An Ultimate Guide to Sunset Boulevard by Billy Wilder

Published on
March 9, 2024
An Ultimate Guide to Sunset Boulevard by Billy Wilder

Sunset Boulevard is a 1950 film noir written and directed by Billy Wilder. It follows Joe Gillis, a struggling screenwriter, as he stumbles upon former movie star Norma Desmond. The latter persuades Joe to help her make a comeback by all means necessary. Named after a major street in Hollywood, the film explores the darkness in the glamour of the American film industry.


The film begins as a group of police investigators examine Joe Gillis’ body in a pool of a mansion on Sunset Boulevard. Joe recounts the events leading up to his death from six months prior.

Then, Joe was a struggling screenwriter who hoped for his new story to generate some interest from Paramount Pictures. The story was heavily criticised by script reader and aspiring writer Betty Schaefer. Joe was later running away from repossession people who were after his car. Here, he hid in a driveway of a mansion he thought was abandoned. The mansion actually belonged to Norma Desmond, a silent movie star who was no longer in her golden years. Upon learning that Joe was a screenwriter, Desmond asked his opinion on her screenplay about princess Salome. Joe found the script horrible but sweet-talked Desmond into hiring him to fix her script. 

Joe became a frequent occupant at the mansion, partially against his will. He learnt about Desmond’s obsession with returning to her life of fame and love. He also learnt that the fan letters she received had been sent by her butler, Max. Came New Year’s Eve, Joe realised Desmond had fallen in love with him. Upon rejection, Desmond stormed into her room. Joe went to his friend Artie’s party, whose middle-class liveliness was the opposite of the atmosphere at the mansion. Joe met Betty again, who was revealed to be engaged to Artie, and claimed to see potential in one of the scenes in Joe’s earlier screenplay. Their talk is interrupted by a call from Max telling Joe that Desmond had slit her wrists. Joe returned to Desmond and the two became lovers. 

The edited screenplay of Salome was sent to Cecil B. Demille, a former director of Desmond-led pictures. The mansion then received multiple calls from Paramount Pictures but not from Demille himself, thus were refused by Desmond. Max later drove her to the studio to meet Demille in person. Desmond was greeted with respect out of courtesy and mistook it for her finally making a comeback. Max learnt that the calls from Paramount had been to ask to rent the exotic car Desmond had for a film. Desmond was not disclosed of this. She went on rigorous beautifying treatment while Joe snuck out at night to meet Betty and wrote an original screenplay with her. In these nights, they fell in love, despite Betty’s engagement. 

Max learnt of this affair and revealed to Joe that he was a former director who had discovered Norma Desmond and later had married her, then became her butler. Norma learnt about the affair too, through a manuscript with Betty and Joe’s names written on it. She called to clue Betty in on the fact that Joe was not who he seemed. Betty was then invited to the mansion by Joe. In the climax, Joe told Betty he was Desmond’s gigolo, and after Betty’s departure, he decided to leave himself, back to his Ohio newspaper job. Desmond then threatened to kill herself but Joe dismissed her. She aimed and shot at Joe instead, murdering him, letting his body drop into her pool.

The flashback ends and Desmond descends her stairs to meet policemen and the press. Under the illusion that newsreel cameras are to film her movie Salome, Norma Desmond gave a speech in appreciation of her return to glamour, ending with “All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.”


Film Devices

Posthumously narrated by protagonist Joe Gillis, Sunset Boulevard is told in a noir-style non-linear fashion. The film’s production design is of note here, upholding noir filmic tradition of juxtaposing and underlining light and darkness. The Desmond estate perfectly captures the washed-up state of its owner. Though the outside is a Spanish-style mansion like many in Beverly Hills, the inside is decrepit, dusty, and gothic - a symbol for the facade Desmond lives in and her true nature as a relic from a time passed. “The whole place seemed to be stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis”, says Joe as he walks the dark hallways of the mansion. “out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion.” All the photos hung around the estate are of Desmond, but all of her from her golden days, symbolising her reluctance to face the reality that is her obsoleteness. Not just the objects, all the characters around her contribute to the prevalence of her illusion. 


Sunset Boulevard sheds light onto the shadow casted by 1950s Hollywood’s glee and glamour. This black comedy film noir explores the concepts of fiction and reality, the darkness of celebrity and fame, as well as gender constructs. Such topics are illuminated by lead characters Joe Gillis and Norma Desmond in the pursuit of their desires and the relationships they have. 

Fiction and Reality

The story is predicated on fantasies, blurring the lines between what is real and what is not. Much of the inciting incident - Joe meeting Desmond - is due to a lie. Joe lies to repossessors about his car being in Palm Springs, and when the truth comes out, Joe has to drive the car into Desmond’s driveway to escape. This action leads to consequences that finally result in Joe’s death. This seemingly insignificant detail set a precedent for the rest of Wilder’s noir - that all lies unravel and the consequences are unpredictable. Norma Desmond’s shadowy figure is the dark embodiment of the Hollywood dream machine. As an obsolete sweetheart of a bygone era, Desmond deludes herself into thinking she can make a return to fame. 

Her butler and former husband, Max, writes and sends her dozens of fan letters to let her think she still has a following; Cecil B. Demille celebrates her visit to the studio and avoids talking about her screenplay so that Desmond is not dejected. Joe, too, refuses to tell Desmond his true feelings about her screenplay. “You don’t yell at a sleepwalker”, he says. Sometimes, however, delusions fail her. Max says there have been “moments of melancholy” and “many suicide attempts”. One of which is on New Year’s Eve, when Joe rejects her. Joe has been under the illusion of obliviousness as he couldn’t tell from all the luxurious gifts Desmond’s affection. Desmond has made Joe an illusion of her own, as well - dreaming of them living happy years together. Just as she thinks she is still a young star, Desmond believes the much younger Joe Gillis to be her gentleman. When such fantasy crumbles, Desmond loses her will to live, and is surrounded by vanity on New Year’s Eve, with confetti, and live music in her giant mansion. Upon hearing this news, Joe rushes to see her. However, Max tells him to not run because the musicians must not know. 

Even in a situation as dire as mortality, the Desmond estate must keep up appearances, which underlines its relentless efforts in maintaining illusion over reality. When illusion fails her this time, she seeks her demise; the next time illusion wavers, she seeks that of her lover, and she finds it. Joe Gillis is killed by Desmond, not because he breaks her heart by leaving, but because he ruins Desmond’s delusion of stardom. “No one leaves a star,” she whispers in the foreboding silence, “that’s what makes one a star.” 

The film’s final scene is when Joe Gillis has already died and is no longer the narrator. Without his point of view, the film takes a neutral stance, making the ending akin to reality. Here, Desmond’s illusion brings her to her end. She believes she is filming a scene for her film Salome, but in truth is walking her way into police custody. As she steps down the spiral staircase, photojournalists snap her photos, and others are mortified by her lack of remorse for the crime she did. The horror is escalated by Franz Waxman’s score, boasting the horrifying image of Norma Desmond having undergone a total break from reality. 

Stardom and Vanity

Sunset Boulevard also offers a heavy critique of contemporary Hollywood, unravelling the nightmares behind the curtains of the dream machine, particularly the vanity that the star system perpetuates. Norma Desmond is a silent film star whose glory days are behind her; she is played by Gloria Swanson, a famous silent-era actor herself. Norma has a toxic characterization of Hollywood and its obsession of image has rubbed off on her. Sunset Boulevard predominantly shows Norma in front of mirrors, snapshots of her old photographs, and her “celluloid self”. These details put an emphasis on Desmond’s refusal to accept her fading stardom, and by extension, the dangerous appeal of intoxicating fame. 

It also paints an illustrative picture of the movie-making business’ fetishization of youth. “Norma Desmond? She must be a million years old” says an executive, demonstrating the quick-to-change nature of celebrity life, and the downward spiral it promises. The film also features numerous actors that were former Hollywood cultural symbols, including silent film director Erich von Stroheim as Max, and silent king of comedy Buster Keaton in a cameo. Joe Gillis is also a victim of Hollywood’s toxicity. Though talented, Joe is cynical and jaded, often giving in to vanity over creating artistic work. Contextually, the studio system in 1950s Hollywood displaced many workers in the film industry, especially writers. Being confined to his Ohio newspapers job, Joe is no longer hopeful of his filmmaking career, or rather, unable to create works that are meaningful to him due to his focus on scripts that he thinks will sell. This encapsulates the contemporary Hollywood’s system that allows executive meddling to affect storytelling, placing what might be profitable over what is original. “That was me [who turned down Gone with the Wind].” an executive bitterly says he did not expect people to want to see a film about the Civil War. 

Dreams and Ambition

A screenwriter himself, Billy Wilder uses Joe Gillis’ character to vent his frustration about the lack of acknowledgement and respect film writers have, among other parts of the movie making machine. Through that, Billy Wilder criticises the celebrity worshipping culture attached to Hollywood that glorifies the image of actors and stars, but not the ones behind the construction of the dreams: “Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes the picture, they think the actors make it up as they go along” - Joe laments. 

Opposite to both Joe Gillis and Norma Desmond is Betty Schaefer, a 22-year-old script writer who aspires to be a screenwriter. Her optimistic outlook as a young person and passion for movies become her drive to create stories that break away from the restraints of Hollywood at the time. Joe condescends her at first, but soon warms up to her dedication and begins writing for himself. Betty’s character is a beacon of positivity and Billy Wilder’s selectee to be the spearhead of the film industry’s future in this movie. She represents the direction Hollywood should be in: championing passion, love, and courage. Betty is also a counter force to Norma Desmond. The film reveals that Betty once tried to be an actor, but decided to change her path because she does not wish to submit to the screen’s obsession with image. This is opposite to Norma Desmond, who refuses to stop feeding into Hollywood’s toxic star system and tirelessly grips onto her slipping past.

Gender Roles 

Sunset Boulevard also examines gender roles in contemporary America through the relationships the characters have with each other. The film both subverts and adheres to classic gender norms; and the same goes for film noir traditions. Leading man Joe Gillis, in his relationship with Norma Desmond, does not embody normative masculinity, which is often synonymous with strength, domination, and aggression. Here, he becomes submissive and subservient to Norma Desmond and her many wishes and desires, he also is threatened by her. Desmond, on the other hand, instead of being compliant like devised by normative femininity, holds power. She manipulates Joe into being her screenwriter and later, her lover. She also holds command over Max, her former husband turned butler, and even Cecil B. Demille. Joe’s passivity and emasculation set him aside from other antiheroes in film noirs, who often are just as charming as Joe, but embody more influence and agency. When trying to reclaim his masculinity, Joe is shot dead by Norma Desmond, the femme fatale. The murder weapon is a gun, which is often seen as a phallic object in media, symbolizing masculine strength. Like other femme fatales in noir films, Desmond also epitomises postwar America’s consumerism and woman agency. Her Beverly Hills home is enormous with ostensible ceremonies on special occasions and she buys expensive clothes as presents for Joe. Some notions of normative femininity still apply to Norma Desmond, however, as she is obsessed with her image. She has to endure many procedures of beauty treatments to conform to Hollywood’s patriarchal expectations of her as a celebrity actor. Similarly, Betty Schaefer was turned down a role when she auditioned due to her unattractive nose; she had it changed and people could not stop talking about her nose instead of paying attention to her acting. Betty, after this, becomes an aspiring writer, signalling her escape from the superficiality of traditional feminine notions that are subjected upon her by a toxic Hollywood, one that fetishises physical beauty and youth.

Opening Sequence

Sunset Boulevard's 1950 opening sequence, brought to life by Billy Wilder, is not just a captivating introduction to a classic film noir, but a striking commentary on Hollywood's darker side. It elegantly uses imagery, music, and dialogue to set a haunting tone for the complex narrative about fame, vanity, and the blurred line between reality and illusion.

A Captivating Opening: Paramount Pictures’ Logo and the Foreboding Score

The film opens to a grand display of Paramount Pictures' logo, a mountain surrounded by stars, immediately immersing the audience in a fictional world. As Franz Waxman’s foreboding score builds in the background, this grandeur image emphasises the illusion of Hollywood’s glamorous world. The black-and-white picture enhances the motifs of light and darkness, common to film noirs, further setting the stage for the drama that is about to unfold.

Stylised Title and the Asphalt of Fame

The camera then unveils the painted words ‘SUNSET BLVD.’ on the pavement, signifying the film's title and a major Hollywood street. This symbolism, along with the fading-in-and-out of the cast and crew’s names, represents the short-lived fame of Hollywood professionals, thereby hinting at the underlying theme of the film – the fleeting allure of the Hollywood lifestyle.


The Chilling Introduction: A Murder Scene and the Unfolding Drama

As the credits fade, the drama heightens. Police cars blaring their sirens, along with blasts of trumpet and drums from the soundtrack, herald an ominous event - a murder in one of the 'great big houses' of Hollywood. This opening sequence, with its whip-pan camera movements, signifies and foreshadows the sudden twists that the story will consist of, giving the audience a taste of what’s to come.


Billy Wilder’s Signature Storytelling

The use of cross-dissolving images of the police and newspapermen traversing through Hollywood is Billy Wilder's signature style. It effectively sets the film's location, while subtly criticising the executive-owned Hollywood studio system. The voice-over narration provides a juxtaposition of an ideal living arrangement and a heinous crime, hinting at the sinister underside of Hollywood's glamour.


The Truth Unveiled: A Criticism of the Hollywood Star System

As the drama unfolds, the narrator’s foreboding monologue reveals an old-time star's involvement, further heightening the stakes. This early indication criticises Hollywood’s star system, shedding light on the distorted reality that celebrities face. The quote, "But before you hear it all distorted and blown out of proportion, before those Hollywood columnists get their hands on it, maybe you’d like to hear the facts. The whole truth," underlines the film's take on the struggle between reality and illusion.


The Tragic End of the Protagonist: An Emblem of Hollywood’s Ruthlessness

The introduction of the dead protagonist, Joe Gillis, floating in the mansion’s swimming pool, highlights the grim reality of Hollywood's cutthroat industry. Gillis’ narration from beyond the grave adds a supernatural element, creating a haunting atmosphere that defines the film's noir genre. The film’s protagonist, in spite of being an accomplished screenwriter, is dismissed as "Nobody important, really,” reflecting Hollywood's disregard for its professionals.


A Haunting Ode to Hollywood

Despite its brevity, the opening sequence of Sunset Boulevard encapsulates the film's darkness and criticism of Hollywood. Billy Wilder’s masterful direction and compelling narrative set the stage for a compelling story that investigates the blurred line between reality and fiction. This haunting opening sequence is a stark metaphor for Hollywood's vanity and serves as a timeless commentary on the industry's darker side.

Video Script:

“Yes. This is Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, California”, says Joe Gillis, from his grave. The opening scene to the 1950 film noir Sunset Boulevard by Billy Wilder does not take up much of the film’s runtime; but its boastful use of imagery, music, and dialogue perfectly set the tone for a dark story about the vanity of fame and celebrity, as well as the blurred line between reality and illusion. 


The film opens with the logo of Paramount Pictures, a mountain surrounded by stars, as the original score by Franz Waxman soars to envelop the images in a foreboding atmosphere. This early image of the studio logo taking up the entire frame cautions the audience that what is to be unfolded is fiction. Not only so, but a work of fiction from a Hollywood studio that criticises the studio system in Hollywood. Through only the very first image of the film, Sunset Boulevard has already put a strong emphasis on the theme of illusion and reality. The black-and-white image communicates the light and darkness that are constant motifs in film noirs. It slowly tilts down to reveal the painted letters on a pavement spelling out ‘SUNSET BLVD.’, the name of a major street in Hollywood and the stylised title of the film. Then, the camera pulls out and tracks across the asphalt of the street, signifying its importance as an entity representing the allure of the Hollywood lifestyle. The haunting image is accompanied by the opening credits. The names of the cast and crew fade in and out on the street, in the same font as the painted street name. This symbolises the members of the movie-making team behind this project having been inducted into the soil of Hollywood, but their fading-in-and-out suggests the short-lived relevance of those who work for the filmmaking industry. 


As the opening credits finish, the camera tilts up as in dollies backwards to reveal, in a distance, police cars blaring their sirens into view. The sirens join with blasts of trumpet and drums from the original soundtrack. The audience is then introduced to the film's narrator, who confirms the location and time of the setting. The monologue also reveals that the police shown rushing to the scene are the homicide squad, raising the stakes for the drama. This revelation coincides with a quick whip-pan of the camera, signifying and foreshadowing sudden twists the story will consist of. 


What follows are shots, dissolving into each other, of the police and newspapermen traversing through the Hollywood neighbourhood. This technique of establishing a location through cross-dissolving images is a signature of writer-director Billy Wilder, seen in his previous noir flicks. The detail demonstrates Wilder’s auteurship of Sunset Boulevard, claiming trademark of the story as an attempt to rebut the executive-owned Hollywood studio system. The voice-over also reveals that there has been a murder in “one of the great big houses in the 10,000 block”, providing a juxtaposition between an ideal living arrangement and a deathly crime. This is an early contribution to the demonstration of the Hollywood dream machine’s glamour having a large and foreboding shadow of nightmares. Before the authorities are seen arriving at the scene, the narrator clues the viewers in on some precursors of the event. “You’ll read about it in the latest editions, I’m sure. You’ll get it over your radio and see it on television.” This quote suggests the reach of mass media, which film is a part of, as well as the importance of the situation depicted, setting the audience up for an event of great gravitational force. “Because an old-timed star is involved. One of the biggest”, the narrator continues; this is an early indication of the film’s criticism of the star system in Hollywood, which relentlessly glorifies celebrities. 


As the police cars and motorcycles pull into the driveway of the mansion, the narrator continues “But before you hear it all distorted and blown out of proportion, before those Hollywood columnists get their hands on it, maybe you’d like to hear the facts. The whole truth.” This quote highlights the film’s stance in the clash between reality and fiction, siding with the truth over fabrications. However, we see the protagonist, Joe Gillis, floating dead in the mansion’s swimming pool. The decision to have a dead man narrate the film creates a darkness that follows the film from beginning to end, fitting of its noir classification. Its impossibility also renders the statement of the following story being “the whole truth” a lie, again underlining the blurry borders between what is real and what is not. This choice also explores the concept of fatalism, letting the audience know the inevitable end affects the way the story is perceived, including its credibility and positioning the audience to create illusions of themselves in hope of his escape or anticipation of his demise. 


The narrator introduces his dead self as “Nobody important, really.” and “Just a movie writer with a couple of B-pictures to his credit”. This self-patronising statement suggests Hollywood's disregard and lack of respect for screenwriters, as the audience later learns the capabilities of the film’s protagonist and the toxic system he is trapped in. A low-angle shot from the bottom of the pool gives the viewers a clear look of the dead protagonist’s floating body, highlighting the grim tragedy that is going to be told. The narrator, with a hint of regret in his voice, reveals in the third person that he always wanted a pool but “the price turned out to be a little high”. The quiet lament metaphorically illuminates the high toll and demand of the dangerous and intoxicating Hollywood dream machine, as well as a vanity in consumerism. The film then goes back six months, chronicling the events leading up to the protagonist’s doom. 


The prologue of Billy Wilder’s classic noir Sunset Boulevard, even with its short length, manages to encapsulate the film’s darkness, its criticism of Hollywood, and the difficulty in differing between what is real and what is fiction.


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