Lisa and I watched SUNSET BOULEVARD again. I was struck by how permeated the movie is by voiceover. And not, by modern standards, necessary voice over. I can't think of a line of the voiceover that tells you something you can't see. The voiceover tells you the narrator parked in a parking lot as we see him driving off a parking lot. The voiceover tells you there's a faded tennis court as we're looking at a faded tennis court. The voiceover tells you Norma Desmond is lost in her fantasy world as she is clearly lost in her fantasy world.
I guess the movie was so advanced in its noirishness that Wilder, or perhaps the studio, felt the audience of 1950 wouldn't get it if they didn't have it narrated to them.
It's also striking how Wilder hired film legend to play film legends: faded superstar Gloria Swanson to play a faded superstar; former director Erich von Stroheim to play a former director; Buster Keaton as a visiting movie star of long ago. I wonder what they thought when they got the call?
... Probably: "a job! Yes!"
I haven't watched the movie in quite awhile. (Although on my blog I just quoted the line about audiences thinking that the actors made the dialogue up as they went along).
But I thought it was a very deliberate choice to have the dead guy narrating his own story all the way through. Something very creepy about that, yet at the same time it ties us to the dead guy in a specific way.
Man, the whole movie really is creepy - that suffocating house - you can almost breathe the stuffy, musty air.
And another example of a film that wouldn't work nearly as well in color.
Actually, reminds me of Dickens "Great Expectations" - Pip the narrator, Miss Havesham living in the creepy house, and Pip's completely false idea about his life - as much a great reveal as that of the narrator as dead body - also a tip of the hat to Agatha Christie's Roger Ackroyd.
While it's true that the VO doesn't tell us anything we can't see for ourselves, I don't think it's just a matter of Wilder underestimating his audience. I would argue that the VO serves a few important purposes in the movie watcher's experience:
(1) The VO takes the noir convention of the death row narrator one step further to beyond the grave. It's the sign of a top-drawer auteur to take a convention and give it one extra twist.
(2) The VO provides a great form of misdirection to help the movie build up to a surprise ending. That is, in the case of Sunset Boulevard it's more important what the VO doesn't tell you.
(3) The VO leads to a surprise ending that forces the movie watcher to reconsider what s/he has just seen/heard and reveals that s/he has been listening to/watching a dead man's tale. This contributes to the overall creepiness of the film, but also plays into the film's thematic exploration of the living dead, examples of which abound in the film, such as Norma Desmond, who is physically alive long after her career is dead, and Max the butler, who is a kind of ghost-husband stuck in a painful afterlife of servitude.
The older I get, the more I appreciate Billy Wilder. I love the range of his talent and the way he can handle so many different genres gracefully. Also, as a former writer himself, he never derides how hard writing is. I find it interesting that he often wrote with a partner. Yes, I know, because as a foreigner he may have considered he came up short when it came to American speech. But I also think that in some way he understood how HARD story is and how bouncing ideas off someone else can help the writing process.
START the picture with the actual street sign: SUNSET BOULEVARD, stencilled on a curbstope. In the gutter lie dead leaves, scraps of paper, burnt matches and cigarette butts. It is early morning.
Now the CAMERA leaves the sign and MOVES EAST, the grey asphalt of the street filling the screen. As speed accelerates to around 40 m.p.h., traffic de-marcations, white arrows, speed-limit warnings, man-hole covers, etc., flash by. SUPERIMPOSED on all this are the CREDIT TITLES, in the stencilled style of the street sign.
Over the scene we now hear
Yes, this is Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, California. It's about five o'clock in the morning. That's the Homicide Squad, the cars complete with detectives and newspaper men. A murder has been reported from one of those great big houses in the ten thousand block. You'll read all about it in the late editions, I'm sure. You'll get it over your radio, and 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...
I think this voiceover has less to do with the content of what is being said and more to do with the tone.
It's mimicking newsreels of the era.
What makes it unique, interesting, and ultimately compelling is that in the next section of voiceover, it's the dead guy we see in the pool narrating -- and not some newsreel footage.
If you look at the script -- it backs this claim. It's written split column with the V.O. over alongside the images. It's very intentional.
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