The Best LA Detective Movie: Sunset Boulevard

By Kristy Puchko 2013-01-10 08:54:17discussion comments
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With Gangster Squad coming to theaters this Friday, we've decided to take a look at some of our favorite Los Angeles detective stories, and what they tell us about the city they depict. Earlier, Katey sang the praises of Robert Altman's 1973 noir The Long Goodbye, while Mack went to bat for L.A. Confidential. Then, Sean took us to Chinatown. Today, Kristy returns to Sunset Boulevard for her choice of the quintessential California crime story.


Asked what I think is the best of LA noir, and I need to look no further than Sunset Boulevard. In it, writer-director Billy Wilder tapped into movie audience's fervent curiosity about what goes on behind the gilded gates of the Hollywood elite, while simultaneously honing in on our deepest fears, including loneliness, death and being forgotten. The film centers on the doomed romance between a struggling artist at the end if his rope and a silent film has-been, presenting Hollywood as palace of glamor and glory built on the backs of souls twisted by shattered dreams of fortune and fame.

Per noir convention, the film begins in media res, with our smug narrator matter-of-factly revealing his corpse, bullet-ridden and bobbing in the kind of luxurious pool he'd always dreamed he'd some day call his own. From here, the audience is made detectives in the case of who killed Joe Gillis, charming hustler and aspiring screenwriter. Though much of the film is confined to the old but grandiose Hollywood mansion where Joe met his demise, Wilder manages to offer a sharp and captivating critique of Los Angeles.

Through Joe's gallivanting about town, we see LA as a place where the promise of art lures dreamers in, but the harsh reality of show business makes con men and conned men of most. Trying to hide the car he can't afford from repo men, Joe (William Holden) limps into the life of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a forgotten and aging star who is desperate for a return. (Don't you dare call it a "comeback.") While Norma sees a possible husband number four, Joe sees a meal ticket, but is a reluctant and begrudging boy toy. This is not the brand of Hollywood luxury of which he dreamed, surrounded by Norma's narcissistic portraits and her "wax works" friends. So he takes one last crack at writing and romance with a spirited office girl, a move that incites Norma's jealousy, and seals Joe's fate.

Smug and conniving as he is, I find it hard to sympathize with Joe. Instead, each time I watch Sunset Boulevard, I feel for Norma, alone in her dark mansion and delusion, hurt by Hollywood's fickle spotlight that left her in the dark long ago. In the end, surrounded by the press, she revels in her return to the spotlight, blind to its cause and cruel intentions. As she makes her grand entrance—or exit depending on your viewpoint—she comes right toward the camera, right toward us, who Joe calls "the heartless so-and-sos." Once we enjoyed her movies, and we now revel in schadenfreude over her heartbreak and scandal. In this final shot, Wilder implicates us in the downfall of Norma Desmond and the murder of Joe Gillis because we are the audience and the attention she craves so desperately that she'd do anything to lure us back.

Wilder applied his sharp comedic talents to a satire about showbiz and life in Los Angeles, focusing on those who haven't yet made their mark, and those whose mark is fading like their looks. LA is portrayed as a city of dreams, most of which fester transforming their dreamers into cynics and maniacs who feed the beast of entertainment all the same. His critique is given additional credence by cameos from the likes of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, director Cecil B. DeMille, and silent film star Buster Keaton. It's easy to enjoy Sunset Boulevard for its dark sense of humor and Gloria Swanson's fabulously theatrical performance that has inspired hordes of actresses and drag queens for decades. But in the end, it's impossible to shake the film's dark view of Los Angeles, especially as Norma, ready for her close-up, gives her final deranged speech, then charges the camera as her images blurs then fades to black.

Sunset Boulevard is available to purchase on Amazon.
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