This week we will be looking at the film Sunset Boulevard from 1950. before we begin to talk about he film itself I would like to draw our attention back to last weeks film in order to make as interesting comparison. In Pygmalion we saw a poor, struggling woman fall to the mercy of a wealthy man with promises of improvement both social and financial. This weeks film features a poor and struggling man who ends up at the mercy of a wealthy woman offering similar promises. In some ways Sunset Boulevard is a dark parody of the much lighter Pygmalion with the darkest part being that the entire story is being told to us by a dead man.
This film was produced at a time when colour film was in its early stages and the use of black and white had been greatly refined. In 1950, when this film was shot, there was a growing fear of the transition from black and white to colour. This was the same fear or anxiety we saw when the transition was made from radio to television. Radio actors were able to do their work in as much or as little makeup or clothing as they desired, and as the saying goes they could get away with having a “face for radio”. With the advent of television we had to find pretty faces to act and read the lines and perform the actions. Something similar took place with film. As simple as it sounds the addition of full colour to films meant a great deal of change. When shooting was done in black and white any thoughts toward colour was strictly in reference to the shade of grey or black it would produce. Characters could wear any colour of the rainbow and it would not matter as long as it matched the lighting the director was after. When the move began to colour films there was resistance from both directors and actors alike. For directors there would now be greater challenges involved in creating abstract sets or creating elaborate systems of light and shadow. For actors it meant greater care in costuming and a whole new style of makeup. All of this added up to a conflict between the old school and the new.
In Sunset Boulevard the conflict between Joe Gillis, a writer of modern motion pictures, and Norma Desmond, a star of old silent films, would seem to be quite aware of the tension outside the world of the film. Even the portrayal of Hollywood in the film, using actors and directors of the time playing themselves, indicates a sort of self awareness. This awareness is no doubt a bod toward the previously mentioned tensions at the time in the real Hollywood.
The films visual style is inspired heavily by that of Fritz Lang, a German director credited with the creation of the film noir style. The films director, Billy Wilder, relied heavily on the use of shadow to set the dark tone and draw out the tensions between characters. A great example of this is the New Years part Norma throws for Joe: they are both dressed their best and at what ought to be a light hearted occasion is still draped in shadows. Also, as with many black and white films, there is a liberal use of high contrast to accentuate a given characters madness. This is done constantly with Norma throughout the film, more noticeable when she is the only person in the shot, and is used to stress the nerves of the audience and get them to actually feel some anxiety.