Blu-Ray Review: Sunset Boulevard

Paramount's restoration of the classic Hollywood drama is impressive, but are the special features worth it?

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

On November 9th, 2012, Paramount will be releasing a film on Blu-ray that showcases the studio in a variety of ways that no other film really did. While Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950) is widely recognized to be one of the most cynical looks at Hollywood ever committed to celluloid, it also managed to document the studio and film personalities in a way that no one had ever done before and no one has really done since. While this film has gone under the film noir, drama and generic classic cinema genre descriptions, what this Blu-ray has managed to do is showcase the historical implications of this film alongside its entertainment value, something very important for a restoration piece.

Sunset Boulevard tells the story of Joe Gillis (William Holden), a down-and-out screenwriter in Hollywood who, through a series of mishaps, lands in the domicile of a famous silent film starlet, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who has since faded into obscurity. Monetary temptations being too strong for the young Gillis, he is convinced to assist Desmond in rewriting the screenplay that will help her return to the silver screen and to the fans that she “deserted” all those years ago… to disastrous results for all parties involved. Wilder’s study of Hollywood in the ‘50s, acting and the industry all come together to show a powerful and complex story of how technology and personality intermix and sometimes end up like oil and water.

The Blu-ray itself is beautiful. The transfer itself, scanned in 4K from a Library of Congress print, is quite lovely. It’s clear that Paramount really loves this piece and paid attention to the way that the film is supposed to look. A film like this that has so much smoke, glitter and dark needs attention. It also has a great amount of detail. But you don’t want it to look too clean because it has to be soft in the right places. This film has been restored well. From the famous opening swimming pool shot (which, according to Ed Sikov’s commentary track, was only slightly distorted due to the 40-degree temperature of the pool! Burr!) to the strikingly gorgeous scene in which Gillis and Desmond are sitting in the dark, smoking cigarettes, watching a film in her “screening room,” Sunset Boulevard is breath-taking.  

The previous release, done in 2002, had many of the same same special features as this Blu-ray, just formatted and arranged in a slightly different manner. This new disc contains all the previous features, and more. The fabulous interactive map of Los Angeles where you can click on Joe’s apartment and it tells you a little bit about that building on Ivar and Franklin? That’s still a feature. Such a fun extra! The only complaint that I had for this release is that within the massive array of extras, there was a great degree of repetition of the information given. Some interview segments were over-utilized, and it may have been to the disc’s advantage to have shorter pieces instead of reusing the same interview clips in a variety of different “documentary” pieces. For example, Nancy Olsen, who played Betty Schaeffer, was used in several of the extras saying similar, if not exactly, the same thing about production, exhibition and preview matters.  While I freely admit that this is a film that I know a great deal about and that I watched the extras back-to-back, it would have been more satisfying to not keep seeing the same pieces of the same interviews pop up.


The extras that are on the disc are as follows: Commentary by Ed Sikov, author of On Sunset Blvd: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder, Sunset Boulevard: The Beginning, Sunset Boulevard: A Look Back, The Noir Side of Sunset Boulevard, Sunset Boulevard Becomes a Classic,Two Sides of Ms. Swanson, Stories of Sunset Boulevard,Mad About the Boy: A Portrait of William Holden, Recording Sunset Boulevard, The City of Sunset Boulevard, Franz Waxman and the Music of Sunset Boulevard, Morgue Prologue Script Pages, Deleted Scene—“The Paramount-Don’t-Want-Me Blues” (HD) Hollywood Location Map, Behind the Gates: The Lot, Edith Head: The Paramount Years, Paramount in the ‘50s Galleries: Production, The Movie, Publicity, Theatrical Trailer (HD). Out of all of these features, the stand out pieces (although every one is quite good) are the Edith Head documentary, the Sunset Boulevard Becomes a Classic, the Galleries, and the Morgue Prologue Script pages, (even though they are frustrating as hell, due to the knowledge that we may never find the sound elements!).

But let’s talk turkey here: what are we really looking at in a release like the restoration of Sunset Boulevard? We are looking at the new additions. Therefore, we are looking at the new never-before-released deleted scene, the “Paramount Don’t Want Me Blues.” Legend has it that this section was cut from the film because it was too much of an “in-joke” and it was too over-the-top with industry references. My thought: and the rest of the film isn’t? Regardless of the other major film winks and nudges scattered all over Sunset Boulevard (Erich Von Stroheim, Buster Keaton, the boom mike hitting Norma Desmond’s feather as she’s on the Paramount set while she swats it away like a fly), this section got cut and we finally get the opportunity to enjoy it. I must say, this is an incredibly fun scene. Thanks to the cooperative sensibilities of the archival community, the Academy (yes, that Academy) archive worked with alongside Andrea Kalas and the rest of the archival team at Paramount and provided them with this footage for the Blu-ray and they included it in this release. This alone makes this an incredibly worthwhile (not to mention historical) document. While it’s depressing to know that we may never have the audio elements for the original morgue scene, having this clip is a wonderful addition to a restoration disc. The song itself is great, the footage looks reasonable and was scanned well, and it’s not a snippet clip; it’s a reasonable length. This is a good piece for a good disc and I was really pleased to have it as part of this collection. It really added to the collectability and the sense of care that they took with this.

I am a self-professed Billy Wilder junkie. This is no secret. While Sunset Boulevard is not my favorite of his films, it is one of them. While there were certain issues with the extras, as I mentioned, what we received, on the whole, was a disc that was quite worthwhile. As a representation of Paramount’s Centennial Celebration, I think that this Blu-ray is well worth your time and effort. It definitely shows theirs!

Sunset Boulevard: