Billy Wilder was one of the most accomplished filmmakers of his time and his 1950 noir crime drama, Sunset Boulevard is often regarded as his finest work.
Set in Hollywood of the 1950s, it features an obscure screenplay writer Joe Gillis who is unable to get the film studios to accept his work. Deep in debt, he contemplates returning to his hometown, accepting the failure of his ‘American Dream’. However, he is hired to improve a faded film star’s script. Joe takes the job but finds himself entangled in a dangerous relationship.
Very unconventional and highly nuanced, the film opens with the corpse of its protagonist floating in a pool. The shot from the bottom of the pool, looking up at the floating corpse, is still one of the most iconic images in cinematic history and rightly so. In the voice-over, Joe, narrates the story from beyond the grave and comments on the irony of his own fate, “the poor dope. He always wanted a pool. Well, in the end, he got himself a pool—only the price turned out to be a little high”. Iconoclastic and transgressive in nature, this opening sequence beautifully invokes symbols of opulence and social status only to deconstruct and subvert them.
It was a very difficult shot to get right. He tried lowering a camera into the pool in a transparent, waterproof box, but he was not satisfied with the result. In a revelatory interview, Wilder said, “The odd thing is one cannot film through water. The image is broken on the surface. We tried and tried. Finally, we found a solution.”
Wilder managed to succeed by placing a mirror on the floor of the pool and shooting the reflection of Joe and the cops and photographers.
Watch the scene and the interview explanation, below.