This article is essentially a recommendation (without qualifying remarks) of a film that really needs no introduction: Sunset Boulevard. But because I’m in the business of writing things that might interest or entertain you, I am going to approach this recommendation from the following angle: Sunset Boulevard represents one of the best uses of a protagonist narrator in the past hundred years of film.
Using the protagonist as a narrator is a tactic that is abundantly present in the noir genre from which Sunset Boulevard derives many of its tropes. But this technique has varying degrees of success. Most people can name at least one use of the protagonist narrator that probably did not turn out quite like the director envisioned it (a reasonably modern example is Harrison Ford’s narration in Blade Runner, which was entirely removed from the director’s cut and final cut of the film).
When its exposition is not overbearing and obvious, the narrator’s voice can be an inoffensive tool to transition from scene to scene. What sets Sunset Boulevard so far ahead, however, is its use of the narrator (Joe Gillis, portrayed by William Holden) to support the thematic content of the film.
The nature of this article is such that it requires spoiling basic plot details of Sunset Boulevard, so you should only continue reading after this paragraph if you either do not mind spoilers or have already seen the film.
Honest Narration in Sunset Boulevard:
Sunset Boulevard is a gripping classic about decadence, dependence, delusion, and mortality. It is a member of that pantheon of cinematic achievements from 1940-50 which—like Casablanca, Citizen Kane, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre—is rightly revered. Billy Wilder’s film is as good as its reputation and better.
Still, there is something about Sunset Boulevard that sets it apart as somehow more visceral and natural than those other classics. I would contend that it has to do with the intimate vulnerability involved in the plot of Sunset Boulevard. In my previous article for this series, the topic was Michael Haneke’s 1997 anti-slasher slasher, Funny Games, and Sunset Boulevard, while a lot less violent, is not much less gut-wrenching at times.
And how does the audience come to experience this intense vulnerability on the part of the film and its characters? Well, I would say that that is one of the two principal virtues of its use of narration. Joe Gillis’ insecurities regarding his mounting interdependence with Norma Desmond is a subject of direct address in his narration.
Gillis is totally without shame or filter in his appraisal of his situation for the audience at different times in the narrative. And, while the post-mortem reason for this shamelessness will be explored below, the effect of this shamelessness is an immediate ring of truth. Some narrators try to get along with the audience, to varying degrees of success; but your approval or disapproval of the narrator feels utterly irrelevant in Sunset Boulevard.
And certainly the self-conscious, meta element of the narration (Gillis’ biting remarks about hollywood) give the film a feeling of implicit authenticity and honesty which is tough to properly replicate. As Joe Gillis spends the first act of the film attempting to make his way as a hollywood writer, there is no shortage of commentary on the shallower productions being the ones that often sell best.
Gothic Narration in Sunset Boulevard:
The other principal virtue of the narration, to my mind, is the involvement of the narration in a kind of surreal thematic resonance. Joe Gillis, after all, our stalwart narrator throughout, is a corpse in the first scene of the film.
All of the elements of the film that Richard Corliss has identified as being monstrous and morbid (its deceased narrator, the darkly comical chimp funeral, Gillis’ misidentification as an undertaker, and the large, gloomy, old mansion) all belong to a stranger genre than horror or dark comedy: gothic. In particular, the displacement of the old, the decrepit, and even the dead into an unnatural living context is the bread and butter of gothic fiction.
Any attempt to resurrect the past may be necessarily doomed and in some measure ghoulish. Yet, as much as it is a gothic throwback, it is also a modernist masterwork: Sunset Boulevard is about the personal tragedy of Norma Desmond, a person rendered useless—past her prime—and yet somehow the intricacy and precision of its presentation makes it all the more sweeping, grand, and mythical.
So what is this effective resonance in the narration of Joe Gillis to which I keep alluding? Well, somewhat obviously, the resonance is with a pattern that dominates the film: the lost, yet in denial. Like a depressed analogue for Tennyson’s light brigade, the figures of Norma Desmond, Max Von Mayerling, and Joe Gillis carry on their projects (Desmond’s acting, Von Mayerling’s “directing,” and Gillis’ storytelling) after their hope of success should be gone. The world has lost interest in them as well as access to them.
So get out there and watch or re-watch Sunset Boulevard, and really consider throughout the film that the narrator is telling you the tale of his own death in the past tense. Perhaps never before or since has the dead-pan tone of noir narration been so appropriate to a character as with Gillis: resigned, sardonic, and unabashed in telling the shameful tale of his own subjugation and murder. He knows full well that his own life has finally become trashy and lurid enough to be one of the scripts that sell.