[Film: Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder, 1950]
Conflated Requiems:

The Revealing, Eery Use of the Protagonist Narrator in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard


Gloria Swanson Sketch by M.R.P.

Caricature Sketch by M.R.P.


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 abundant in the noir genre from which Sunset Boulevard takes many of its stylistic cues. But this technique has varying degrees of success. A reasonably famous example of such a narrator going awry is Harrison Ford’s monotone accompanying the original theatrical cut of Blade Runner (which was entirely removed from the director’s cut and final cut of the film).

Still, when its intrusions are not overbearing, distracting, or obvious, the narrator’s voice can be an inoffensive tool to aid in exposition and to smooth out transitions from scene to scene. But can it be more than that? Sunset Boulevard shows us the answer is, ‘yes!’ What sets the narration here so far ahead is the way that the context and presentation of the voiceover of Joe Gillis (portrayed by William Holden) directly supports both the emotional authenticity and the central themes 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 tale of dependence, delusion, and mortality. It is a member of that pantheon of cinematic achievements from 1940 to 1950—like Casablanca, Citizen Kane, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre—which are rightly revered. Billy Wilder’s film is as good as its reputation and better.

Sunset Boulevard has always struck me, however, as somehow more visceral and natural than those other classics. I would contend that this impression has to do with the intimate vulnerability involved in its plot, from the mounting desperation of ex-film-star Norma Desmond to the apparently doomed romantic and professional aspirations of Betty Schaefer to the revelation that Max Von Mayerling’s obsession with Norma rivals Norma’s own.

But that’s not all. The audience comes to experience this intense vulnerability on the part of the film and its characters in another way: through the grumbling, matter-of-fact, occasionally brutal honesty of Joe Gillis’ voiceover. That honesty is one of the two principal virtues of Sunset Boulevard’s use of narration. Gillis’ financial woes, his cynicism about the prospect of his ever succeeding in the film industry, his insecurities regarding his mounting interdependence with Norma Desmond—are all subjects of direct address in his narration.

Gillis is totally without shame or filter in narrating his appraisal of his situation at different times in the story. And, while the post-mortem cause for this shamelessness will be explored in the next section, the effect of this shamelessness is an immediate ring of truth. Some protagonist narrators, like the one in Billy Wilder’s earlier film Double Indemnity, make explicit or implicit appeals to their perceived audience to understand and even empathize with them; but in Sunset Boulevard the narration seems utterly disconnected from any care for the listener’s approval or disapproval, as though it were coming from an omniscient faceless narrator rather than an involved character. There’s no reason to ever question the reliability of Gillis as narrator, as he rattles off so dispassionately and so constantly thoughts that reflect so poorly on him.

still of Norma Desmond's mansion - Sunset Boulevard - Billy Wilder - narratorHell, you could even say that those rare occasions when the narration veers into purple prose or overly clever quips actually assist in the authenticity, by portraying Gillis believably as an unsuccessful writer.

Whatever the case with that, though, certainly the self-conscious, meta elements of the narration with regards to the film industry help to further this feeling that we are hearing something authentic. Long before this became trendy, Sunset Boulevard was a film that showed an ugly side of Hollywood, full of discarded actors, fawning sycophants, and legions of hopefuls who may never even get the chance to be discarded. As a former hopeful himself, Gillis is not shy about piling on with this topic.

This apparent honesty lines up well with the increasingly tense household dramas and personal tragedies into which we are voyeuristically peering . . . but it’s a darker angle on the narration that really draws out how it underscores the film’s themes.

Gothic Narration in Sunset Boulevard:

The other principal virtue of Sunset Boulevard’s narration, to my mind, is its involvement in a kind of surreal thematic resonance. Now, what do I mean by that? To begin, notice that Joe Gillis, our stalwart narrator throughout, is introduced as a corpse in the first scene of the movie.

Film critic Richard Corliss identifies details like that as being fairly widespread, making Sunset Boulevard “the definitive Hollywood horror movie” (Corliss 147). In addition to the deceased narrator, morbid details include the darkly comical chimp funeral, Gillis’ misidentification as an undertaker, Max’s lurking and apparently sleepless service (often rendered silently in the dead of night), and the setting of Desmond’s gloomy decaying mansion. To me, that collection of details calls to mind a stranger category than horror or dark comedy: gothic, a morose and haunted literary genre that was most popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In particular, the displacement of the old, the forgotten, and even the dead into an unnatural living context is the bread and butter of gothic fiction.

As gothic works frequently suggest, any attempt to resurrect the past may be necessarily doomed and even in some measure ghoulish. Yet, as much as Sunset Boulevard’s eery backwards-looking plot and characters manifest a gothic throwback, they also present a realistic psychological drama: a depiction of the personal tragedy of Norma Desmond, quietly mortified that she could become obsolete—hiding her depression at being alone, dismissed, past her prime. The intricacy and precision of the portrayal of Desmond’s psychology, to be credited naturally to the tour de force performance by Gloria Swanson, ironically makes that small interior story feel broad in scope, even universal.

Sunset Boulevard movie poster - Billy Wilder - narratorThese notes on the film’s status as gothic fiction and psychological realism bring us directly to the effective resonance in the narration of Joe Gillis that I mentioned at the start of this section. That resonance is with a pattern that dominates the film: the lost, yet in denial. It’s a motif that echoes softly in the lives of Artie Green and Betty Schaefer. And like a depressed analogue for Tennyson’s light brigade, the central group 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 is losing interest in them as well as access to them. There’s nothing left for Gillis to do but carry on retelling the story, like a script he’s ready to sell for cheap.


On your next watch of Sunset Boulevard, really hold in your mind 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 lurid tale of his own subjugation and murder. He is aware that he has finally attracted the attention from Hollywood that his writing never could.

His words to us, however, are more than just a somber recollection. There are several moments of confusion between the past tense that dominates the narration and moments of present tense, where Gillis seems surprised by events that took place in his own life. It’s as if he has already forgotten some of what happened. Yet, as he has been dead for hours before the telling of his tale begins, it would also be inaccurate to say that his life is flashing before his eyes. The way I would put it is: Sunset Boulevard is a ghost story, told by the ghost, and (like Norma Desmond’s obsession with her own past) he’s really only haunting himself.

Work Cited:

Corliss, Richard. Talking Pictures: Screenwriters in the American Cinema, 1927–1973. Overlook Press, 1974. Print.

[Film: Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder, 1950]
Conflated Requiems:

The Revealing, Eery Use of the Protagonist Narrator in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard

was last modified: November 17th, 2022 by Daniel Podgorski
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