Suspension of Disbelief in Sunset Boulevard

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on March 9, 2009 @

In discussing Citizen Kane, Charles Higham mentioned "artistic cheats," flaws in credibility whereby characters in scenes gave information about which they couldn't possibly have full detailed knowledge. Sunset Boulevard's entire point of view is based on a gimmick. Whether one considers it an "artistic cheat" or a valid and audacious device depends up his ability and desire to suspend his disbelief. The problem of point of view in Sunset Boulevard is especially germane.

Sunset Boulevard begins outlandishly. A homicide squad with motorcycle escort rides along Sunset Boulevard to an old mansion where a body lies floating in a pool. We find out that the story is being related by that dead man. It is a shock that takes some acclimation. Can one really accept a dead man (whose corpse we see) telling us the story? One quality that jars against the seeming fantasy is the realistic emphasis in the film's composition. The shots seem like news photos from the front page of a tabloid newspaper. There are several arresting shots, especially those apparently from under the pool up through the water,1 whereby we see the body floating arms spread, beyond it the police and photographers and the sporadic flashes of flashbulbs. The audacity of the shot may compensate for some of its eccentricity. The opening suggests the marriage of technique that will follow -- the realistic and the bizarre. Every time matters start to become too fantastic, we are jarred back into a reality by details from actuality that often delight us.

Sunset Boulevard is the story of Joe Gilles, an unemployed screenwriter, and Norma Desmond, a former movie queen of the silent screen. When Joe, trying to elude two men who are trying to repossess his car, hides in a garage on her dilapidated estate, Norma mistakes him for an undertaker who is to bury her dead pet chimpanzee. Norma finds that he is a writer, and she insists he help her with her script for Salome, a film in which she plans to make her triumphant "return." Her writing is pathetic, but because he thinks he will be safe there he agrees. The haughty, grasping Norma is cared for by her butler Max, her former director and ex-husband, who forges fan letters for the forgotten star and who is fiercely protective.

Eventually Joe's belongings are moved into Norma's house, she buys him clothes, and keeps him. When Joe and Norma visit the Paramount lot for Norma's hopeless meeting with Cecil B. DeMille about her hapless Salome, Joe resumes his acquaintance with Betty Schaefer who wants him to write a serious script with her. After he finally does begin to sneak out at night to work with Betty, Norma finds out. She phones Betty to expose Joe's tawdry life; Joe intrudes and tells Betty to come to Norma's house to see for herself. When she does so, Joe sends her back to her fiance Artie and walks out on Norma who shoots him. He plunges into her swimming pool dead. At the end Norma, her sanity gone, believes she is making Salome as she faces the newsreel cameras.

The casting is not always persuasive, but it is deft. Nancy Olson is suitably sweet as Betty Schaefer, the manuscript reader; and Jack Webb smiles a lot and expends energy as Artie Green, the simple assistant director. Olson and Webb have thankless roles and add little. Fred Clark is a bit coy as the glib producer, another bland role. But these three simple characters act merely as pawns to set off the grotesques. Gloria Swanson is appropriately larger than life as Norma Desmond. Her use of her dramatic hands as they sculpt and sweep provides a considerable lesson in acting. Billy Wilder has spoken about the selection of Miss Swanson: "... I had planned to do the picture with Mae West, on the burlesque side, but later it evolved into a tragic story." He concludes, "... but Swanson was a lucky choice, I think" (The Celluloid Muse).

Erich von Stroheim plays Norma's ex-director, ex-husband, and devoted protector.2 With his odd erect carriage, his kid gloves, and his calculated subservience, he adds to the grotesquerie. Sunset Boulevard also possesses a famous card game. Its players are silent comic Buster Keaton; Anna Q. Nilsson, who was a popular actress in silent films; and H.B. Warner, who played Christ in DeMille's 1924 version of King of Kings. William Holden has the role of Joe Gilles, a part originally scheduled for Montgomery Clift. Holden's cool, descriptive narration is an effective means for bridging the bizarre and the realistic.

Another way in which Sunset Boulevard's outlandish point of view is controlled is in the canny composition of the film. Wilder from his initial shots crafts a film that is visually intriguing. There is a tension created by the characters' placement and movement in the frames, the cluttered mise en scene, and the play of light and shadow. Though the transitions are not generally disarming as they were in Kane,3 many of the shots are enticing. There are continual metaphors of dominance in the composition.

When Norma first calls to Joe through a screen -- "You there, why are you so late?" -- the shot expresses her sheltered, neglected quality. In the house, Max says to Joe, as Joe goes up the stairs, "If you need any help with the coffin, call me." There is a shot of von Stroheim's bald head, as he looks up. As Joe is going to leave, descending from left of frame, Norma stops him. later when Joe finds that his belongings have been transported from his apartment to the room over the garage of Norma's estate, there is a masterly shot of Max's hands -- just the gloved hands -- playing the keys of the organ. Joe enters angrily on the right of the frame, and he says, "What are my things doing here!"

As Joe works at the typewriter on Norma's script, she stands over him and makes him replace a scene he has extracted. When Joe and Norma -- who is rapt -- watch her performing in a silent film4 on a screen in her house, a puff of smoke rises from Joe's cigarette in the beam of the projector. A while later she rises in spontaneous fury at the outrage of people forgetting that face on the screen. The back of her hair is fiery, and her hand is clutching out, palm upward. It is a dynamic shot.

One of the most famous sequences is in the men's store when Joe is looking at camel's hair coats, and the oily salesman tries to make a sale. Joe's face is on the left of the frame; the salesman's smug face is on the right, and he leans forward and says, confidently, "As long as the lady's paying for it, why not take the vicuna?" And there are little touches that suggest Joe's captivity. As Joe goes out on New Year's Eve, he catches his clothing watch chain on the door.

Another example of Joe's entrapment occurs after Norma has cut her wrists and Joe has rushed back to her. He stands over her while she lies in her bed with her bandaged wrists. "Great stars have great pride," she says. He tells her, "You're the only person in this stinkin' town who has been good to me." As the orchestra downstairs plays "Auld Lang Syne," he slowly goes to her. He sits on the bed and says, "Happy New Year." She says, "Happy New Year, Darling" and reaches out with a bony hand to clutch his lapel. Then as he is pulled down to kiss her, her hands envelop him.

There are times late in the film when Joe dominates. When he creeps back to Norma's after a nocturnal visit to Betty's office, he finds Norma lying on her bed talking on the telephone to Betty and revealing Joe's life with her. He enters a door in the background and walks up to the bed, takes the telephone away from Norma, and tells Betty to come see for herself. It is the beginning of his period of dignity. When Betty arrives, he shows her the house, and though he has admitted to himself that he is "crazy" about her, he rejects her for her own sake. He tells her, "Look sweetie, be practical. I've got a long term contract here... You can finish that script on the way to Arizona [to Artie]."

When he forces Betty to leave, he stands in the doorway with light on his shoulders and temple. Then, above him on the second floor stands Normal there are in the same shot. He goes to pack and casts away his jewelry on the bed. He's planning to go back to Dayton, Ohio , the work on the copy desk of the newspaper. He says to Norma about his relationship with her, "I don't qualify for the job. Not any more." When he tells Norma that Gordon Cole wanted her old car and that DeMille did not call her, Joe stands taller than her in the frame, his truth dominating her. "He [DeMille] was trying to spare your feelings." But as Joe prepares to leave her, Norma says, "No one ever leaves me." She shoots him three times, and he falls into her new pool. He keeps narrating even after he's shot and dead.

There are other effective visuals. One is at the party Norma has for just herself and Joe on New Year's Eve. She throws her fall with its crown, and it lies on the floor. Max picks it up, the protector of the crown and all it stands for. Another visual effect occurs when Joe is reading The Young Lions waiting for Norma to go the sleep so that he can sneak out to write with Betty. When Norma retires, two points of light (the holes where the locks have been taken out) blink out after she closes the door.

The two scenes in which Norma Desmond makes public appearances are ironic and revelatory. They both add to the pathetic, terrible isolation that has come upon this great star of the past. First is her trip to the paramount Studios. Sitting in her great car, she spies and old guard and cries with a flourish, "Jonesy!" He recognizes her and tells the dubious younger guard to pass her through. One the set before her arrival, DeMille says "Thirty million fans have given her the brush... a dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit." He also says that the last time he'd seen her, "Lindbergh had just landed in Paris."

DeMille sits Norma down, and as she is sitting, a microphone on a beam intrudes; her feather hits it, and she pushes it away. It is a priceless image -- the silent screen star peevishly rejecting the microphone. After a man working the lights sees her, he turns the spotlight on her, and bit players rush to her. Brackett and Wilder avoid one-dimensional satire by showing the warm feeling that the bit players have for the fallen queen. After his call to Gordon Cole, in which he finds that Cole wanted Norma Desmond's car for a movie he is making, DeMille snaps, "Turn that light back where it belongs." And at the end of the scene, DeMille looks with regret at his ex-star and tells a colleague to inform Cole to forget the car. It is a poignant and sharply etched scene.

Norma's second public appearance ends the film. She is engulfed in her own myth as she loses her sanity. After she has slain Joe, and the public and press congregate, one officer says about the press, "Go tell them to fly a kite. This is no time for cameras." The light reflecting from the mirror in her compact is on Norma's face, and in a superb shot her eyes light up as she hears the word, "cameras." The newsreel cameras provide a way to get Norma out simply; she thinks they are DeMille's cameras. Max, serving her illusion to the end, says, "Everything's set up, gentlemen.... Lights. Are you ready, Norma?" "What is the scene?" asks the dazed Norma. "Where am I?" Max responds, "This is the staircase of the palace... down below they're waiting for the princess." Joe in his posthumous narration concludes, "The dream she had clung to so desperately had enfolded her." Norma enthuses that she is "so happy" to be Salome; her dream has become her reality. The last part is accompanied by heavy music. As Norma descends the stairs, people watch from above. Norma says, "Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up." She snakes forward, and the shot turns misty. The film ends.

If the effective visual composition of Sunset Boulevard helps shift us away from our disbelief, so too do the topical, pungent, and ironic lines and situations of the script by director Wilder, Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr. There are several allusions to actual Hollywood life and personalities and performers which spice and brighten the film. When Joe is trying to con a producer (Fred Clark) about his idea for a script "Bases Loaded," he says that Zanuck wanted to make Tyrone Power the shortstop, while he himself sees Alan Ladd in the role. When Betty Schaefer leaves the office after dismissing the "Bases Loaded" concept, Joe snaps at her, "Next time I'll write you The Naked and The Dead!"

When Joe looks at the swimming pool at Norma's house, he relates, "Mabel Normand and John Gilbert [silent screen stars] must have swum in it 10,000 midnights ago." Looking at herself on her home screen Norma says, "There aren't any faces like that anymore. Maybe one, Garbo." At his apartment, Artie Green says, "They call me the Elsa Maxwell of the Assistant Directors." Joe says that he and his peers call Schwab's drugstore "Headquarters." It is the place from which Joe calls and asks people for aid at the beginning of the film, and it is where Joe meets Betty and Artie when he is buying cigarettes for Norma. When Joe returns from a night of writing with Betty, Max meets him in the garage. In their conversation, he tells Joe, "There were three young directors in those days -- D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, and Max von Mayerling [himself]." After Norma has shot and killed Joe, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper appears, speaking into a phone, "I'm talking from the bedroom of Norma Desmond." When Joe is revealing himself and showing Betty Norma's mansion he says, "Valentino used to dance here." Such allusions give Sunset Boulevard an aura of authenticity.

The dialogue by Brackett and Wilder is expressive and incisively clever. They give Gloria Swanson some sure-fire lines with which to emote. When Joe says to Norma, "You used to be big," she raises herself up and says, " I am big. It is the pictures that got small." And Joe's wry narration is full of arresting images, such as when he describes Norma's estate as "crumbling in slow-motion." And Joe has an ironic tone, "I called a couple of 'yes men' at Metro. To me they said 'No.'" "Rudy never asked about the finance company; he'd just look at your heels and know the score." The scriptors even use what might be construed as puns. Speaking about his problems over his car Joe tells Norma, "That's why I took this job -- ghostwriting." In relation to the point of view, this could be an outlandish play on words.

The irony is relentless. When he returns Joe to Norma's house where she has just cut her wrists, a cab driver blithely and with unwitting irony declares, "Happy new Year." When Joe goes to Schwab's for cigarettes for Norma, Betty Schaefer sees him and says, "Where have you been keeping yourself?" Joe answers wryly, "I haven't been keeping myself at all." After hanging up on Betty who is trying to reach Joe, Max says to Norma that it was a wrong number and in an outrageous comment says, "Our number must be very similar to the number of the pound."

There are also some ironic esoteric comments. Joe thinks bitterly, "The audience don't know somebody sits down and writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along." It is a line that is quite excusable for a writer to inject into a script. The possibility that Joe is a writer of some talent who is trying to hack out scripts helps dispel our doubt about the clever, sardonic, figurative language that he employs in his narration.

Though Sunset Boulevard is engaging in image and script, it does have its severe problems. One of the difficulties is the character Joe Gilles. Many critics have generally emphasized the coldness, cynicism, and impersonality of Sunset Boulevard. But the film and its narrator are not nearly as cold as they might seem. First of all, the emphasis on Joe as a pragmatic gigolo is contradicted by several scenes. Even early in the film, he has his little moments of principle. When he finds that Norma has paid his back rent he says, "Okay, we'll take it out of my salary." And when she wants to buy him clothes, he protests. He is callous but caring; he is not callous enough for his own good. It is Joe's kindness that eventually trips him up. When he calls Max from Artie Green's apartment on New Year's Eve, it is to tell Max to pack his clothes ("the ones I came with"). Max tells him that Norma has cut her wrists. Joe could be free and clear, but he immediately rushes back to Norma. When Norma discovers Joe is sneaking out to be with Betty at night and calls her, Joe is faced with his most important decision. He has Betty join him at Norma's house, and though she loves him and he has feelings for her, he makes her leave him. He sends her back to Artie who is working in Arizona. It is a gesture of decency, but it also seems the least motivated action that Joe takes. But again it is an innate sense of decency that guides him. This decency contradicts most of Joe's external frigidity.

Beneath his incisive iciness, writer-director wilder has a large heart. Many of his films -- especially The Lost Weekend and The Apartment -- have had their punch lessened by sentimentality. Sunset Boulevard also undergoes a decisive change. The scenes between Betty and Joe are flat. And from the time Betty enters Norma's house until the end, Sunset Boulevard is melodrama. Dwight Macdonald (Macdonald on Movies) questioned Wilder's cynicism: "Although Mr. Wilder is considered a very cynical fellow in Hollywood, he seems to me not cynical enough; he uses bitter chocolate for his icing, but underneath is the stale old cake." Macdonald also rejected Wilder's handling of Joe's moment of truth: "... he asks the girl out to the mansion of the aging star (Gloria Swanson) who is keeping him, reveals the real state of affairs and sends her back to her fiance in a renunciatory gesture all too reminiscent of Sidney Carton's 'This is a far, far better thing I do' scene at the guillotine in A Tale of Two Cities... But he should have been either less of a heel at first or less of a hero at last. A genuinely cynical director like Lubitsch would have had him stay on with Swanson because he has come to prefer loveless luxury to impoverished love. A real sentimentalist, on the other hand, would have him marry the girl and begin a new, clean life. Mr. Wilder's ending tries to have it both ways, something as impossible in art as in life, though a feat achieved hourly in Hollywood, whose relation to either is distant."

Sunset Boulevard is a good film to compare with Citizen Kane. Though it does not have the completeness of complexity of Kane, there are some provocative similarities. Both are based in the "American Dream," the corruption of a dream, vanity and power. Both have arresting moods, a lot of visual fascination, sharply-etched scripts, and beautiful composition. Both draw from actuality. Kane draws from Hearstian lore; Sunset Boulevard from Hollywood lore. Charles Foster Kane and Norma Desmond are both possessed by illusions. Susan Kane has her opera house failure, and Norma has her unwitting futility on the set. Both Susan and Norma attempt suicide. Kane retires to Xanadu, the huge unfinished palace, and Norma retreats to her mausoleum of a mansion. Joe describes her house as an enormous place with eight master bedrooms, each with a sunken bathroom, with a bowling alley in the cellar, and a ceiling brought from Portugal. Both films have iconoclasm, myth, satire, loneliness and failure, and an unending dream. For Kane that dream is "Rosebud"; for Norma Desmond, it is "Salome". Both characters achieve a semblance of their dream at the end: Kane, in death; Norma, in madness.

Both Citizen Kane and Sunset Boulevard make demands on their viewers' sensibilities. It is interesting to ponder the question of which film one can more readily accept. In Sight and Sound (Nov. 1950) critic James Agee questioned the appeal of Sunset Boulevard: "It seems to me... that this is essentially a picture-maker's picture. I very much enjoy and respect it, but it seems significant to me that among other interested amateurs there is a wide difference of reaction, ranging from moderate liking or disappointment all the way to boredom, intense dislike, or even contempt." Agee focused on the film's coldness: "I suspect that its main weakness as popular art lies not so much in unconventionalities of story or character, as in its coldness. And if it falls short of greatness -- and in my opinion it does -- I suspect that coldness, again, is mainly responsible. However that may be, I am willing to bet that it will be looked at and respected long after most of the movies too easily called great -- not to mention the "heartwarmers" -- have been sat through and forgotten."

Charles Higham also celebrated Sunset Boulevard thirteen years later in the same journal Sight and Sound. Higham's comments open up several provocative considerations. Though Higham rejected the "artistic cheats" of Citizen Kane, he was able to transcend the point of view problems in Sunset Boulevard. He wrote, "The film succeeds entirely through the application of a mannered, stylized technique so brilliantly manipulated that disbelief is totally suspended."

Suspension of disbelief is a tricky concept; it is in the mind of the beholder and depends on many factors. The more idiosyncratic a work is the more variant will be its audience's reactions. There will always be those who affirm it and those who dismiss it; such is the mature of audience response. But a work stands or falls on how it is able to allow a portion of its audience to be comfortable with its vision and its trappings. Each man decides whether he wants to believe a film. If he doesn't believe it, is he willing to try to compensate for his disbelief by finding a way to make peace with the film. Sometimes it can be useful to try a different approach to a film if one wants to be fair to it before he arrives at his conclusive judgement. Many times, of course, the attempts to find value in a work are futile and a waste of one's time. But the ability to try various approaches is one of the best tools of the watchful filmgoer.

Higham found a way to accept Sunset Boulevard. He wrote, "Whereas Double Indemnity and the best passages in The Lost Weekend were austere, controlled, Sunset Boulevard is consciously a Big Show; and as such it is never less than dazzling." But like Agee and most other critics, Higham though enthusiastic about Sunset Boulevard saw flaws in it. He found some liabilities in the approach of director-writer Wilder, "The viewpoint throughout is that of a gifted reporter, brilliantly charting the surface grotesqueries of the situation, seizing on all the possible highlights, but missing the private miseries."

Director Wilder has admitted some difficulties in the point of view. Of the film's opening he said, "Of course it's illogical, but that doesn't matter; it's not boring. And as long as it's riveting they [the audience] will swallow it " (The Celluloid Muse). But Wilder was forced to edit out some material because of the audience reaction. He reported: "We originally had a weird kind of framing sequence containing some of the best material I've ever shot, but when we previewed the picture in Chicago and in the suburbs of New York, people just screamed with laughter. so we cut it. I still have the footage. We showed the corpse of a man being brought to the morgue downtown. In this particular section of the morgue are about eight people, including an elderly man, a young boy, and Bill Holden. And the corpses are telling each other the details of events leading to their deaths."

It all comes down to how much one is willing to suspend his disbelief, through responses to visual images and language, and the rewards he feels he can achieve by doing so. If one can accept the point of view, whatever its limitations, Sunset Boulevard can be a rare treat.

1 "You can't, of course, really shoot through water at all, because if you do it acts as a mirror and shows you and the camera crew. After many experiences, we put a mirror at the bottom of the pool and poured in a lot of light. Then we shot down, and hiding the cameras was hard." (Billy Wilder in The Celluloid Muse).

2 Stroheim directed Swanson in the silent Queen Kelly (1928). She helped finance the film which was produced by Joseph Kennedy (the father of the late President), and she was influential in shelving the film. Sound films were replacing silent films. Queen Kelly was finally released in incomplete form by Kennedy and Miss Swanson. Since he had friction over Queen Kelly with Swanson, Stroheim's voluntary fictional servitude as Max in Sunset Boulevard is additionally ironic.

3 One exception to this is after Joe has left Schwab's and is in the touring car with Norma. The next image is of something twirling. It's an umbrella and Norma proceeds to use it in a bathing beauty skit she puts on for Joe.

4 The clip they are watching actually is Swanson in Queen Kelly. For a comparison of Sunset Boulevard and Queen Kelly, see Stroheim by Joel W. Finler (pp. 133-4).

© 2000-2022 Tony Macklin