“All right, Mr. DeMille. I’m ready for my close-up.”

–Norma Desmond

Back in 2008, Paramount released Sunset Boulevard as part of its Centennial Collection with a solid transfer and a healthy collection of special features. Some of those who already own that edition will wonder if the new Blu-ray is worth the upgrade. The short answer is yes. Paramount has done a wonderful job on the video and audio restoration. They’ve also added a deleted scene as part of the special features. Below is the review of the film I wrote for the Centennial Collection. Skip to the audio, video, and special features sections for more specific thoughts on the Blu-ray.

Few films have as many classic lines as Sunset Boulevard. Fewer still have scenes that were shot, but dropped from the finished film. They may last only a few seconds or they may be whole sequences. They may be different beginnings or wholly re-imagined endings. Admittedly, sometimes they’re better left on the cutting room floor but as film buffs, we would love to see them: the execution scene cut from Double Indemnity, the original cut of Judy Garland’s A Star is Born, to name just a couple. It always seems to be the great pictures that leave fans wonder what was left in the editing room.

Sunset Blvd.One of the most intriguing scenes left on the cutting room floor was the original opening scene for Sunset Boulevard. Among film buffs, this sequence is almost as famous as the film itself, yet few if any have seen it. Almost every Billy Wilder biography mentions the scene, but not even the published screenplay, issued by the University of California Press in 1998, reprints it.

As I learned in one of the accompanying special features on this set, Paramount tested the film using the original sequence. In the scene, the film’s main character and narrator is shown being zipped through the streets to the L.A. County Morgue. Wheeled into a cold room with other corpses, he lies there for a few seconds, and then begins to look around. Like figures out of a Thomas Hardy poem such as “Channel Firing,” the dead begin to talk to each other. The boy next to the hero drowned in the ocean. Our hero drowned, too, but in a swimming pool. He then goes on to recount the rest of his story, which makes up the remainder of the film. The problem was, the audience started to laugh at the sight of toe tags on the dead bodies at that morgue. Hence, Wilder reshot the now famous opening scene.

The bullet-riddled body of a middle aged man is seen floating face down in the pool next to a mansion. The ghostly voice of Joe Gillis (William Holden) recounts the events leading up to his death, which are shown in flashback. A struggling screenwriter, Joe is desperate for cash. After he fails to sell a script idea and exhausted all other options, he’s driving aimlessly when he spots a couple of repo men who are after his car. He pulls into the driveway of old mansion with a garage, where he figures he can hide his car. Suddenly, he hears a strong female voice ordering him into the house. Max (Erich von Stroheim), a rather scary looking fellow with a bald head, turns out to be the butler of the house. Joe is directed to see the “lady of the house,” one Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) an aging, one-time star of silent movies. After raging about the current state of the movie industry, Norma offers Joe a screenwriting job: reworking her script Salome, which she plans to use as a comeback vehicle. Joe knows the script is terrible and Norma’s chances of a comeback are even worse but he needs the money. Even though Norma insists he stay at her mansion, Joe agrees to take the job.

Released on August 4, 1950, Sunset Boulevard is the most honest look Hollywood and show business to date. Like Norma Desmond, the character she played, Gloria Swanson had once been a big movie star. In the 1920’s, she received thousands of fan letters per week and tens of thousands would line up to cheer for her in parades. During her career, Swanson made over seventy films. However, when she took the part of Norma Desmond in 1949, she was looking for a comeback. Considered over-the-hill by Hollywood standards, Swanson hadn’t appeared on screen since 1941. It seems unbelievable now but Swanson wasn’t the first choice for the role. Mae West, Mary Pickford, Mae Murray and Pola Negri were all considered. Swanson got the part after Billy Wilder went to George Cukor for advice and he suggested Swanson.

Montgomery Clift had originally signed on to play the part of Joe Gills but backed off shortly before filming began. As an excuse, he claimed his role of a young man involved with an older woman as too similar to the one he had played in The Heiress, in which he felt he had been unconvincing. The role was also offered to Fred MacMurray and Gene Kelly but they declined. In a time crunch, the filmmakers were forced to choose from available Paramount actors. William Holden had become a star after his appearance in 1939’s Golden Boy but his career had been stagnant since; he too, needed a hit.

The excerpt of a silent movie starring Norma Desmond that appears within the film was actually an scene from Queen Kelly, a controversial silent movie starring Gloria Swanson and directed by none other than her co-star here, Erich von Stroheim. (von Stroheim’s career as a director ended in the ’30s, after he fell out of favor) Wilder had to fake the scenes involving Max driving the town car because von Stroheim couldn’t drive; the filmmakers had to tow the car! The studio shot the movie’s exteriors at the old Getty mansion on Wilshire Boulevard (torn down in 1957 for a high-rise). Finally, and among many other things, they shot the segment with Cecil B. DeMille directing a big Biblical feature on the very soundstage that DeMille was in reality shooting Samson and Delilah at the time. Buster Keaton, H.B. Warner, and Anna Q Nilsson all playing themselves as bridge players at the Desmond home, like Norma, were once big stars whose careers had passed them by. Sunset Boulevard is truly a fascinating film!

Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1, Paramount has provided a wonderful 1080p transfer. In this restoration that began in 2002, Paramount sought to retain John Seitz’s beautiful cinematography. Unfortunately, none of the original nitrate material had survived. As luck would have it, a team found a vintage print stored at the Library of Congress to work with. The result is shows off the wonderful cinematography, with wonderful contrast and vivid whites without a hint of bloom. The interior scenes exhibit deep blacks. Detail is surprisingly good throughout and there are no real digital anomalies to speak of.

The sound was also revamped and it shows in the English Dolby TrueHD Mono track. While the track itself is somewhat narrow, fidelity is quite good and both the dialogue and Oscar winning score by Franz Waxman sound wonderful. There’s no tininess or egregious damage to report.

Also included are French Dolby Digital Mono, Spanish Dolby Digital Mono and Portuguese Dolby Digital Mono audio options and English, English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles.

Most of the special features, with the exception of a deleted scene, have been released before:

  • Audio Commentary By Ed Sikov: Sikov can be considered a Sunset Boulevard expert, having written On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder. A noted film scholar, Sikov’s comments are informative and his easy manner makes for good listening.
  • Sunset Boulevard: The Beginning (23:24, SD) Longtime Paramount producer A.C. Lyles, various other filmmakers, and actors comment on the movie and its making. The most prominent among these commentators is the co-star of the film, Nancy Olson, who has the best inside information about the movie.
  • The Noir Side of Sunset Boulevard by Joseph Wambaugh (14:19, SD) The best-selling LAPD policeman-author discusses the darker aspects of the film.
  • Sunset Boulevard Becomes a Classic (14:06, SD) Critic and film historian Andrew Sarris and others discuss the film.
  • Two Sides of Ms. Swanson (10:12, SD) Ms. Swanson’s granddaughter and people who knew the actress discuss her life.
  • Stories of Sunset Boulevard (11:17, SD) Colleagues and friends offer anecdotes about Billy Wilder and his film.
  • Mad About the Boy: A Portrait of William Holden (11:42, SD) A mini-biography of the star.
  • Recording Sunset Boulevard (5:02, SD) Discussion of Franz Waxman’s music score.
  • The City of Sunset Boulevard (5:06, SD) discussion about the locations in Los Angeles used in the film.
  • Morgue Prologue Script Pages: Information on the original and revised footage that initially introduced the story and that the studio later deleted.
  • NEW! Deleted Scene (1:22, HD) It’s easy to see why the studio might have been afraid to include this song, performed here by songwriters Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, “The-Paramount-Don’t-Want-Me-Blues” certainly takes aim right at the heart of Hollywood.
  • Hollywood Location Map: Shows the positions on a map of places in the movie and gives some further information on them.
  • Behind the Gates: The Lot (5:06, SD) A.C. Lyles recounts Paramount’s changes through the years. From the silent era, to the integration of color and shooting on location.
  • Edith Head: The Paramount Years (13:02, SD) An examination of the famous costume designer.
  • Paramount in the 50s (9:16, HD) a discussion about the studio system during the fifties.
  • Three Still-Photo Galleries: Production, the Movie, and Publicity.
  • Theatrical Trailer (HD)