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Billy Wilder
William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Fred Clark, Lloyd Gough
Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D.M. Marshman Jr.

A Hollywood Story.

Film legend Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, an aging silent film queen, and William Holden as the struggling writer who is held in thrall by her madness, created two of the screens most memorable characters in Sunset Boulevard. Winner of three Academy Awards, director Billy Wilder's orchestration of the bizarre tale is a true cinematic classic. From the unforgettable opening sequence through the inevitable unfolding of tragic destiny, the film is the definitive statement on the dark and desperate side of Hollywood. Erich von Stroheim as Desmond's discoverer, ex-husband and butler, and Nancy Olsen as the bright spot in unrelenting ominousness, are equally celebrated for their masterful performances.

Not Rated.

Standard 1.33:1
English Monaural
French Monaural
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 110 min.
Price: $24.99
Release Date: 11/26/2002

• Audio Commentary with Author Ed Sikov
• “The Making of Sunset Boulevard
• “Edith Head: The Hollywood Years” Featurette
• “The Music of Sunset Boulevard” Featurette
• Hollywood Location Map
• Morgue Prologue
• Photo Galleries
• Theatrical Trailer

Billy Wilder Collection

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Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 21, 2008)

While I hate to admit this, I will: I never saw Sunset Boulevard before its DVD arrived in 2002. Though I had some general understanding of the plot and characters, that was about it. Much of it offered a fresh experience for me, and I found it to provide a lively and intriguing film.

Sunset starts with its end, as we see a dead man floating in a pool. We then go back to the beginning and find out what happened. We meet struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis. He needs three hundred bucks to keep his car, so he hits his contacts to scrape up some work. He heads to Paramount to push a producer named Sheldrake (Fred Clarke) to take his story pitch. That fails – no thanks to story consultant Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), who dislikes his plot – so he shoots for a personal loan. That and other attempts also flop, so Joe finds himself just about ready to head back to Ohio and his old newspaper job.

Other events intervene, however. Joe boogies away to escape the repo men, and when a tire blows, he ends up in the driveway of a fancy old mansion. Joe believes the building to be abandoned, but he soon discovers otherwise as he meets faded silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and her no-nonsense butler Max (Erich von Stroheim). They represent all the inhabitants of this lavish abode, though they currently plan to put to rest a former resident: a chimp. Norma thinks Joe’s there as the monkey coroner.

When she decides otherwise, the pair chat, and we find that Norma wrote a screenplay based on the Salome story intended for her return (Norma hates the term “comeback”). Joe reads the terrible text and feigns interest in it to gain a job as its editor. Eventually, this leads him to move in, and he quickly turns into Norma’s boy toy.

Joe doesn’t take to this role well, which leads him to flee during her creepy New Year’s Eve party. He ends up at another party run by his friend Artie (Jack Webb), where he again meets Betty. Although she’s dating Artie, clearly some romantic sparks fly between Betty and Joe.

However, those fail to ignite when Joe finds out that Norma attempted to kill herself after he left her party. Joe rushes from Betty’s side to return to his sugar momma. This puts him back into his old submissive position. Betty tries to get in touch with him to work on one of his story ideas, but he remains isolated in the mansion with Norma. The plot thickens when Max delivers Norma’s script to Paramount, and they need to deal with its reception. Eventually, Joe does connect with Betty again, which complicates matters even more heavily.

I won’t go any farther than that. It seems to me that anyone who paid attention to the film’s first five minutes will know how it’ll end, but I could be wrong. In his audio commentary here, film historian Ed Sikov professed that he didn’t expect the conclusion at all, so others may also feel startled by those events. I remain confused how that could happen, but I’ll err on the side of caution and halt my synopsis now.

Not that I need to convey more information to let you know what a cool experience Sunset Boulevard offered. I don’t know about others, but I tend to view movies created prior to the Sixties or Seventies as lacking the bite and nastiness found in flicks from more recent days. Sunset shows just how wrong I am, as it offers a gloriously cynical piece of work.

I also always thought that only more modern efforts became self-referential and exposed the inner workings of the movie industry. Sunset may not be as obsessed with the topic as something like The Big Picture, but it delved into that subject in a vicious way. It didn’t treat Hollywood with kid gloves. Instead, it launched into a bitterly comedic exposé of the business’ tendencies, which made it surprisingly sharp and snippy.

Sunset didn’t succeed just because it bit the hand that fed it. After all, The Big Picture pretty much flopped when it took on somewhat similar territory. However, writer/director Billy Wilder created something tremendously crisp and lively here. He provided dialogue that alternated between hard-hitting and florid. Most of it didn’t seem like speech you’d hear in real life, but I didn’t care. Wilder’s dialogue offered such delightfully cutting and dynamic material that I could total forgive the lack of reality behind it.

It helped that Sunset enjoyed terrific performances across the board. The movie featured a confrontation between styles. Holden’s naturalistic approach butted up against Swanson’s lavishly theatrical tendencies, and the results seemed surprisingly well integrated. Swanson achieved her own “return” from obscurity with her marvelous work as Norma. Of course, she appeared tremendously over the top, but that worked splendidly for the larger the life – and nutty as a fruitcake – Norma. Alternately imperious and haughty and sad and pathetic, Swanson made Norma a force of nature. If nothing else, she offered some of the most fascinating line deliveries in history, with pronunciations like “sit dowwwwnnn” and “gay-rage”. Even had the source material stunk, the film would have remained interesting due to Swanson’s presence.

But with the talents of Billy Wilder at the helm, Sunset Boulevard never threatened to require the actors to make it succeed on their own. Surprisingly cynical and blunt given its era, the movie shredded the movie industry and also offered a deep and vigorous character drama. The best work created by a legendary director, Sunset Boulevard merits its status as a classic.

Note: if you want to avoid some plot surprises, don’t read the synopsis on the back of the DVD. Annoyingly, it reveals some important information that doesn’t come out until the third act.

The DVD Grades: Picture B+/Audio B- / Bonus B-

Sunset Boulevard appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though not without some flaws, the flick usually looked very good.

Sharpness looked excellent. The movie presented a consistently tight and concise image. I noticed virtually no signs of softness during this distinct and detailed presentation. A little shimmering occurred at times, but nothing distracting. The movie lacked any signs of jagged edges, and I also detected only mild examples of edge enhancement.

The black and white image demonstrated solid tones. Blacks came across as deep and rich throughout the movie, and it offered simply terrific contrast at all times. The film displayed a nicely silvery appearance that seemed fantastic. Shadow detail looked appropriately heavy but never came across as excessively heavy.

Though not totally immaculate, given the age of Sunset, the movie suffered from relatively few source flaws. I noticed some light grain on occasion and also came across a few print defects. I detected a smattering of specks, hairs and marks as well as sporadic blotchiness. Don’t worry too much about these, though, as they played a small part during the mostly clean presentation. Overall, I felt very pleased by this fine transfer.

While not in the same league as the picture, the monaural soundtrack of Sunset Boulevard also worked acceptably well given the age of the material. Speech seemed reasonably accurate and distinct, with no issues related to intelligibility or edginess. The lines could sound a little flat at times, but they demonstrated no significant concerns.

Music came across as fairly bright and lively, though dynamic range seemed limited. Effects also displayed generally accurate tones but lacked very clear highs or tight lows. Some bass response appeared, but it sounded a bit boomy and heavy. I noticed some light background hum and a little noise, but these issues remained relatively modest. Overall, the audio appeared decent but not spectacular.

This Special Edition release of Sunset Boulevard packs a number of extras. We start with an audio commentary from Billy Wilder biographer Ed Sikov, who offers a running, screen-specific piece. Sikov provides an inconsistent track. At times, he tells us some good background information. He goes over the deleted opening segment as well as background for many of the participants and inside information that modern audiences might need to better understand the film.

Unfortunately, Sikov often simply tells us the on-screen action, and the piece also suffers from way too many empty spaces, especially during the movie’s second half. I dislike those gaps under any circumstance, but they’re particularly bothersome when they come from a film historian. Sikov could have covered many topics related to the filmmakers that would have filled the commentary, so the many empty sections make this track sporadically useful but often frustrating.

Next we get The Making of Sunset Boulevard, a 25-minute and 52-second program about the film. It mixes movie clips, archival materials, and new interviews with Sikov, actor Nancy Olson, film critic Andrew Sarris, Paramount Pictures producer AC Lyles, and Glenn Close, who portrayed Norma Desmond in a stage musical production of Sunset. A tight and informative piece, “Making” covers lots of good ground and offers a very nice summation of the production. It ranges through casting, reactions to the movie, background for a number of the participants, and many of the ins and outs behind the material. Happily, not too much of Sikov’s commentary repeats here, as we get a fine inside look at the flick. I thoroughly enjoyed this crisp little documentary.

A cool little feature, the Hollywood Location Map covers some of the spots seen in Sunset Boulevard. It goes through these sites: Schwab’s Drugstore, Joe Gillis’ Apartment, Norma Desmond’s Car, Paramount Pictures, and the Getty Mansion. Paramount splits into three smaller areas: Bronson Gate, Dreier Building, and Stage 18. Each of these shows footage from the film while we hear narration that provides notes about each of the locations. The various clips last between 19 seconds and 52 seconds for a total of three minutes, 51 seconds. Though this domain badly needed a “Play All” option – it gets tiresome to constantly return to the main menu – it still offers enough good material to merit a look.

Within the Photo Galleries, we discover three subsections. We find stills for “Production” (46 shots), “The Movie” (24 images), and “Publicity” (16 photos). All three areas seem good, with the best pictures appearing in “Production”. However, some of the “Publicity” stills are cool as well, if just to see von Stroheim’s facial expressions.

To get a glimpse of the film’s unused original opening, check out the Morgue Prologue Script Pages. This shows both the original morgue prologue from December 1948 and the revised morgue prologue from March 1949. In addition to the text, the original sequence offers looks at the filmed shots themselves. Unfortunately, they lost the sound for those clips, so they remain silent, but this area nonetheless offers a cool look at a major deleted sequence from Sunset.

In addition to the flick’s theatrical trailer, Sunset concludes with a pair of featurettes. Edith Head – the Paramount Years provides a 13-minute and 42-second look at the famous costume designer. We see movie clips, archival materials and photos, and interviews with Head biographer David Chierichetti, costumer Tzetzi Ganey, fashion designer Bob Mackie, and actress Rosemary Clooney. Chierichetti dominates the program, which offers a quick but solid discussion of Head. We learn about her early career, her own personal style, and a lot of the work she did for flicks like Sunset and To Catch a Thief. “Head” gives us a reasonably full glimpse of the legendary designer.

Lastly we get The Music of Sunset Boulevard. A 14-minute and 28-second piece, we get the usual mix of movie snippets, archival stuff, and interviews with film music historian – and composer’s son – John Waxman plus composers Elmer Bernstein and John Mauceri. Fairly similar to the Head program, this one covers Waxman’s early life and career and explores some of his films, though it delves particularly deeply into his material for Sunset. Overall, it offers another entertaining and informative featurette.

A movie that merits the designation “classic”, Sunset Boulevard provides an unusual and memorable experience. Director Billy Wilder bites the hand that feeds him in this lively and cynically compelling look at Hollywood. The DVD offers very good picture quality along with decent audio and a fairly positive roster of supplements. Sunset Boulevard comes to DVD in great shape, and I highly recommend this terrific movie and solid disc.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.6962 Stars Number of Votes: 135
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