Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Sunset Blvd. (1950)
(aka Sunset Boulevard)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Sunset Blvd. (1950) (aka Sunset Boulevard)

In director Billy Wilder's classic black comedy and noirish drama about a doomed romance with a femme fatale in Tinseltown - it was a gothic masterpiece about "behind the scenes" Hollywood, self-deceit, spiritual and spatial emptiness, and the price of fame, greed, narcissism, and ambition:

  • in the shocking twist beginning - there was a view of the posthumous, disembodied narrator - a cynical, down-on-his-luck B-movie hack screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden), who was sent to his doom and spoke beyond the grave (in voice-over) as a dead man corpse floating face-down in a swimming pool in a rotting Beverly Hills mansion. His voice-over narration was delivered cynically and crisply in a film-noirish style, by the disembodied dead man
  • at about 5 am in the morning, motorcycle officers, followed by police cars with sirens blaring, carrying a homicide squad, detectives and reporters, rushed down Sunset Boulevard to a mansion in Beverly Hills in the 10,000 block. There, they found a dead body floating face down in a swimming pool:

    Yes, this is Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, California. It's about five o'clock in the morning. That's the Homicide Squad - complete with detectives and newspapermen. A murder has been reported from one of those great big houses in the ten thousand block. You'll read about it in the late editions, I'm sure. You'll get it over your radio and see it on television because an old-time star is involved - one of the biggest. But before you hear it all distorted and blown out of proportion, before those Hollywood columnists get their hands on it, maybe you'd like to hear the facts, the whole truth. If so, you've come to the right party. You see, the body of a young man was found floating in the pool of her mansion - with two shots in his back and one in his stomach. Nobody important, really. Just a movie writer with a couple of 'B' pictures to his credit. The poor dope! He always wanted a pool. Well, in the end, he got himself a pool - only the price turned out to be a little high.
  • the dead man Joe Gillis recounted in flashback (with cynicism) about a six-month period during which he struggled to produce screenplays that would sell, to meet the demands of the industry. Joe was introduced as a destitute, indebted, down-and-out, depressed $35/week newspaper copy desk writer from the Midwest (Dayton, OH), who was working as a screenwriter in his one-room Alto Nido apartment house in Hollywood

Joe's Rejected Screenplay at Paramount
Joe Gillis Hack Screenwriter - Six Months Earlier
  • he had failed to have his most recent screenplay for a baseball/gambling picture (Bases Loaded) approved by Paramount Pictures' producer Sheldrake (Fred Clark) after young and pretty script reader Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) offered a harsh criticism of his script as formulaic: ("I wouldn't bother...It's just a rehash of something that wasn't very good to begin with....I just didn't think it was any good. I found it flat and trite")
  • while fleeing in his car from repo men who wanted to take back his 1946 Plymouth, Joe happened to have a flat tire and was able to pull into the driveway of a decaying, seemingly-deserted, neglected "white elephant" mansion in the 10,000 block of Sunset Boulevard. He hid his car in the empty garage of the 1920s home, and then heard a woman wearing dark glasses behind a slatted shade beckoning him from the house: "You there! Why are you so late? Why have you kept me waiting so long?" (He was mistaken for the undertaker who was about to arrive with a coffin for her recently-deceased pet chimpanzee.)
Joe's Fateful Rendezvous With Femme Fatale Norma Desmond
"You there! Why are you so late? Why have you kept me waiting so long?"
  • after being summoned inside by an unidentified butler, he ventured upstairs where in the corridor, he met the home's owner - she was dressed in black house pajamas, wearing sunglasses and she had a leopard-patterned scarf wrapped like a turban around her head. She brought him into her bedroom to view her dead chimpanzee. During their initial conversation, he recognized her, and commented about how big she was in silent pictures: "You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big." In one of the filmdom's most quoted lines, she bristled back indignantly about the rise of the talkies and the end of the silent era:

I am big. It's the pictures that got small.

  • she was the wealthy, aging, reclusive Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), Paramount's greatest film star during the silent era ("an old time of the biggest"), but now a relic forgotten for the past twenty years. She boasted about a script she was writing about the Biblical figure Salomé for her screen comeback, hopefully with director Cecil B. DeMille. She watched him intensely as he read her hand-scrawled script for her triumphant re-entry ("return") into film-making ("she sat coiled up like a watch spring - her cigarette clamped in a curious holder")
  • he bluntly realized that her script - that desperately needed editing - was a "silly hodgepodge of melodramatic plots" that required more dialogue, and "certainly could use a pair of shears and a blue pencil." She hired him on the spot to finish her script, for $500/week, and insisted that he live on the premises. Joe was able to satisfy the thirsty illusions of immortality of the aging, waspish, megalomaniacal fading, ex-silent film star queen Norma Desmond.
  • for the first night, Joe stayed in the room over the garage, and upon awakening found that his 3 months' overdue rent had been paid and all of his possessions had been brought to the room by her faithful butler/ex-husband Max (director Erich von Stroheim). Joe felt irretrievably trapped, but realized he needed the money and editing job, so he acquiesed to stay for a few more weeks. She was overly observant of him: ("She was around all the time, hovering over me, afraid I'd do injury to that precious brainchild of hers")
  • there were numerous short scenes interwoven, including the moonlight funeral/burial and last rites for Norma's pet monkey in a baby coffin in her backyard, and the scenes of Norma watching screenings of her old silent movies projected in her living room (including Swanson's own disastrous and uncompleted Queen Kelly from 1928), when she proclaimed: "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? I'll show them. I'll be up there again, so help me!" Some days, there was a bridge game in the living room with her old "waxworks" actor-friends from the silent era
  • Max would chauffeur Norma and Joe around town in her fancy, open-air handmade 1929 Isotta-Fraschini car. Norma made him her "kept man" by taking him to an exclusive mens' shop to acquire fashionable clothing, including a tuxedo. On one occasion, the pushy clerk insisted that Joe select the more expensive vicuna rather than camel's hair since Norma was paying the bill: "Well, as long as the lady's paying for it, why not take the vicuna?" During California's rainy season, Joe was moved into her decaying Sunset Boulevard mansion - into the bedroom of one of her ex-husbands. Max admitted to Joe that he had kept up Norma's fanciful delusions about her stardom by sending her fan mail letters that he had written.
  • during an aborted New Years' Eve party that she had hosted for only Joe and herself, Joe abruptly left to escape her smothering and controlling nature after telling her: "Has it ever occurred to you that I may have a life of my own?...What I'm trying to say is that I'm all wrong for you." He departed after she slapped him across the face. Later that evening after she attempted to commit suicide by cutting her wrists with a razor, Joe felt obligated to return to her after he phoned and learned of her suicide attempt. Once back in the mansion, he thanked her: "You've been good to me. You're the only person in this stinking town that has been good to me." Although further entrapped, Joe decided to remain with her as her bought lover.
  • at the mansion one day when she sensed that Joe was bored, Norma transformed herself into a Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty and then into Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp (with black mustache, derby hat, and cane), part of her playful "live show" entertainment for him.
  • Norma finally engaged in a much-anticipated meeting with director Cecil B. De Mille on the set of Samson and Delilah (1949), after deciding to be chauffeured to the set in her large touring car - without an appointment. She was deluded into believing that De Mille would naturally produce her triumphant comeback movie. Upon her arrival, De Mille, on sound stage 18 in jodhpurs and boots, was informed through a succession of assistants, that Norma (who "must be a million years old") was on her way. The great director reacted 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. Pioneering Hollywood director De Mille greeted her at the sound stage door when she arrived in the limousine: "Well, hello, young fellow...It's good to see you." For a moment, Norma basked in the light of a spotlight and returned in her mnd to her days as a silver-screen beauty, although the studio had really only contacted her to inquire about renting her luxury vintage 1929 Isotta Fraschini car for a Crosby picture. However, Norma was completely deluded about working again with De Mille: "We'll work again, won't we, Chief? We'll make our greatest picture....I just want to work again. You don't know what it means to know that you want me."
  • although she was exhilarated, De Mille had no intention of filming Norma's script with her starring role. As Joe stated in voice-over, the vain Norma prepared vigorously to be in a starring role: "She was absolutely determined to be ready, ready for those cameras that would never turn."
  • while ensnared by the demented Norma, opportunistic Joe began to have genuine feelings for 22 year-old clean-cut, Paramount script reader Betty Schaefer; he would sneak off and work with her on their own script during late-hours in her studio office. He told her that she was extremely tempting to get involved with - as a "smart girl. Nothing like being twenty-two. And may I suggest that if we're ever to finish this story, you stay at least two feet away from me. Now the first time you see me coming any closer, I want you to take off a shoe and clunk me on the head with it." (Earlier in the film, he had playfully but affectionately kissed her on the nose - after she told him that she had a nose job)
  • after being showered with bribes (clothes, money, flattery and other gifts), Joe had become quickly spoiled and ensnared in Norma's web of delusion - and death trap. His budding relationship (and long hours away from her) with Betty was threatening to Norma, who inevitably became jealous and delusional and accused him of being unfaithful with another woman, especially after she found his manuscript for a co-scripted 'UNTITLED LOVE STORY" written with Betty Schaefer.
  • Joe's extra-curricular associations also would become a concern for Betty's fiancee Artie Green (Jack Webb) - especially when Betty confessed that she was no longer in love with her fiancee. (Betty: "Of course I love him. I always will. I'm not in love with him any more, that's all." Joe: "What happened?" Betty: "You did.") Joe spontaneously took her in his arms and they kissed, obviously in love
  • to reveal Joe's hidden life and disrupt his relationship with Betty, Norma phoned to inform her and ask: "Do you know where he lives? Do you know how he lives? Do you know what he lives on?" Her intention, under the guise of helping her, was to show how Joe had been deceiving her: "I'm trying to do you a favor. I'm trying to spare you a great deal of misery." Joe intercepted the call and invited Betty to see where he lived, in person. Joe learned that Norma, tormented by his relationship, had bought a revolver and contemplated killing herself.
  • during a climactic visit by Betty to the mansion, Joe admitted he was a dependent gigolo and 'kept man' under contract who lived off Norma's wealth. Betty was willing to forgive him and leave with him, but Joe stressed his predicament: "I've got a good deal here. A long-term contract with no options. I like it that way. Maybe it's not very admirable." He sadly terminated their relationship by showing her the exit, and encouraging her marriage to Artie.
  • in front of Norma, Joe began to pack up and return to Dayton, Ohio (for his copy desk job) and she became distraught and cried out madly: ("I can't face life without you. And you know I'm not afraid to die"). He also burst Norma's delusions about her comeback: "The audience left 20 years ago - now face it!" - and he told her the truth about her fan mail and studio visit. Threatening suicide and shouting out: "No one ever leaves a star," the temporarily insane Norma turned her gun on him and shot him twice in the back and once in the stomach as he walked away toward the outdoor pool. He tumbled backwards and capsized into the water, face-down

Joe's Decision to Leave Norma

Joe Shot to Death by Norma at Poolside
  • after shooting Joe in a "crime of passion", the police and camera news-crews ("the heartless so-and-sos") arrived by daybreak. Once the crazed and deluded woman heard that there were "Cameras!", she was persuaded and coaxed to quietly come downstairs to a waiting car through a group of assembled reporters and cameramen - to surrender. Thoroughly deranged, she was fooled and made to think that she was on the set and experiencing her longed-for return - shooting a Salome film scene for famous movie director Cecil B. De Mille. She thought that she was playing the part of princess Salome for the silent film cameras, descending the staircase of the palace.


"I'm ready."

Descending the Staircase

"I can't go on with the scene. I'm too happy."

"All right, Mr. De Mille, I'm ready for my close-up."

Out-of-Focus Fade to Black
  • she paused before she made her last great "entrance" and comeback scene. She regally made a grand descent of her staircase inside her mansion - madly deluded and disoriented, she spoke the film's final words, as police, cameramen and press corps reporters waited to take her away:

    I can't go on with the scene. I'm too happy. Mr. DeMille, do you mind if I say a few words? Thank you. I just want to tell you all how happy I am to be back in the studio making a picture again! You don't know how much I've missed all of you. And I promise you I'll never desert you again. Because after Salome we'll make another picture and another picture! You see, this is my life. It always will be! There's nothing else - just us - and the cameras - and those wonderful people out there in the dark. All right, Mr. De Mille, I'm ready for my close-up.
  • at film's end, there was a slow out-of-focus fade out to black on Norma's face as she approached the camera

Joe Gillis (William Holden) Dead in Swimming Pool

Norma: "I am big - it's the pictures that got small"

Vampish-Looking Norma Desmond

Watching Her Silent Movies: "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces"

Norma: "I'll be up there again, so help me!"

Dancing on New Years' Eve with Norma

Norma's Upset About Joe's Decision to Leave Her on New Years' Eve

After Norma's Suicide Attempt

"Kept Man" Joe with Norma at the Swimming Pool

Betty (Nancy Olson) Suggesting to Joe That They Collaborate on a Script Together

Norma Entertaining Joe

Meeting Cecil B. De Mille on the Film Set

Joe Kissing Betty on the Nose

Joe's Brief Love Affair With Betty While Working Together

Betty's and Joe's Script: UNTITLED LOVE STORY

Norma - Tormented by Joe's Relationship with Betty

Joe's Sad Goodbye to Betty in Norma's Mansion


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