For all intents and purposes, “Sunset Boulevard” only really gets going once a dead chimp appears. Sure, there’s the gravitas of the opening credits (the title stenciled on the curb, the camera tracking back from the curb and whipping up to catch a cluster of police cruisers racing to the scene of a crime), the iconic image of our hero Joe Gillis (William Holden) floating dead in a pool like he’s encased in formaldehyde, and its reputation as a seething indictment of Hollywood culture’s horribleness from one of its most legendarily cynical directors, Billy Wilder. But really, man, it’s all about that monkey, covered by a blanket, with silent-film-star-turned-bitter-recluse Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) mourning its death, because low-key, this movie is weird as hell.
So much so that its place in the canon is a little inexplicable. Not that “Sunset Boulevard” isn’t great; it’s just that it has all the makings of a bizarre cult classic rather than a film-school staple. For starters, the plot takes the scenic route on the way to developing good and proper: Joe Gillis is a penniless screenwriter who outruns his debtors by hiding out in a seemingly abandoned mansion’s garage. Inside the mansion are the vampiresslike Desmond, depressed, suicidal, yet still dazzling in her own way, and her Uncle Fester-esque butler, Max (Erich von Stroheim). They are a damaged duo caught up in the codependent relationship to end all codependent relationships.
When Gillis comes to the front door, Max mistakes him for a mortician (because there’s a dead monkey to be dealt with, remember) and when Gillis explains that there has been a mix-up and that he’s a screenwriter, he is pulled into Desmond’s world, helping her with the script that’ll supposedly put her back on the big screen, though it’s clear from the start that’s never going to actually happen. What does happen is a sugar mama, quasi-kidnapping sort of thing. The very hawt Gillis and the alluring—though by Hollywood’s horseshit standards “over the hill”—Desmond are totally doing it, and it’s a daring subversion of who’s “allowed” to be sexy in cinema. Their affair would still scan as transgressive if it appeared in a movie in 2014.
The whole thing has the anti-logic of a minor work from Edgar Allan Poe to it: Desmond’s home is like a haunted house, expressionistically lit and shot; there’s a somber funeral for the aforementioned dead monkey, complete with an itty bitty white coffin; the guest room Gillis is essentially forced to live in suggests a womb; and director Wilder constructs an ecstatically realistic version of Hollywood, collapsing the borders between real life and the movie's semifictionalized version of the picture business. To further fuck with you, scenes that take place away from the mansion tend to be shot in a tedious, conventional ’40s picture style, which has the effect of sticking you in Gillis’ shoes, bored by square life and yearning to be back in Desmond’s toxic milieu, which is self-destructively separate from real life.
Eventually Gillis is murdered, which isn’t a surprise because the movie’s narrated by Gillis from the grave (a framing device you know from the get-go), although the springy novelistic narration and proto-Lynchian vibes make it easy to forget that you already know how this one ends. And by the time Gillis does get iced, you’re fully indoctrinated into the Norma Desmond cult yourself. Desmond is nuts for sure. She’s also petulant and clueless and vulnerable and incredibly sympathetic, and not half as crazy as the pathological Hollywood system that made her that way. In its final quotable moments (“All right Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up”) Swanson’s full-stop delusional state is indulged one last time. And yikes, that’s about as hopeful as this psycho-sexual sort of noir gets.