Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
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Plot Synopsis (continued)

Luring him in, she demands that he cannot leave her house with the script: "I couldn't let it out of my house. You'll have to finish it here." The aging star suggests that he live in a room over the garage, and Max promptly shows him the apartment where he will live - commenting strangely that he made the room up for him earlier in the afternoon. The "slightly cuckoo" Max explains how Norma was worshipped by fetishistic men in her heyday:

She was the greatest of them all. You wouldn't know. You are too young. In one week, she received 17,000 fan letters. Men bribed her hairdresser to get a lock of her hair. There was a Maharajah who came all the way from India to beg one of her silk stockings. Later, he strangled himself with it.

He smartly replies: "I sure turned into an interesting driveway." As Joe prepares for bed, he ponders his situation, and surveys the property from the windows:

The whole place seemed to have been stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis, out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion. There was a tennis court, or rather the ghost of a tennis court, with faded markings and a sagging net. And of course, she had a pool - who didn't then. Mabel Normand and John Gilbert must have swum in it ten thousand midnights ago, and Vilma Banky and Rod La Roque. It was empty now, or was it?

He spots rats fighting in the bottom of the empty pool for a scrap of food. Then around midnight, he notices the serious ceremony of the last rites and burial of the monkey: "as if she were laying to rest an only child. Was her life really as empty as that? It was all very queer, but queerer things were yet to come." Norma carries a two-candle candelabra, lighting the way for Max to drop the casket into a hole dug into the turf.

Joe fails to recognize that he has become her new employee, lap dog, pet gigolo, and replacement pet monkey, as he experiences an hallucinatory nightmare:

That night, I had a mixed-up dream. In it there was an organ grinder. I couldn't see his face, but the organ was all draped in black, and a chimp was dancing for pennies. When I opened my eyes, the music was still there...Where was I? Oh yes, in that empty room over her garage.

When he awakens the next morning, he notices all his belongings have been brought from his apartment to his garage room and wonders what is going on. He finds out that bull-necked, music-making Max (his giant white gloved hands play the organ in close-up) was ordered by Norma to bring his things, and his overdue three months' rent has also been paid because she thought it was "a good idea if we are to work together." She reclines on the couch surrounded by framed photographs of her stardom from years past, assuring him: "You'll like it here." He realizes he is confined and trapped by the actress and her strange past, becoming her "kept man." But he hopes to be able to finish her script in a couple of weeks time: "Yes, I wanted the job. I wanted the dough and I wanted to get out of there as quickly as I could."

Joe begins working on her ponderous script, but "it wasn't so simple getting some coherence into those wild hallucinations of hers." And "she was around all the time, hovering over me, afraid I'd do injury to that precious brainchild of hers." She notices he has thrown out a scene from her script, and she seems insulted: "Cut away from me?" He explains that it would be too much for the public to see her in every scene, but having lost all sense of reality years earlier, she insists that legions of fans are waiting anxiously for her return:

They don't? Then why do they still write me fan letters every day? Why do they beg me for my photographs? Why? Because they want to see me, ME, Norma Desmond. Put it back.

Resigned to her self-centeredness as she autographs fan photographs, Joe diagnoses and pities the past star as crazy - comparing her to a sleepwalker:

I didn't argue with her. You don't yell at a sleepwalker. He may fall and break his neck. That's it. She was still sleepwalking along the giddy heights of a lost career - plain crazy when it came to that one subject: her celluloid self. The great Norma Desmond! How could she breathe in that house so crowded with Norma Desmonds? More Norma Desmonds and still more Norma Desmonds.

Two or three evenings a week after his daily 'ghost-writing' work sessions, Max would often raise an enormous oil painting ("presented to her by some Nevada Chamber of Commerce") from the living room wall to reveal a big screen. Rather than go out into the harsh light of reality, they would stay at home to watch silent movies on her private screen in her memorabilia-stuffed residence: "The plain fact was she was afraid of that world outside. Afraid it would remind her that time had passed." As the film flickers in a beam of light, Joe watches film footage from Norma's past [taken from Gloria Swanson's own disastrous uncompleted and unreleased 1929 film Queen Kelly, the last silent film ever directed by von Stroheim himself and paid for by her lover Joseph P. Kennedy]. While watching closely next to him ("she'd smell of tuberoses, which is not my favorite perfume, not by a long shot"), they always view "her pictures - that's all she wanted to see." One of the title cards from the silent film alludes to the possessive spell cast by dreams of Hollywood success and stardom: "...Cast out this wicked dream which has seized my heart..."

The old film star tells him about the superiority of the silent film stars and old films:

Still wonderful, isn't it? And no dialogue. We didn't need dialogue. We had faces. There just aren't any faces like that anymore. Maybe one. Garbo. Oh, those idiot producers! Those imbeciles! Haven't they got any eyes? Have they forgotten what a star looks like? (She rises to her feet in anger, stepping into the projected spotlight) I'll show them! I'll be up there again! So help me!

Although she is a reclusive hermit, fearful of the outside world, she occasionally has a bridge group that visits, composed of past "actor friends" (real-life stars Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson and H. B. Warner). Joe describes them as "wax works" figures:

The others around the table would be actor friends, dim figures you may still remember from the silent days. I used to think of them as her wax works.

[Significantly, silent film star Keaton's only words in the entire film are the two monosyllabic bids he makes on his bridge hand: "Pass" - a bitter comment upon the rapid passage of time in Tinseltown.] While she is in the middle of her bridge game with cheap bets offered by the morbid players, Joe is humiliated when ordered to dump the ashtray brimming with discarded cigarette butts. When the repo men appear at the door and threaten to tow away his car - and after he passively witnesses his car being cranked up in the courtyard, he realizes that his last means of escape in the car-dependent Los Angeles has been removed: "I've lost my car." She reassures him that they still can drive in her ornate, "hand-made" $28,000 Isotta-Fraschini touring car, but it sits on blocks in the garage. The "old bus," a reflection of its owner, is resurrected and brought to life: "So Max got that old bus down off its blocks and polished it up."

Out one day riding together in her car ("upholstered in leopard skin, and had one of those car phones, all gold-plated") that is chauffeured by Max, they drive into "the hills above Sunset." Norma complains about Joe's unfashionable wardrobe (and his habit of chewing gum), and steers them to an exclusive men's clothing store, where she lavishes expensive clothes on him to smarten up his wardrobe, including "a tuxedo and tails" for a New Year's Eve Party that she is planning. In extreme closeup, the aggressive salesman - believing Joe is a gigolo - speaks with a leering tilt into his ear and successively persuades him to sell himself out for the most expensive item:

As long as the lady is paying for it, why not take the Vicuna?

Joe, both shamed and angry, is wordlessly talked into accepting an ultra-chic overcoat rather than a cheaper, camel's hair variety.

When the heavy rains come in the last week in December ("oversized like everything else in California"), the garage roof leaks, and Joe is reluctantly forced to transfer into a room in the main house where Norma's three husbands had once stayed:

Joe: Whose room is this?
Max: It was the room of the husband. Of the husbands, I should say. Madame has been married three times.

After asking Max why there are no locks on any of the doors, Joe is told that Norma's doctor suggested that there be no locks, no sleeping pills or razor blades in the house, or gas in her bedroom, because she has spells and "moments of melancholy" and has attempted suicide. He wonders why:

Joe: Her career? She got enough out of it. She's not forgotten. She still gets those fan letters.
Max (hinting): I wouldn't look too closely at the postmarks.
Joe (guessing): You send them. Is that it, Max?

Max has been forging her letters for years, deluding Norma even further. He feels pity for Norma, her victimization resulting from living in the past. In her ornate bedroom on that gloomy, rainy day, Joe comments that it looks like a set for a silent movie star:

There it was again - that room of hers, all satin and ruffles. And that bed, like a gilded rowboat. The perfect setting for a silent movie queen. Poor devil - still waving proudly to a parade which had long since passed her by.

Norma has planned a New Year's party and Joe descends the staircase, dressed in the new tuxedo she has purchased for him. He is shocked to learn - a "sad, embarrassing revelation" - that he is the only guest for the grandly bizarre occasion, with a full banquet spread of champagne and a cake. He divulges that his elegant tailcoat is "all padding - don't let it fool you." She intends to passionately seduce him to the tango twenties music of the four-person orchestra on the slippery, waxed ballroom dance floor. As they prepare to dance, she reminds him of faded memories from the past: "You know, this floor used to be wood. But I had it changed. Valentino said, 'there's nothing like tile for the tango.'" When it reaches 11:15, and she gets slightly drunk, he feels "caught like the cigarette in that contraption on her finger." She promises to fill the pool, open her oceanfront house in Malibu, and buy him a boat and sail to Hawaii. She further lavishes him with a leather box containing a matched gold cigarette case and lighter, bragging:

I'm rich. I'm richer than all this new Hollywood trash. I've got a million dollars...I own three blocks downtown. I've got oil in Bakersfield, pumping, pumping, pumping. What's it for but to buy us anything we want.

Joe stands up to protest and questions her attitude toward him: "What right do you have to take me for granted?...Has it ever occurred to you that I may have a life of my own. That there may be some girl that I'm crazy about...What I'm trying to say is that I'm all wrong for you. You want a Valentino, somebody with polo ponies, a big shot." She senses what he is trying to say and rises menacingly: "What you're trying to say is that you don't want me to love you. Say it. Say it." And then she slaps him hard across the face, and leaves the party to ascend the stairs to her bedroom. The camera slowly follows her into her bedroom as she slams the door behind her - it moves toward the hollowed-out lock hole. The four-piece orchestra of musicians continues playing without missing a beat.

Joe retrieves his Vicuna overcoat from the front hallway closet, opens the gated front door and decides to leave. He clumsily catches his long gold key chain on the door handle - symbolic of his cumulative, umbilical-cord dependence upon Norma:

I didn't know where I was going. I just had to get out of there. I had to be with people my own age. I had to hear somebody laugh again.

Without his own car, he thumbs a ride to town and attends a noisy, crowded, boisterous party ("New Year's shindig") given by his assistant director friend Artie Green (Jack Webb) in Las Palmas for "writers without a job, composers without a publisher, actresses so young they still believed the guys in the casting offices. A bunch of kids who didn't give a hoot, just so long as they had a yuck to share." He is relieved to find the apartment jam-packed with people happy and celebratory, and explains how he has been "in a deep freeze" - a portent of his own death. Artie was ready to report him to the Bureau of Missing Persons - "the well-known screenwriter, uranium smuggler and Black Dahlia suspect."

[The reference is to the notorious, unsolved Black Dahlia murder case of Elizabeth Short, a 22 year-old aspiring actress known as the 'Black Dahlia' because of her black hair and attire. She was murdered in January, 1947, found cut in half and nude in a vacant lot near Hollywood. The film makes a connection to Joe's own brutal, gruesome, sensationalized murder in the show-biz town. It must be surmised that the close proximity of the 1947 Dahlia case to the 1950 film had an impact on the film's script.]

As a favor, Joe asks Artie if he can stay for a few weeks - his friend offers "a vacancy on the couch." Then he re-encounters script reader Betty, learning that she is Artie's girlfriend. They start to talk about his rejected script and "hurt feelings." Feeling guilty after their meeting in Sheldrake's office, she tells him that she's been hoping to run into him again. He wonders sarcastically: "What for? To recover that knife you stuck in my back?" During their "shop talk," they retreat to Artie's bathroom (the "Rainbow Room") to discuss one of his old scripts (Dark Windows). It has six pages of a flashback courtroom scene that she believes is "true," "moving," and "worthwhile." Although both of them have other lovers, he begins to seduce her with a put-on melodramatic tone when asked if he is hungry: "Hungry? After twelve years in the Burmese jungle, I'm starving Lady Agatha, starving for a white shoulder" and as he moves closer for a kiss - "thirsting for the coolness of your lips." In character, she trades platitudes with him in a parody of trashy romances: "No, Phillip, no, we must be strong. You're still wearing the uniform of the Coldstream Guards." He is interrupted when the phone becomes free, and promises an awaiting Betty that he will return - she replies: "With a wildly beating heart."

In a phone call to the mansion, he requests that Max start packing his belongings in his luggage, but the butler solemnly replies that he has no time, because a doctor is there attending to "Madame," who has attempted to commit suicide by cutting her wrists with a razor from his room. Feeling pity (and guilt), Joe is stunned - he bolts from the room and leaves a bewildered Betty (without explanation) and returns to the Sunset Boulevard mansion. When he arrives by cab, the musicians are still playing as if nothing has happened and the doctor is leaving. He finds Norma in her bedroom with bandages on both wrists - attempting to regain her control over him. After he removes her shoes, she tells him that it was idiotic for her to fall in love with him. Joe imagines what her headlines would have been if she had been successful - not realizing that he will soon be the subject of a sensational headline himself:

Joe: What kind of a silly thing was that to do?
Norma: To fall in love with you - that was the idiotic thing.
Joe: It sure would have made attractive headlines - GREAT STAR KILLS HERSELF FOR UNKNOWN WRITER. [Or rephrased: GREAT STAR KILLS UNKNOWN WRITER!]
Norma: Great stars have great pride.

He attempts to comfort Norma, telling her that he only made up what he said about having a girl friend because he felt they were wrong together. And he thanks her:

You've been good to me. You're the only person in this stinking town that has been good to me.

He dares her as she sobs uncontrollably to "promise to act like a sensible human being." As the musicians are heard playing "Auld Lang Syne" around midnight, Joe goes to her bed side and wishes her: "Happy New Year." She replies: "Happy New Year, darling," and embraces him by wrapping her clutching arms (more like clutching talons) around his neck and pulling him downward toward her, as the screen goes black. Caught in her pathos, he is enveloped by her grasping, entrapping hands - and decides to remain with her as her bought lover.

Some unknown time later from her reader's office, Betty desperately tries to get through on the phone to Joe at Crestview 5-1733, but Max intercepts and blocks her calls, giving the alibi that the calls are inquiries for "a stray dog!" [An apt description of Joe's position.] Wearing a leopard-skin covering (and matching shoes), Norma is sitting on an outside chaise lounge next to the pool (now filled with water), watching Joe swim (in leopard-patterned bathing trunks! - the same as her own upholstered car). Believing that the astrological signs ("today is the day of the greatest conjunction") are positive, she asks Max to get the car ready to deliver her rewritten "Salome" script in person to director Cecil B. De Mille at Paramount - a great director who always said she "was his greatest star." She begrudgingly admits that his accolade was quite a few years ago, but she chirps (as she dries his back and wraps him - around the neck - with a towel):

I never looked better in my life. You know why? Because I've never been as happy in my life.

As time passes, Joe passively accepts her instruction: "She'd taught me how to play bridge by then, just as she'd taught me some fancy tango steps, and what wine to drink with what fish." During one evening's chauffeured ride to a bridge game, Joe stops the car to buy foreign-brand cigarettes for Norma, and encounters Artie and Betty in Schwab's Pharmacy. Symbolically playing a gangster hitman to gun down his romantic rival, Artie riddles Gillis' body with bullets from his finger pistol (with sound effects). Miss Schaefer is excited and thrilled to see him: "Where have you been keeping yourself? I've got the most wonderful news for you!" She informs him that Sheldrake likes his Dark Windows script and thinks it could be made into something. With "half-sold" studio interest, she ambitiously believes that there is the distant possibility of collaborating as scriptwriters on the "springboard" of his idea, because she doesn't want to be a reader her whole life. But Joe flatly turns her down and crushes her encouragement: "I've given up writing on spec...As a matter of fact, I've given up writing altogether." Ambitious to get a start in Hollywood, she is angry to be denied an opportunity to acquire his help as a writer - as Norma had done:

Joe: Thanks anyway, for your interest in my career.
Betty: It's not your career, it's mine. I kinda hoped to get in on this deal. I don't want to be a reader all my life. I want to write!

Back at the mansion, when Norma suspects Joe is getting bored and glum, she playfully entertains him with a "live show" - "the Norma Desmond Follies" imitating a Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty [recalling one of her first screen appearances]:

I can still see myself in the line: Marie Prevost, Mabel Normand...Mabel was always stepping on my feet...

With another reminder of the silent film era, as she transforms herself into Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp (with black mustache, derby hat, and cane), he ponders Betty's ambitions as a newbie Hollywood screenwriter:

She was so like all us writers when we first hit Hollywood, itching with ambition, panting to get your names up there: Screenplay by. Original Story by. Hmph! Audiences don't know somebody sits down and writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along.

During her Tramp routine, Norma is interrupted with a phone call from Paramount Studios, but it is not her silent movie mentor (director Cecil B. De Mille playing himself) but Gordon Cole - so she refuses to talk. She is deluded into believing that De Mille will naturally produce her triumphant comeback movie, after making twelve pictures together - "his greatest successes." She threatens to wait him out: "I've waited 20 years for this call. Now De Mille can wait till I'm good and ready." About three days later, Norma is good and ready, and there are more "urgent calls" from Paramount - though the calls are not what she thinks. So with "about half a pound of makeup," she commissions Max to drive her in person to the Paramount Pictures studio and offices.

At the main studio gate, Norma brags to the young, unmannered, naive guard: "...without me, you wouldn't have any job, because without me, there wouldn't be any Paramount Studios." De Mille, on sound stage 18 where he is shooting Samson and Delilah (1949) in jodhpurs and boots, is informed through a succession of assistants, that Norma (who "must be a million years old") is on her way. The great director reacts with some sympathy for her as a destroyed victim of Hollywood's sound revolution, knowing that her youthful stardom was ruined by press agents "working overtime" as she aged:

De Mille: I hate to think where that puts me. I could be her father...(perplexed) It must be about that awful script of hers. What can I tell her, hmm? What can I say?
First Assistant: I could tell you're all tied up in the projection room. I can give her the brush.
De Mille: Thirty million fans have given her the brush. Isn't that enough?...You didn't know Norma Desmond as a lovely little girl of seventeen, with more courage and wit and heart than ever came together in one youngster.
First Assistant: I understand she was a terror to work with.
De Mille: Only toward the end. You know, a dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit.

Pioneering Hollywood director De Mille greets her at the sound stage door when she arrives in the limousine: "Well, hello, young fellow...It's good to see you," and they embrace. ['Young fellow' was De Mille's actual nickname for star Gloria Swanson.] She is deluded into believing that the filming of her screenplay will begin soon, because she has been called ten times. He invites her to sit in his official "C B De Mille" chair and get comfortable while he goes to find the real reason for all the calls from Gordon Cole. As Norma sits in his chair in one of the film's most poignant scenes, a sound boom microphone (a symbol of the sound era and Hollywood progress) annoyingly brushes the feather on her old-fashioned, veiled hat. Symbolically victimized on the sound set because of her obsolescence, she pushes it away in disgust. A spotlight is focused on her by Hog-Eye, an electrician in the scaffolding who was one of her old stagehand acquaintances. A crowd of fans (composed of technicians and extras) gathers to admire and pay homage to the age-old celebrity illuminated in the shaft of blinding light - as in her glory days.

Meanwhile, De Mille learns from Gordon Cole in the Property Department that the studio is, in reality, only interested in borrowing and renting her exotic, leopard-skin Isotta-Faschini antique car for a few weeks for a Crosby/Hope road picture. De Mille is faced with having to explain the mix-up on the phone calls she received. When he returns to the set, he authoritatively commands Hog-Eye to move the spotlight off Norma: "Turn that light back where it belongs." Troubled, he can't face telling her that he can't make her film - and put the retired star in the spotlight again. She is emotionally moved by the experience of returning to the studio and she begins to cry:

Norma: Did you see them? Did you see how they came?
De Mille: You know, crazy things happen in this business, Norma. I hope you haven't lost your sense of humor. (Norma sobs) What's the matter, dear?
Norma: Nothing. I just didn't realize what it would be like to come back to the old studio. I had no idea how much I'd missed it.
De Mille: We missed you too, dear.
Norma: We'll be working again, won't we, Chief? We'll make our greatest picture.

Powerless, De Mille asserts that her picture would be very expensive and almost impossible to make, but Norma urges that she only wants to recapture her arrested stardom: "I just want to work again. You don't know what it means to know that you want me." When filming resumes on the set, she sits and watches from the sidelines after being advised by De Mille that the parade has passed her by: "Pictures have changed quite a bit."

As Joe waits in the limousine outside the sound stage with Max, the butler explains that the whole row of offices in the building across from the stage was where Norma's dressing room used to be, and his office was where the script Readers' Department is now located. The words 'Readers' Department' ignites an old memory, and Joe hears footsteps - he spots Betty walking along the second-floor balcony toward her office, and goes up to greet her. They immediately pick up their previous conversation about his Dark Windows script - one that features a troubled soul. He unselfishly suggests: "It's all yours."

It's no good to me anyway. Help yourself...If you get a hundred thousand for it, you buy me a box of chocolate creams. If you get an Oscar, I get the left foot.

She eagerly wants him to work with her on his script ("I'm just not good enough to do it all by myself"), believing that they should write the screenplay together. Joe wants to retain the psychological angle: "Psychopaths sell like hot cakes." As the limousine's horn sounds from below, Joe is caught between two demands: "Couldn't we work in the evenings? Six o'clock in the morning? This next month I'm completely at your disposal. Artie's out of town...I'm free every evening and every weekend." Although her newly-engaged fiancee Artie ("you couldn't find a nicer guy") is on location in Arizona shooting a Western, Betty shows an interest in Joe beyond the script - but he puts her off again: "Now stop being chicken-hearted and write that story." However, as he rushes off, he recommends an angle for the story:

And don't make it too dreary. How about this for a situation? She teaches daytimes, he teaches at night, right?...They don't even know each other but they share the same room. It's cheaper that way. As a matter of fact, they sleep in the same bed - in shifts, of course.

Appearing optimistic and hopeful, Norma leaves through the sound stage door and is kissed goodbye by De Mille. He gives her a gentle brush-off - his final words to her are that they can possibly work something out: "We'll see what we can do" - he doesn't want to hurt Norma's feelings, but she misinterprets his response. As she drives away, he tells his First Assistant to cancel the studio's request for Norma's car. He expresses his basic decency by ordering that she should never know the reason for the phone call. Deluded into believing that she will be filming soon in a triumphant return with "the old team together," a vain Norma prepares vigorously to be in a starring role.

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