There?s a long tradition of filmmakers poking fun at the movie business. But no one bit the hand that fed him more viciously or with sharper fangs than Billy Wilder in Sunset Boulevard (1950, 1 hr., 50 mins., Not Rated). Wilder, who directed Double Indemnity, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment, was one of Tinseltown’s most acid satirists. He knew as well as anyone the ugly grit and grime beneath the town’s facade of glamour. And he wasn’t shy about putting it on display in this black joke of a film about an aging, has-been silent-film star (Gloria Swanson) who enlists a hack writer in her desperate, deluded bid for a comeback. That hack, of course, is played by William Holden, whom we meet at the beginning of the film floating facedown in a Beverly Hills swimming pool. ”The poor dope, he always wanted a pool,” he says in a voice-over that launches into the sordid chain of events that put him there.
Down on his luck and dodging repo men, Holden’s Joe Gillis turns into the driveway of Swanson’s Norma Desmond — a wild-eyed diva who could make a bouquet wilt at 10 paces. Soon, the broke writer is trapped in her twisted web, selling his soul in exchange for cash (and some other stomach-turning favors).
Swanson, who was only 50 at the time but looks a billion years old, gives a master class on how delicious overacting can be in the right setting. Cocooned in her decaying mansion with her doting butler Max (Erich von Stroheim), she’s convinced that the world is waiting for her return (”Have they forgotten what a star looks like?”). What follows is a tale of humiliation and horror, but it’s also among the sickest and most entertaining movies ever made. Like Desmond, Sunset Boulevard has been waiting too long for its close-up on Blu-ray. It’s one of the last great noirs to limp its way onto the high-def format. The good news is the wait was worth it. Paramount’s restoration of the film is breathtaking — its shadowy black-and-white cinematography has never looked crisper or more haunting. And the disc is loaded with two and a half hours of EXTRAS, including a rightfully deleted scene of a plucky musical number called ”The Paramount-Don’t-Want-Me Blues” and a handful of movie-buff featurettes that make the case for the film’s place in history. Not that anyone will need convincing after watching Wilder’s twisted love letter to the industry everyone loves to hate. A