Stroheim is a noted director and actor in silents, who coincidentally directed Swanson in the 1929 Queen Kelly but was fired because of Swanson’s complaints to the studio he was wasting their money. That ruined his career in Hollywood and the two didn’t patch up their rift until shortly before shooting the film. Here he plays her fanatically loyal butler, who discovered her when she was 16 and became her first husband and director.

The film’s memorable opening has Joe Gillis (William Holden), a struggling bankrupt B-movie writer, doing the dead man’s float face-down in the swimming pool of millionaire has-been aging silent screen star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). His body is riddled with bullets after she plugged the kept man for wanting to leave her grasp. The film’s ploy is to have him narrate the story from beyond the grave in his own sarcastic way. The other opening, a much bleaker one, was scrapped. It took place in a morgue and the narration would take place when the dead man’s body was awakened among the other dead.

Joe owes around $300 on his 1946 Plymouth and his creditors are chasing him when he avoids them by ducking into the grounds of a deteriorated looking old mansion on Sunset Boulevard, a place where the swimming pool is empty, the tennis court is in shambles, and the ornate house built during the 1920s looks in disrepair. Believing the place has been abandoned, he parks his car in the garage next to a luxurious custom-built car with a 1932 license plate. But he’s greeted by the menacing Germanic butler Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim) and ushered into the house where he recognizes its occupant is former silent movie queen Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Her pet chimpanzee has just died and she mistakes him for the undertaker. Norma, now 50, has been out of the spotlight for twenty years or ever since talkies, and now her mental ability teeters on the brink of insanity. Attracted to the much younger Joe, she offers him a way out of his economic doldrums by hiring him to rewrite the script she wrote for herself to star in her comeback as Salome. The weak-willed Joe bites at the offer and soon finds himself with a new wardrobe, an expensive watch, plenty of booze, and a rent free spot in her home, where the toy boy is treated almost as a captive. In a chilling scene, card playing guests, friends of Norma’s from the silent days, are harshly referred to by the cynical Joe as “The Waxworks.” The has-been players are Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H.B. Warner.

Joe is overwhelmed with depression at Norma’s unrealistic talk of the past and her unreal fantasy of returning to the screen with her former friend DeMille directing her comeback (known to be a tyrant in real-life but here DeMille lets Norma down in a gentle manner). The guilt-ridden hack writer feels smothered by Norma’s attention and has to listen constantly to her narcissistic ramblings. When he first arrived he said to her in surprise “You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.” She arrogantly fires back: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” When watching one of her old movies, she has the butler stop the projector and exclaims at seeing herself in a closeup “They don’t make faces like that anymore!” Escaping this death trap to a party given by his friend Arty (Jack Webb), a nice guy assistant director, he meets again the Paramount reader, the naïve 22-year-old Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), who rejected his script for the studio and is currently Arty’s girlfriend. The two patch things up and when Arty is in Arizona working on a picture they get together evenings and moonlight on a script Unfinished Love she’s working on. Her ambition is to advance to screenwriter. While spending so much time together, she falls in love with him. But Joe does what’s best for Betty by making her go back to Arty, realizing he’s too jaded for her and she’s too innocent for him. When Joe gathers up the courage to walk out on the insanely jealous Norma, it leads to the melodramatic confrontation that results in his death at the hands of the hysterical woman. Totally deranged, Norma believes she’s filming Salome for DeMille when the police arrest her and there’s a barrage of cameras taking her picture, even newsreel coverage from Paramount. Her last words before carted away by the police are “All right, Mr. DeMille. I’m ready for my close-up.”

The film was restored to a new 35mm print by computers and digital craftsmanship after it was discovered that the negative deteriorated.