The dead monkey is the tip-off. William Holden has just arrived at Gloria Swanson’s estate and is mistaken for an undertaker by the butler. “If you need any help with the coffin, call me,” Erich von Stroheim tells him, directing the screenwriter upstairs to the has-been actress’s lair. A few scenes later, he watches the two of them burying the animal in the garden by candlelight. Cut to a pair of white-gloved hands playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor on an ancient organ. This is the stuff of horror movies, dark territory, for sure: perverse and unsettling.
Don’t look for a killer jumping out from behind the curtains with a knife. The creepiness here is Joe Gillis’s decline into dependency and self-loathing as he allows himself to be “kept” by the has-been actress. We’re all afraid of going there. Giving up on our dreams, losing our integrity. Letting someone else call the shots, the person with the checkbook.
Early in the film, Joe corners his agent and begs for a loan. “I’m doing you a favor by not lending you the money,” the agent says. “When you’re hungry enough, you’ll write.” Ha! Those are the words of someone who’s never starved. The sweet little script reader played by Nancy Olson nailed the problem early on. Joe’s screenplay is “flat and trite,” she says, “….a rehash of something that wasn’t very good to begin with.” Maybe he once had talent, she allows. “That was last year. This year, I’m trying to earn a living,” is his bitter retort.
Bitterness is the leitmotif of “Sunset Boulevard.” Long before Swanson shoots him, Holden’s character has died inside. Norma Desmond may have been enfolded by her dream. Joe Gillis was killed by his.