By Mark Harris
November 29, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST
Sunset Boulevard: Kobal Collection

More than 50 years later, Hollywood still hasn’t taken a harder, colder look at itself than it did when Billy Wilder stuck a fish knife into the movie industry’s underbelly and pulled out a mordant masterpiece about two victims of self-deception who destroy each other and themselves. In Sunset Boulevard, William Holden, never better, is a failing screenwriter who slides too easily into life as a gigolo when he meets Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond, a bygone film star who has long since lost her fans, her fame, and her mind. Besides the brilliance of the dialogue, the stunningly rotted production design, Swanson’s fearlessly outsize performance (nothing less than an essay on silent-film acting technique), and perhaps the greatest final shot in film history, there’s also the monkey funeral, Erich von Stroheim (”You see… I vas her… FIRST HUSBAND!”), Buster Keaton, and one moment — when Norma returns to Paramount in deluded triumph and gets one last moment to bask in the spotlight — that shows Wilder to be both the most ruthless and the most humane director of Hollywood’s golden age. The combination is uncanny; the movie is unimprovable.

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