Home > Reviews > SUNSET BOULEVARD – Franz Waxman



Original Review by Craig Lysy

Director Billy Wilder and producer Charles Brackett created a brilliant film noir screenplay for Sunset Boulevard, which told the story of a once proud but now aged Hollywood actress who wished to end her seclusion and regain past glory. For the principle actors, after considering Mae West and Mary Pickford for the leading role Gloria Swanson was given the part of Norma Desmond. A young William Holden was selected for Joe Gillis and Erich von Stronheim was cast as Norma’s former husband and now butler Max von Mayerling. The story tells the tale of Joe Gillis, a young screenwriter down on his luck that drives into Desmond’s estate while fleeing a car repo man. Norma, who has written a script to propel her comeback, hires Joe to create a screenplay. She lavishes her wealth and affection on him, which he freely and shamelessly accepts. Ultimately she falls in love with Joe and when he rejects her she shoots him. The story ends as a now elegantly dressed yet mad Norma descends her grand staircase to greet the police. Halfway down she pauses and announces proudly that she is happy to be making films again, ending with “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” The movie was both a commercial and critical success earning eleven Academy Award nominations, winning three for Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction and Best Film Score.

Waxman and Wilder had long been friends, having met in Europe before the war; as such he was the natural choice to score the film. The tragic story offered a complex psychological narrative that explored unrequited love (Norma for Joe and Max for Norma), delusion, deception, manipulation, exploitation and betrayal. This placed great demands on Waxman for his score to support and speak to the intersection of these powerful emotions. He created leitmotifs for the three principle characters. Joe’s Theme is born by saxophone and has a jazz identity; cocky, youthful and confident, which reflected a young guy out to make a name for himself. Norma’s Theme, in contrast is more ambiguous, sensual, alluring and a study in minimalism. Within the paucity of its notes, its brevity, resides both mystery and a potent strength fully emblematic of its mercurial namesake. How Waxman modulates his themes for these two as their co-dependent relationship spirals towards tragedy are simply remarkable and a testimony to his genius. Next we have Max’s Theme, which is a simple rhythmic identity that conveys a feeling of unrewarded toil. Lastly there is the Love Theme, a tender free flowing string laden line that speaks to Joe’s desire for Betty, who is engaged to his best friend.

“Sunset Boulevard Prelude” is a stunning score highlight and a fine example of the Golden Age practice of providing a melodramatic opening to the film. We open to a curb displaying “Sunset Boulevard” that leads into a roll of the opening credits, which display atop a swirling musical tour de force. A narrator joins to report a murder and we see police arriving at a grand Hollywood mansion to find a corpse floating in its pool. The music dissipates into a mysterioso duet of Norma’s Theme and Joe’s Theme as we are taken back 6 months in time to recount this tragedy. Bravo! “Paramount Studio” is a flashback to our story’s beginning. It reveals Joe typing a screenplay in his apartment and musing over his inexplicable lack of success. As we see him travel to Paramount Studios to sell his screenplay we hear Joe’s Theme in a repeating series of articulations, which successfully convey his youth and struggling ambition.

“Chase and Mansion” reveals Joe fleeing from a repo agent intent on reposing his car. It features his jaunty theme and some furious flight music, which fully captures his desperation. A diminuendo informs us that he has lost his pursuer, having found safe harbor in the garage of a Hollywood mansion. We hear a hesitant and unsure Joe’s Theme that dances within a milieu of mystery as he walks the desolate grounds to the grand door of the mansion. This marriage of imagery and music is nicely done. “Norma Desmond” is an exceptional cue and score highlight. Norma sees Joe on her grounds and calls him into the house, believing he is a mortician for her dead pet. As he ascends the grand staircase a musical ascent for clarinets and flutes joins. Her theme assumes a dance-like flow as he enters her chambers. When she learns that he is not the mortician she dismisses him. As he leaves, he finally recognizes her as the legendary silent screen actress Norma Desmond. Waxman plays against her imperious demeanor by offering Norma’s Theme with alto flute mysterioso, which bears within its notes a strange sensuality. A twisted dissonance takes hold of her theme as she raves against the new Hollywood and the fallen idols of the silent film era. These restatements of her theme interplay with statements of the last three notes of her theme on strings and harp glissandi. Wow, what an introduction!

“An Aging Actress” reveals Norma in her secluded private world where she lives in the past. Waxman captures the mood by providing a parody of her theme on saxophone. In “Reading The Script” Norma has discovered that Joe is a screenwriter and asks him to read her script as Max brings them champagne and caviar. She is to play Salome and as he reads the dreadful script time passes while we hear a fine interplay of Norma’s Theme and Joe’s Theme. In “The Strange Garden” Joe is asked to stay and reside at the estate while he edits her script. He moves into quarters above the garage and looks out upon the desolate grounds where he sees Max burying the monkey. Waxman scores these strange circumstances with dissonance. We hear a discordant rendering of Joe’s Theme, with the dirge like rendering of Max’s Theme playing in counterpoint. I believe Waxman perfectly captured this bizarre scene. “Norma’s Gallery” features Joe working in Norma’s study amidst a sea of photos and paintings depicting her in her prime. The scene is surreal and Waxman animates its with a strange, if not perverse rendering Norma’s Theme. This is a perfect marriage of imagery and music.

“The Waxworks and the Bridge Game” features Norma playing bridge with other relics of the silent film era. Twisted heraldic fanfare opens the scene and ushers in Joe’s Theme, which animates the scene as he watches as a bystander. When they come to repossess his car, he begs her for money and Waxman captures the sad moment with a pathetic rendering of his theme. Nicely done! In “Afternoon Outings” Norma has Max drive them through the Hollywood Hills in her vintage car. We are graced with a lush free-flowing rendering of her theme. We then flow into a discordant expression of Joe’s Theme as she takes him into town and is seen buying him new clothes. We feel his humiliation.

“Sacrifice of Self-Respect” is a score highlight. It reveals the winter rains, which have poured into his bedroom. Max moves him into the “husband suite” of the main house. This is really a showcase cue for both Joe’s Theme and Norma’s Theme as they are rendered in a multiplicity of expressions. His theme opens as comic-discordant as he flees his water drenched room, jazzy as he enters the main house, sumptuous as his plush new quarters are revealed, and plaintive as he hears that this was the room that of Norma’s former husbands. Max relates that all the doorknobs have been removed due to her melancholia and past suicide attempts, and that he is the one writing her fan letters. We hear Norma’s Theme first presented as plaintive, then lush as he opens the door to see her bedroom and finally as a dance when he finally realizes that she has fallen in love with him. This cue is just outstanding.

In “The Old Bathing Beauty” we are treated to a dance-like rendering of Norma’s Theme as she stages a bathing beauty skit to get Joe out of the doldrums. When this fails she leaves him and we hear a lush yet plaintive rendering of his theme as he recounts the failure of his life. The melodic flowed is severed by some splendid comic slapstick when she returns dressed as Charlie Chaplin and performs a spoof. “Parading To Paramount” reveals Max driving Norma and Joe to Paramount Studios to meet with Cecil DeMille. Waxman provides a tragicomic rendering of Joe’s Theme with interplay of a pompous theatrical rendering of Norma’s Theme. This is nicely done. In “Old Friends” DeMille and Norma meet for the first time in many years. Tremolo strings usher in a plaintive rendering of Norma’s Theme. Although recognized by fans that flock to her, it is clear that Hollywood has moved on without her. “DeMille’s Compassion” reveals DeMillie attempting to disclose to Norma with compassion that the studio has called her to rent her vintage car for a movie, not to make a film from her script. Norma’s Theme is offered as by strings doloroso to inform us of this sad event.

“Norma’s Suspicions” is multi-scenic. We open Norma’s Theme born by a solo virtuoso violin energetico as a montage reveals her undergoing vigorous beauty treatments in an attempt to remove years of aging. At 1:05 we shift scenes to Joe’s bedroom where a suspicious Norma queries him about where he goes out at night. We hear Norma’s Theme on forlorn weeping strings with interplay from an array of different woodwinds doloroso, which emote her inner fears that he is slipping from her grasp. In a final scene change dark strings and harp glissandi inform us of his duplicity when we see him leaving later that night to join Betty in writing a script. In “A New Interest and the Studio Stroll” Betty discovers a note from Norma in Joe’s cigarette case. As they take a walk together Waxman introduces us to his Love Theme and provides one of the most beautiful cues of the album. We hear interplay of the Love Theme and Joe’s Themes, as we see him now clearly attracted to Betty. The Love Theme flows entirely from his perspective as a dance before settling on solo cello for an exquisite expression. When joined by solo flute and saxophone counters its expression becomes sublime. We culminate upon solo violin, which yields to a playful rendering of his theme. Cues like this are why I love film music!

“Her First Husband” reveals Max relating his sad tale of discovering Norma, directing her early films and of being her first husband. He cautions Joe that he still loves Norma and will not see her hurt. A confident Joe’s Theme supports the narrative. Later a scene change in his bedroom finds Norma fearful that he is having an affair. When she discovers a script that bears his name and Betty’s, her anguished theme resounds. In a final scene change we see a distraught Betty confess to Joe that she has fallen in love with him. The Love Theme resounds with a melodramatic flourish as the two lovers kiss and embrace. “The Showdown” is a score highlight and I believe its apogee. Joe returns home and prepares to confront Norma with the truth, as he can no longer reside in her gilded cage. He discovers her on the phone exposing him to Betty. He grabs the phone and tells Betty to come to the house. When she arrives he exposes the truth of his existence and tells her go back to Artie, thus breaking her heart. Waxman provides just extraordinary writing that features interplay of Joe’s Theme and Norma’s Theme, which join in a dissonant communion, as well as a heart-wrenching expression of the Love Theme. Bravo!

In “Farewell” Joe packs his bags as Norma begs him to stay. He tells her that DeMille would not shoot her film and that the Studio only wanted to rent her car. When he exposes that Max has been writing her fan letters, she snaps and breaks from sanity. Waxman emotes her anguished theme to mark the break. “Joe Walks Out” is a stunning cue and score highlight. It reveals Joe leaving an anguished and desperate Norma who begs him to stay. When he refuses she retrieves a gun and says that she will kill herself. As he say good-bye and leaves she follows him with the gun and states that no one leaves a star. Joe’s Theme entwines with a dark dance-like rendering of her theme that evolves in to a twisted alluring siren song. As he descends the stairs her now grotesque theme initiates a tortured crescendo on repeated statements of his theme, which culminates with a horrific climax that marks his murder. His fading theme informs us of his passing. “The Corpse” reveals Joe dead body floating face down in the swimming pool. The music offers stark minimalism, which provides a dark ambiance.

“The Comeback” reveals a now mad Norma preparing for her comeback, which has been orchestrated by Max, whose theme serves as a subtle undercurrent. With reporters and police gathered the cameras roll as she descends the grand staircase. She thanks Cecil DeMille for shooting Salome and states that she is happy to be back and will never leave her fans again. Otherworldly strings and woodwinds inform us of Norma’s madness. Twisted heraldic fanfare announces her descent. The scene slowly builds and climaxes atop a truly grotesque dance-like rendering of her theme, which subsides for a last plaintive rendering on saxophone of Joe’s Theme. The cue concludes with resounding orchestral flourish. Bravo! “Sunset Boulevard Cast” concludes the film in fine Golden Age tradition with a last grand expression of Norma’s Theme. “Prelude and Conversing Corpses” was originally intended to open the film and then flow into a morgue scene that featured talking corpses after the opening credit roll. Studio execs felt it was just too bizarre and ordered Wilder to pull the scene from the film and reshoot the opening. The music mirrors the film version “Prelude” until 2:03 where we segue into the morgue scene. An eerie ambiance is created by tonal woodwinds and shifting strings, which create a dark ambiance. From out the depths a solo saxophone emotes a dark variant of Joe’s Theme with harp counters, which interplays with a sad Norma’s Theme. The subtlety and nuanced writing of this cue is first rate and testimony to Waxman’s mastery of his craft.

Please allow me to thank Robert Townson and Varese Sarabande for this stunning re-recording of Franz Waxman’s 1950 Academy Award-winning masterpiece. This release incorporates all of the surviving elements in the Paramount Pictures music archive, including the original “Prelude and Conversing Corpses” cue, which was excised from the film. This score offers Waxman at his best and provides one of the finest scores of the Golden Age. He demonstrates mastery of his craft by providing us with a multiplicity of character driven themes for which he creates exceptional interplay. The brilliance of his music informing us of the psychology and emotional torrents of this tragic story’s narrative cannot be overstated. I highly recommend this score as an essential component for all lovers of film score music.

Buy the Sunset Boulevard soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Sunset Boulevard Prelude (3:51)
  • Paramount Studio (0:55)
  • Chase and Mansion (3:42)
  • Norma Desmond (2:18)
  • An Aging Actress (0:54)
  • Reading the Script (2:34)
  • The Strange Garden (1:56)
  • Norma’s Gallery (1:24)
  • The Waxworks and The Bridge Game (1:44)
  • Afternoon Outings (1:00)
  • Sacrifice of Self-Respect (4:07)
  • The Old Bathing Beauty (2:29)
  • Parading to Paramount (0:55)
  • Old Friends (1:27)
  • DeMille’s Companion (0:42)
  • Norma’s Suspicions (3:55)
  • A New Interest and The Studio Stroll (5:08)
  • Her First Husband (2:56)
  • The Showdown (4:14)
  • Farewell (1:56)
  • Joe Walks Out (5:22)
  • The Corpse (1:11)
  • The Comeback (4:24)
  • Sunset Boulevard Cast (0:31)
  • Prelude and Conversing Corpses (9:01)

Running Time: 68 minutes 36 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-6316 (1950/2002)

Music composed by Franz Waxman. Conducted by Joel NcNeely. Performed by The Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Original orchestrations by Sidney Cutner, George Parrish, Leonid Raab and Leo Shuken. Recorded and mixed by Jonathan Allen. Album produced by Robert Townson.

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  1. February 27, 2017 at 10:02 am

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