"All right, 1950, Adrian Turner, Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, Cinema, Classic, Close-Up On Sunset Boulevard, David Bordwell, Drama, Ed Sikov, Erich Von Stroheim, Film, Film Art: An Introduction, Film Article, Film essay, Film narrative, Film Studies, Film-Noir, Filmmaking, Funny How Gentle People Get With You Once You’re Dead, Gloria Swanson, Hollywood, I'm ready for my close-up.", I've Got Nobody Floating In My Pool, Joe Gillis, Journey Down Sunset Boulevard, Kristin Thompson, Movies, Mr DeMille, Nancy Olsen, Narrative, Neil Sinyard, On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder, Paramount Pictures, Sam Staggs, Screenwriting, Sunset Blvd, Sunset Boulevard, Tony Macklin, William Holden
Classic cinema is traditionally presented in a linear form and voice-overs by a character usually tell a story in the past, implying forthcoming events. Sunset Boulevard (Wilder 1950) is “perhaps the most acclaimed but darkest film-noir story” (Dirks, 2013) which follows these traditional narrative conventions. However, it has a different approach unlike any other film during that period, particularly through the voice-over narration from protagonist Joe Gillis. This essay will examine the narrative elements within Sunset Boulevard from the perspective of the narrator. In addition, it will analyse the voice-over’s impact on the audience and how they are engaged with him through effective use of camera techniques and editing.
Sunset Boulevard begins at a crucial point. It starts with the story of a dead body found in a pool, suggesting a case of murder, to the plot featuring the steps taken to get to that moment. This was unusual for its time but the opening prologue almost immediately catches the audience’s attention. With this in mind, the film shifts to 6 months earlier and with narrative space and time, it progressively leads the audience back to the present tense. Therefore, in comparison to the prologue and the climax, the majority of Sunset Boulevard is a flashback. Despite this, the narrative still moves in a forward direction and reveals the secrets (Geal, 2013).
The general structure of the prologue opens the plot but more importantly, it does so through the affective voice-over narration from protagonist Joe Gillis. Voice-overs are part of non-diegetic sound as they are not part of the events within the narrative. However, they are used to grasp the audience’s imagination and to illustrate the characters’ feelings. When Sunset Boulevard begins with the body in a pool, Joe is narrating in third person and describes the deceased individual as ‘him’ but when the film shifts to the flashback, the narration changes to ‘I’. This suggests to the audience that Joe is the dead body in the pool and he is telling his own story from beyond the grave.
Even before the audience is introduced to Joe in the flashback, they already know that he is doomed with an ill fate ahead of him. Nevertheless, the use of Joe’s posthumous narration causes an impact upon the viewers as it builds up anticipation. His narration creates a mysterious effect; however, because it is not from a written source or narrated by a live character, there is a slight supernatural and perhaps horror touch to it. Furthermore, the mystery behind Joe’s murder is progressively told through his own narration and along with the narrative’s flow, it helps the audience to figure out the secrets behind Joe’s demise until the narrative eventually reveals it.
In Sunset Boulevard the director Billy Wilder “gives the audience an insight to the reality of the Hollywood system” (Johnston, 2008) as it depicts a dark side to fame. This is achieved through the relationship between Joe, an unsuccessful screenwriter, and Norma Desmond, a former silent film star. This encounter is where the plot starts and marks the beginning of the end for Joe. Consequently, the voice-over narration becomes more frequent as he tells the audience about their relationship on both professional and personal levels.
Although Joe is posthumously narrating, he is expressing his thoughts, perhaps from his soul. His voice-over narration becomes a biased viewpoint (Crichton, 2013) as he is telling the story in forms of opinions. For example, he is aiding Norma to amend her screenplay referring to it as “the worst thing he ever wrote”. Although the audience may accept this as the truth because Joe is the character, who the viewers have been following through the voice-over narration, this statement is not necessarily true. Joe is telling the audience what he wants them to hear in order to understand and perhaps to sympathize with him. His voice-over narration is the only one within the film; therefore, his comments that illustrate opinion could be false and may deceive the audience (Crichton, 2013).
Despite the fact that Joe is eventually murdered, there is bitterness to his character that does not completely represent him as the victim. His abrupt statement about Norma’s screenplay makes him come across as ignorant as he is a failed screenwriter. According to Johnston (2008) Joe is “sardonic, consistently sarcastic and never sounds one bit sorry both on-screen and in narration”. Although he is a screenwriter, as opposed to the typical detective character solving a crime, he is still a traditional film-noir anti-hero battling with his frustrations and peers. Furthermore, Sinyard and Turner (1979, p275) state that “Joe Gillis’ experience in the film can be interpreted as a series of failed plans”. When he tries to leave Hollywood to go back to his old dull job, he is killed by Norma. Therefore, Joe’s character has a rise and fall narrative, similar to one of film-noir’s influential genres – crime and gangster. His voice-over narration assists the audience to gain an insight to Joe’s personality.
In addition, Joe’s voice-over narration works as a technique to help the viewers emotionally understand him and it serves a different purpose compared to what the camera shows about the character within Sunset Boulevard. Joe is introduced through three principle visual methods: camera movement, the angles and continuity editing. They collaborate together in order for the narrative to flow from Joe’s perspective. These camera techniques have a purpose to portray a story on-screen but more importantly, they help to capture a specific meaning with central themes or emotions related to them. For example, in the opening sequence the body in the pool represents themes such as death, crime and murder. On the other hand, even after Joe reveals that it is his deceased body in the pool, viewers are drawn into a sense of curiosity and are consequently intrigued to learn the truth of what happened to him.
When viewers see Joe alive for the first time, the camera slowly moves, fades and zooms into his apartment where he is working on a typewriter. This character’s introduction appears positive to the audience; however, upon the arrival of repo men who want to take his car, the mood changes. After the two men leave, the camera follows Joe in his apartment and it focuses on the car keys, which fall out of the pockets. Therefore, this incident evidently reveals that Joe lied to them due to his financial difficulties and the camera movement exposes the truth. Consequently, Joe’s story has begun negatively almost immediately.
Joe’s journey to his death is an experience and viewers emotionally relate to his character through specific camera angles, particularly close-up, point-of-view and reaction shots. Close-ups aim to build up the audience’s identification with Joe (Crichton, 2013). In addition, point-of-view captures the narrative events through his eyes and reaction shots simply express an emotional response from him in a situation. For instance, when Joe first arrives at Norma’s mansion, the camera follows him from a nearby garage all in different shots. This indicates a fatalistic atmosphere and that this could be the location of where Joe meets his end. Upon arriving, the camera stays still and the audience sees reaction shots of Joe observing the estate, briefly interacting with Norma and then his encounter with Max. Joe’s responses signify confusion as well as curiosity regarding his surroundings.
Moreover, on the first night of Joe’s arrival at Norma’s mansion, the audience witness point-of-view and reaction shots of him through his bedroom window. He is observing her tennis court, the fateful swimming pool and then the burial of her pet chimp, whilst posthumously narrating at the same time. At this point, the camera techniques, illustrating Joe’s perspective, merge with his voice-over narration. The audio synchronizes with the visuals and they mutually make the narrative flow and help the viewers gain an understanding of Gillis’ current mindset. This maintains a stronger focus on Joe.
In this scene, the viewers see a different variety of shots, usually long takes, and the editing techniques mix together along with the voice-over narration to create a sense of thought-provoking depth. Crichton (2013) states that “the way editing is done and how all of the shots are put together flows like a sentence in a language”, which is known as continuity editing. In Sunset Boulevard, it is represented naturally with an invisibility effect; hence the audience is drawn into the narrative events.
To conclude, the aim of the narrative is to tell a story and its objective is to help the viewers feel involved within it. Sunset Boulevard applied this style as the camera techniques, along with the voice-over narration, maintain focus on Joe until his death. Although he was not a successful screenwriter, the central plot, displaying his final months with the posthumous voice-over narration supporting it, became the highlighted screenplay that he never wrote. Thus, without the inclusion of Joe’s voice-over narration in Sunset Boulevard, the audience would not have experienced the breakthrough in his screenwriting career.