Joe Gillis (played by William Holden) is a failed, debt-ridden Hollywood screenwriter, who turns into the wrong driveway when his car has a flat. He wanders into the clutches of Norma Desmond (played deliciously by Gloria Swanson), a has-been from the Silent Age who longs to make a comeback.
They fall into an unhealthy relationship, in which Norma pays the bills in exchange for Joe rendering services. Those services include more than punching up a ludicrous screenplay of Salome, which Norma sees as a vehicle for her big return to the silver screen.
The movie is narrated throughout by Joe – who also happens to be dead. The film opens with an awesome series of shots. First, the movie title stenciled on a curb, which segues to a murder scene – where Joe floats in a pool outside Norma’s “Addams Family-style” mansion. Within the first five minutes, we know: 1) the movie is about Hollywood; 2) it’s a dark film; and 3) this story doesn’t have a happy ending.
The film’s casting is irony itself. Gloria Swanson was a silent movie star. She was directed by Erich von Stroheim, who’s reduced to playing Max, Norma’s former director and butler. Joe and Norma watch one of Gloria Swanson’s old silent movies together.
Basically, Joe gets trapped in this cycle. Max feeds Norma’s delusions by writing fake fan letters to her. Norma gets increasingly dependent on Joe to feed her ego. Any threats from him to leave her cause her to flip out and try (in the worst possible way) to commit suicide.
Joe eventually tires of hanging out with old Norma at the manse and ends up collaborating with a pretty, young female script reader named Betty (played so wholesomely by Nancy Olson). Well, there’s a relationship doomed to die. Norma won’t have it. So it’s bye-bye Betty. But Norma’s total batshit craziness ultimately leads to Joe’s demise.
Billy Wilder directed the movie and co-wrote the screenplay. The film perfectly captures Wilder’s wicked sense of humor and his talent for making film noir.
The movie has more great lines than I count. But this scene is creepily awesome:
As one of the all-time great film noir classics, this picture gets a definite two thumbs up!