"Madame is the greatest star of them all."
I love "pure cinema"--what sets film apart from its closest artistic counterparts (literature and the stage) are its visual capabilities, and when a filmmaker can tell a story visually, it is a truly exciting and riveting experience. It is for this reason, I believe, that overly wordy filmmakers often get labeled as lazy; if you can't tell the story cinematically, it's easy to resort to the lazy device of having your characters spout expository dialogue. But as with every rule, there are important exceptions, and, like Woody Allen, Billy Wilder is one of them.
Sunset Boulevard offers the viewer one of the finest screenplays ever written. It is classic Wilder--hard-bitten, deeply cynical, very darkly funny. None of this is to say the movie is visually boring or barren. On the contrary, the interiors of Gloria Swanson's mansion are beautiful renderings of decaying decadence, and the final image is indelibly disturbing. But Wilder's films depend on rich writing and characterization and bright performances to bring these feature to life. Gloria Swanson's depiction of Norma Desmond is one of film's finest, a quickly madding former star of the silent screen who seeks a return to glory even though the world has passed her by. William Holden is his dry, cynical self as the down-on-his-luck screenwriter willing to whore himself out to Swanson, at least for a time, and who pays dearly for his poor decision. And Erich von Stroheim is the film's lynchpin, providing enough of a window into Swanson's human characteristic to ground things and make her (and Holden's tolerance of her) plausible. Everything about this film works, all the better today because its cynicism feels so modern. Deeply, darkly beautiful.