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Published: 18-12-2019

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Analyzing Norma Desmond's Final Scene

In Billy Wilder’s 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, Gloria Swanson plays a former silent film star named Norma Desmond who lives as a wealthy recluse in order to defend herself from the truth of her irrelevance in the public eye. In the film’s 1st act, Norma becomes involved in a complex romantic connection with a down-on-his luck screenwriter named Joe Gillis, played by William Holden. It is later revealed to Joe that Norma’s faithful butler Max, who operates tirelessly to defend her delusions of grandeur, also takes place to be her ex-husband and the director of the silent films that created her well-known. In the film’s tense climax, Joe is shot dead by Norma as he tries to escape her luxurious mansion of broken dreams. Following his death is 1 of the most iconic sequences in film history. When Norma’s fantasy is threatened by the reality of her crime, she dissociates totally from reality and slips into a state of permanent psychosis in which she gives one particular last chilling performance. When dissecting the final shot sequence of the film we can see that Norma’s psychotic break and the driving forces behind it are depicted by way of ingenious use of editing techniques, shapes in composition and character blocking.

The final sequence is prefaced by a scene in which Norma is shown in a catatonic state that is broken by Max announcing the arrival of the cameras. The police enable Norma to follow Max, as they think it will make it less complicated to get Norma outdoors and into custody. Therefore starts her final functionality. Tactful eyeline and action match cuts are employed in order to show the damaging, codependent nature of her partnership with Max that largely contributed to her loss of sanity. The most notable edits that illustrate this connection are the eyeline match cuts of which there are several. When Norma enters the foyer of her mansion, she stands atop the stairway top to the entrance still in somewhat of a trance, but when Max directs the lights toward her she looks down at him immediately. From this point on their gazes are locked on a single another and each and every of the subsequent eight cuts preserve the eyeline match in between Norma and Max. This creates a visual tether among the two characters and shows that neither of them are concerned with their surroundings in the moment. When Max calls “action!” and starts shooting, his cameras track Norma’s movement, making an action match when the scene cuts to Norma descending down the stairs. These edits not only maintain continuity but show a codependence that protects Norma from the gaze of the onlooking crowd. This psychological isolation along with Max’s part in maintaining it reveals the foundation on which Norma’s fantasy has been built.

A single of the most iconic visual elements of Sunset Boulevard is Norma’s grandiose and somewhat dilapidated mansion. It stands as a signifier of Norma’s tendency to cling to the lavish way of life that she established as a silent film actress and its state of disrepair reflects her inability to maintain that way of life. The decision of choosing the foyer of the mansion as the setting for the film’s final sequence is profound as a number of elements of the space shine a light on Norma’s twisted mental state. The dark interior that surrounds her in the second shot of the sequence was a staple of silent films due to how it created actors stand out when set against it, and the dramatic decor scattered about—sconces, statues and an intricate tapestry—further adds to the old film set really feel. This environment virtually begs its inhabitants to slip into character as Norma does in this sequence as Salome and did earlier in the film when performing for Joe as Charlie Chaplin. Much more noteable yet is what we see behind Max in the initial couple seconds of the very first shot of the sequence: the front door of the mansion guarded by two police officers. This is Norma’s location and it’s the most essential threshold in her story as it represents the barrier amongst a fantasy of lasting relevance and the real world that moves along with out her. Norma’s indicates of reaching the exit is a downward spiraling staircase with a banister also decorated with spiral imagery. Norma’s descent down the spiral performs on a literal and metaphoric level, as she becomes most separated from reality during her monologue at the base of the stairs. If stripped of all the actors and cameras, the setting alone would tell a story of a person trapped in a mythic previous whose only indicates of escape is a descent into madness.

All through the film, no much more than 4 men and women are present inside Norma’s mansion at any one particular time, but in the film’s final sequence there are dozens of policemen, detectives and journalists crammed into every shot. The manner in which the characters are positioned and crowded into this series of shots helps emphasize the unhealthy relationship amongst Norma and the public whose, admiration fueled her rise to fame. In the second shot of the sequence as Norma is escorted out of her area and toward the stairs, she’s followed by a dark mass of cops and detectives who trail her till her progress is blocked by a wall of frantic journalists. Possessing been both prodded forward and stopped by crowds of strangers, Norma has no choice but to stand still. The subsequent two shots of Norma incorporate the heads of unknown onlookers in the foreground, a crowd in the background and Norma trapped in the midground. She is totally surrounded by observers with mixed intentions some appearing remorseful, some accusatory and some indifferent. This cluster of impeding humanity casts an oppressive feel more than the entire sequence, showcasing the trappings of celebrity and the confusion of facing a crowd of total strangers who every single have their own judgements and preconceived notions relating to Norma, her career and her crime. The extended take that shows Norma descending the staircase is interrupted by a reduce to a row of judgmental observers who type a solid wall that recedes away from the camera from the left side of the frame to the appropriate they are seemingly infinite. On both sides of the staircase with Norma stand a dozen or so journalists and cops who stay nearly perfectly frozen in spot as she passes amongst them on her descent. The males are in numerous states of awe even though watching Norma, but not a single individual is moving downward with her or even facing in that path. This figurative descent into madness is the only moment in the sequence when Norma is not becoming crowded by strangers. She’s left to fall on her own, but upon reaching the bottom of the stairs the waiting crowd closes in on her producing a closed frame shot that carries the film to its finish. The strategic character blocking in this sequence conveys confusion and a feeling of overwhelming, unmanageable interest from a crowd who are all strangers to Norma. This implicates the outside planet in Norma’s undoing by suggesting that her psychosis is guarding her from the psychologically overwhelming effects of continual observation.

By means of calculated use of editing, setting, and character blocking, Sunset Boulevard provides us a clearer idea of Norma’s sick mental state and the aspects of her life and surroundings that contributed to it. Her codependent partnership with Max, along with an unbalanced, confused connection to the public and a prolonged isolation in a time capsule-like home have, for much better and worse, alienated Norma from reality. What will come about when she passes via the threshold of her house into police custody is left to the audience to guess, but it is produced clear when she addresses us at the base of the stairs that her psyche is badly damaged. In the final shot of the film as Norma stares straight into the camera, we see the soft-focus glow that was a trademark of the silent film era enhance in intensity ahead of enveloping her completely as the film fades to black. Norma’s thoughts has lastly been wholly consumed by the past that she’s lengthy yearned for, but her hollow, wide-eyed gaze lives on in the minds of all who beheld it, pleading with us to think about our own part in her descent.
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