Sunset Boulevard is usually studied in the Australian curriculum under Area of Study 1 - Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.
Sunset Boulevard is perhaps the most famous film about film. A darkly funny yet disturbing noir, it follows washed-up screenwriter Joe Gillis being pulled into the murky world of even-more-washed-up former silent film star Norma Desmond, disingenuously helping with her screenplay. Critical commentary on the film industry is obviously included here, but Billy Wilder’s 1950 film digs deeper to explore the blurred line between fantasy and reality, as well as power, authenticity and self-delusion. Crucially, these themes are often shown in the film’s construction, via the cinematic techniques implemented by Wilder in each scene. This blog will explore the most important examples of these cinematic techniques. Remember, VCE examiners are on the lookout for students who can offer a close reading of the text they are discussing, giving specific examples of how its creator has constructed it to support their arguments. Just look at the difference between an essay that says:
'Through the final shot of the film, Wilder shows Norma completely succumbing to her fantasy.’
Compared to one that argues:
‘Through his utilisation of an increasingly glossy and distorted filter in the ominous final shot, Wilder depicts Norma being completely overtaken by her romanticised fantasy of ‘Old Hollywood’.
So read below to learn how to use the most effective and crucial cinematic techniques within Sunset Boulevard.
Camera Techniques: Shot Types & Angles
Camera techniques are arguably the primary way that a director will intentionally direct the eye of the audience, directly framing how they view a film. The two most basic ways in which the camera is used for this are through the distance between the subject (what the scene is about) and the camera, or the ‘shot type’ and the ‘camera angle’ at which the subject is being filmed. Four key examples of these from Sunset Boulevard are explored below.
Key Examples of Shot Types
Our first look at Norma Desmond is within the wide shot above, just as Joe Gillis has entered her dishevelled mansion early in the film. As a rule, the introductory shot of a character is always worth closely analysing, as the director typically establishes their characteristics and place within the film’s wider world.
Shown above, this distant first look at Norma establishes her distance, both physical and mental, from the world around her. Removing herself from an industry that has long since moved on from her, she is severely out of touch with the reality of the world outside her home. Crucially, as this same shot is from Joe’s perspective, Wilder also foreshadows the more specific character ‘distance’ that will emerge between the two. Here, the audience sees the space Joe will similarly leave between himself and Norma, disingenuously humouring her poor-quality scripts and romantic advances and, therefore, always keeping her ‘at a distance’.
Another shot conveying crucial information about character relationships is shown when Joe officially ‘loses’ Betty towards the end of the film, refusing to give up his ‘long-term contract’ with Norma. Here, Wilder consciously frames the scene’s subject (Betty) at a distance with a medium shot. Supported by her refusal to make eye contact with Joe and her literal statement that she ‘can't look at [him]’ we again see physical distance between the camera and the subject translating to emotional distance between two characters. The impact of them no longer ‘seeing eye to eye’ is additionally heightened by the clear chemistry they previously demonstrated across the film.
Key Examples of Camera Angles
Just like the introductory shot of a character is worth digging into, the opening shot of a film is also incredibly important to unpack. Sunset Boulevard’s seemingly straightforward opening shot simply includes the film’s title, by showing the real-life Hollywood street. However, notice that we are not seeing a ‘Sunset Boulevard’ street sign (the more obvious choice), but instead a dirty and stained curbside. Further, Wilder shoots this curb from a high angle. Therefore, the film’s opening shot establishes maybe the most central aim of Wilder’s film; offering a critical look at the superficiality and flawed nature of Hollywood. As such, we are literally looking down on the film industry in the first moment of the film, represented by this dirty and unflattering visual symbol of Hollywood. This, therefore, is setting the stage for the satire and critical commentary that will follow.
Wilder’s careful use of camera angles is further shown at the end of the film after Betty abandons Joe at the gate of Norma’s mansion. Crucially, this all happened due to the desperate exertion of power by Norma, who called Betty and revealed the details of her relationship with Joe. As such, Wilder shoots Norma at a low angle, as Joe looks up at her haughty gaze. The level of power that Norma has exerted over Joe may seem minimal within the moment, but when we consider what happens next, this shot becomes much more important. On the brink of descending completely into madness and taking Joe’s life, Wilder uses this shot to establish that Joe should be looking up in fear at Norma, and his dismissive and pitiful opinion of her will soon lead to his death.
Mise-en-scène is perhaps the most deceptively simple cinematic technique. It involves analysing what appears within a frame and where it has been placed by the director. This includes elements such as the actor’s costumes, the props and the design of the set. Often, mise-en-scène is used to reinforce something we are being told about a character already through the film’s dialogue and acting.
Key Example of Mise-en-scène 1
We can see a key example of characterisation through mise-en-scène early in the film, where the audience’s introduction to Joe Gillis visually communicates his unconcerned and detached attitude, as well as his tendency to settle for something convenient despite its inauthenticity. His being dressed in a bathrobe with the blazing sun outside (and his debt collectors clearly up and doing their jobs) speaks to his slovenliness and uninvested approach to life. The set design within this scene further characterises Joe, with the script directly describing the ‘reproductions of characterless paintings’ that cover his walls. Here, the set arguably provides a visual metaphor for the profit-driven ‘Bases Loaded’ script he is writing at that very moment, later described by Betty as having come ‘from hunger.’
Key Example of Mise-en-scène 2
Equally, our introduction to the home of Norma Desmond helps establish the key elements of her character. The house is, as Joe describes, ‘crowded with Norma Desmonds’, in the form of countless framed photos of her from her silent film era. These self-portraits constantly looking out onto Norma symbolise the deluded fantasy world she has placed herself in. They both show how this world is based around her still being a youthful and famous actress, and that this delusion is maintained through Norma only communicating inwardly, refusing to face the reality of the outside world.
As ‘symbolises’ is a verb that is very commonly misused, it’s necessary here to provide a very simplified definition:
A symbol is something that contains levels of meaning not present at first glance or literal translation.
In film, the most obvious symbols are often physical objects that reappear within the story, working to symbolise concepts that develop the text’s key themes.
The Dead Chimp & The Organ
One of the more seemingly inexplicable parts of Wilder's film actually contains one of its most important symbols, with Norma’s pet monkey playing a key foreshadowing role from beyond the grave. The chimp, a pet owned and trained by Norma to amuse her, leaves a vacant role that Joe will gradually fill after having unknowingly interrupted its funeral. From this point in the film, Joe is manipulated, or ‘trained’, by Norma to entertain and provide companionship to her. Naturally, Joe also ends up dead within the bounds of Norma’s estate, with this symbol, therefore, foreshadowing the full trajectory of his character. All of this is directly alluded to through Joe’s description of the ‘mixed-up dream’ he has the night of the funeral, imagining ‘an organ [player]’ and the ‘chimp…dancing for pennies’ that he will soon become.
This naturally brings us to the organ itself, which serves as a physical reminder of the unflattering parts of the new role Joe must play. Included after Joe wakes from his ‘mixed-up dream’, the shot above frames Max’s organ-playing hands as massive and overpowering, as the much-smaller Joe storms in demanding to know why his ‘clothes and things’ were moved to Norma’s house without his say-so. Crucially, Norma then reveals that she ordered this action and that Joe's apartment debts are ‘all taken care of’, hand-waving his attempt at grasping back some control and dignity by proposing it be ‘deduct[ed]...from [his] salary’. This scene reveals the symbolic role the organ plays within Sunset Boulevard, reminding Joe of the shameful and powerless role of the ‘pet monkey’ that he now fills, as well as what he will be ‘dancing’ for.
Finally, we come to allusions, one of the techniques that Sunset Boulevard is most famous for. Allusions refer to anytime something from outside the world of the text is referenced, including other texts and real-world people, places, events, etc. Biblical and mythological allusions are commonly found in fiction, but references to something closer to our world can often bring a degree of realism to certain texts, working to strengthen their social commentary.
Being a film about film, Sunset Boulevard naturally contains many allusions to other films. However, Wilder does not shy away from adding an extra level of realism to his references to the film industry. Central to this is the use of the real (and still functional) Paramount Pictures studio to which Joe attempts to sell his clichéd baseball script. Notably, this is the studio that actually released Sunset Boulevard, all of which adds a self-deprecating edge to the satire of the film industry these scenes contain. The scene where the cigar-chomping Paramount executive, Mr Sheldrake, cynically suggests that changing Joe’s film concept to a ‘girls' softball team’ might ‘put in a few numbers’, packs an extra punch due to the use of the real film studio, therefore, showing the effect of this allusion in strengthening the film’s satire.
Allusions to specific films are additionally used for humorous purposes and character development. For instance, take Joe’s dry observation that the extravagance of the funeral for Norma’s pet means that he ‘must have been a very important chimp’, perhaps the ‘great-grandson of King Kong’. Here, Joe’s sardonic and witty character is revealed to the audience. Additionally, these kinds of references further place the film firmly in the world of real Hollywood, again working to strengthen the satire it offers of this industry.
Similarly, allusions to the world of literature flesh out both the characters and the world of Sunset Boulevard. The most stand-out example of this is the allusion to Charles Dickens’ classic novel Great Expectations. Here, Joe muses that the ‘unhappy look’ of Norma’s house reminds him of ‘Miss Havisham’ from this text. This is a character, who, after being abandoned by her fiance, refuses to change her clothing and lives secluded in a ‘rotting wedding dress’. Havisham directly parallels Norma, being a tragic figure immovably stuck in the past, with Norma's excessive placement of young self-portraits being reminiscent of Havishman’s insistence on keeping her house’s clocks at the exact time she received her letter of marital rejection. Therefore, this comparison to the Dickens character, who engages in a more exaggerated version of Norma’s behaviour, seeks to highlight just how detached Norma is from reality through her attempts to live in the past, implying that what she is doing is just as deluded as refusing to remove a rotting wedding dress. Further, the eventual fate of Miss Havisham within Great Expectations, with her wedding dress catching fire and leaving her as an invalid, foreshadows Norma’s similar descent to invalidity through her madness.
Written by Milo Burgner