In Billy Wilder’s 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, Gloria Swanson plays a former silent film star named Norma Desmond who lives as a wealthy recluse in order to protect herself from the truth of her irrelevance in the public eye. In the film’s first act, Norma becomes involved in a complicated romantic relationship with a down-on-his luck screenwriter named Joe Gillis, played by William Holden. It is later revealed to Joe that Norma’s faithful butler Max, who works tirelessly to defend her delusions of grandeur, also happens to be her ex-husband and the director of the silent films that made her famous. In the film’s tense climax, Joe is shot dead by Norma as he tries to escape her luxurious mansion of broken dreams. Following his death is one of the most iconic sequences in film history. When Norma’s fantasy is threatened by the reality of her crime, she dissociates completely from reality and slips into a state of permanent psychosis in which she gives one last chilling performance. When dissecting the final shot sequence of the film we can see that Norma’s psychotic break and the driving forces behind it are depicted through ingenious use of editing techniques, shapes in composition and character blocking.
The final sequence is prefaced by a scene in which Norma is shown in a catatonic state that is broken by Max announcing the arrival of the cameras. The police allow Norma to follow Max, as they believe it will make it easier to get Norma outside and into custody. Thus begins her final performance. Tactful eyeline and action match cuts are used in order to show the damaging, codependent nature of her relationship with Max that largely contributed to her loss of sanity. The most notable edits that illustrate this relationship are the eyeline match cuts of which there are several. When Norma enters the foyer of her mansion, she stands atop the stairway leading to the entrance still in somewhat of a trance, but when Max directs the lights toward her she looks down at him immediately. From this point on their gazes are locked on one another and each of the next eight cuts maintain the eyeline match between Norma and Max. This creates a visual tether between the two characters and shows that neither of them are concerned with their surroundings in the moment. When Max calls “action!” and begins shooting, his cameras track Norma’s movement, creating an action match when the scene cuts to Norma descending down the stairs. These edits not only maintain continuity but show a codependence that protects Norma from the gaze of the onlooking crowd. This psychological isolation along with Max’s role in maintaining it reveals the foundation on which Norma’s fantasy has been built.
One of the most iconic visual elements of Sunset Boulevard is Norma’s grandiose and somewhat dilapidated mansion. It stands as a signifier of Norma’s tendency to cling to the lavish lifestyle that she established as a silent film actress and its state of disrepair reflects her inability to maintain that lifestyle. The decision of choosing the foyer of the mansion as the setting for the film’s final sequence is profound as several elements of the space shine a light on Norma’s twisted mental state. The dark interior that surrounds her in the second shot of the sequence was a staple of silent films due to how it made actors stand out when set against it, and the dramatic decor scattered about—sconces, statues and an intricate tapestry—further adds to the old film set feel. This environment practically begs its inhabitants to slip into character as Norma does in this sequence as Salome and did earlier in the film when performing for Joe as Charlie Chaplin. More noteable yet is what we see behind Max in the first couple seconds of the first shot of the sequence: the front door of the mansion guarded by two police officers. This is Norma’s destination and it’s the most important threshold in her story as it represents the barrier between a fantasy of lasting relevance and the real world that moves along without her. Norma’s means of reaching the exit is a downward spiraling staircase with a banister also decorated with spiral imagery. Norma’s descent down the spiral works on a literal and metaphoric level, as she becomes most separated from reality during her monologue at the base of the stairs. If stripped of all the actors and cameras, the setting alone would tell a story of a person trapped in a mythic past whose only means of escape is a descent into madness.
Throughout the film, no more than four people are present inside Norma’s mansion at any one time, but in the film’s final sequence there are dozens of policemen, detectives and journalists crammed into each shot. The manner in which the characters are positioned and crowded into this series of shots helps emphasize the unhealthy relationship between Norma and the public whose, admiration fueled her rise to fame. In the second shot of the sequence as Norma is escorted out of her room and toward the stairs, she’s followed by a dark mass of cops and detectives who trail her until her progress is blocked by a wall of frantic journalists. Having been both prodded forward and stopped by crowds of strangers, Norma has no choice but to stand still. The next two shots of Norma include the heads of unknown onlookers in the foreground, a crowd in the background and Norma trapped in the midground. She is completely surrounded by observers with mixed intentions; some appearing remorseful, some accusatory and some indifferent. This cluster of impeding humanity casts an oppressive feel over the entire sequence, showcasing the trappings of celebrity and the confusion of facing a crowd of complete strangers who each have their own judgements and preconceived notions regarding Norma, her career and her crime. The long take that shows Norma descending the staircase is interrupted by a cut to a row of judgmental observers who form a solid wall that recedes away from the camera from the left side of the frame to the right; they are seemingly infinite. On both sides of the staircase with Norma stand a dozen or so journalists and cops who remain almost perfectly frozen in place as she passes between them on her descent. The men are in various states of awe while watching Norma, but not a single person is moving downward with her or even facing in that direction. This figurative descent into madness is the only moment in the sequence when Norma isn’t being crowded by strangers. She’s left to fall on her own, but upon reaching the bottom of the stairs the waiting crowd closes in on her creating a closed frame shot that carries the film to its end. The strategic character blocking in this sequence conveys confusion and a feeling of overwhelming, unmanageable attention from a crowd who are all strangers to Norma. This implicates the outside world in Norma’s undoing by suggesting that her psychosis is protecting her from the psychologically overwhelming effects of constant observation.
Through calculated use of editing, setting, and character blocking, Sunset Boulevard gives us a clearer idea of Norma’s sick mental state and the aspects of her life and surroundings that contributed to it. Her codependent relationship with Max, along with an unbalanced, confused connection to the public and a prolonged isolation in a time capsule-like home have, for better and worse, alienated Norma from reality. What will happen when she passes through the threshold of her home into police custody is left to the audience to guess, but it’s made clear when she addresses us at the base of the stairs that her psyche is badly damaged. In the final shot of the film as Norma stares directly into the camera, we see the soft-focus glow that was a trademark of the silent film era increase in intensity before enveloping her completely as the film fades to black. Norma’s mind has finally been wholly consumed by the past that she’s long yearned for, but her hollow, wide-eyed gaze lives on in the minds of all who beheld it, pleading with us to consider our own role in her descent.