Twilight (1998) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

Originally shot under the title ‘Magic Hour’, this low-key murder mystery has probably received extra attention since the release of the Stephenie Meyer books. If so, some may have been a tad disappointed by the lack of teenage supernatural activity … but one would hope that others stuck around for a superior valentine to the golden age of Film Noir, one that offers all the salient virtues of the classical Hollywood movie. These include a very solidly constructed mystery, dialogue that crackles, and an eye-catching cast in which such stars as Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman, Stockard Channing and James Garner are joined by such (then) up-and-coming performers as Reese Witherspoon and Liev Schreiber to deliver an engrossing and truly satisfying movie.

The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom and you should head over there to see the many other selections.

“My name is Harry Ross. And here’s how my life has gone. First I was a cop, then a private detective. And then … a drunk. Also, in there somewhere, a husband and a father. You’d think, with all that, that the world loses its power to seduce. But you’d be wrong”

We open to the sound of a mariachi band, playing by a poolside at a resort in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Paul Newman, looking a little the worse for wear in a frayed shirt and a cheap suit, is down-at-heel private detective Harry Ross. He is south of the border to retrieve Mel, the young runaway daughter of Hollywood celebrity couple Jack and Catherine Ames. He manages to drag the teenage girl (Reese Withersoon) away from her hotel room but her dunderhead boyfriend Jeff (Schreiber) tries to stop him. In the ensuing fracas, she gets Harry’s gun and it goes off – the bullet ricochets and hits the detective …


We are now in Hollywood, and Harry is looking a little better. Two years have passed since his inadvertent shooting and now we find him sporting a crisp pink polo shirt. He is living in a room over the garage in the Ames’ palatial Hollywood home. Catherine (Sarandon) is still a great beauty, twenty years after her heyday, but Jack (Hackman) is aging much less well – in fact, he is dying of cancer. He asks Harry, as a favour, to give a package full of banknotes to a woman named Gloria. Harry has misgivings, especially as he has let his private investigator’s licence lapse. When he gets there Gloria in nowhere to be seen – in her place is an old man, his gut full of bullets – he lunges at Harry and fires off several shots before dying. It’s a great scene and provides that supreme character actor M. Emmett Walsh with a fine, wordless cameo. The dead man is an ex-cop who investigated the disappearance, and presumed suicide, of Catherine’s first husband some twenty years earlier. He still has the case file and Harry burns it before calling the cops. They arrive, led by Harry’s ex-partner Verna (played with a permanent quizzically raised eyebrow by the ever-magnificent Stockard Channing), who greets him warmly before arresting him.

At the station Harry, gets strange looks from his ex-colleagues. What he doesn’t know is that the received wisdom at the station is that in Mexico he was shot not in the leg but actually in his ‘privates’ … This bit of gallows humour, combined with the cast of classy but undeniably older movie stars, signals that the film will offer a singular reflection on the nature of mortality and aging in the land of the movies, where the roots to the murders all lead to something long-buried in the Hollywood hills.

“Don’t you ever get tired of the beautiful people?”

The link to the past is compounded by casting that is redolent of Tinseltown depictions of private eyes from previous decades. Newman played Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer in two movies (Harper in 1966 and The Drowning Pool in 1975) while James Garner, who plays Jack’s old fixer and Harry’s best friend Raymond, starred in that greatest of PI shows The Rockford Files (1974-80) and even played Raymond Chandler’s eponymous hero in Marlowe (1969), the adaptation of ‘The Little Sister’. Gene Hackman of course starred in that darkest, and perhaps finest, of Hollywood PI moves, Night Moves (1975).

This is a really knowing example of the genre, which from its shimmering cinematography and solid orchestral score (by Hollywood veteran Elmer Bernstein), just oozes old-time Hollywood. It even  begins with an immediate nod to one of the earliest of Noirs, Murder, My Sweet (1943) with Harry in a darkened office being interrogated by a groups of policemen, then shifting into flashback as he narrates his story (as quoted at the head of this review). Even the climactic shootout is choreographed to recall the finale to Newman’s Harper. In between there are some great cameos (like John Spencer as Verna’s boss) but maybe there is also one homage to be skipped: Giancarlo Esposito as Reuben, a limo driver and wannabe PI. He is there to give some light relief, but having a scaredy-cat Hispanic as the hero’s occasional sidekick is perhaps one throwback too many.

“It’s their love story, not yours. You don’t get to kiss the girl in the end. She is somebody else’s girl.”

Harry is in love with Catherine and they both love Jack, but as their daughter tells him, he is just a bit player in their story (as is she). It is only when they start lying to him and he threatens to leave that Catherine sleeps with Harry. This romantic interlude is all too brief and cruelly curtailed when Jack has a heart attack that night – and notices that she is wearying Harry’s distinctive polo short. As written by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Russo and director Robert Benton (whose earlier excursions into the genre include The Late Show (1977) and Still of the Night (1982)), this is a mellow, romantic movie though unmistakably a modern one. The language is pretty salty (it got an R rating in the US and 15 in the UK), there is brief if tasteful nudity and by the end of the film there have been five murders, four of them on-screen. The most affecting has a bitter-sweet quality worthy of Peckinpah when Gloria (aka ‘Mucho’), who it turns out partnered with Jeff to extort money from the Ames’, is cruelly gunned down and gets a tragicomic death scene that proves to be just the latest in a long line of of really bad choices she made.

Paul Newman as the aging detective in TWILIGHT (1998), And it looks like he is a fan of Barzun and Taylor's seminal mystery genre refence work, 'A Catalogue of Crime'.

The trailer (see below) includes a number of scenes that didn’t make it into the final cut, including a funeral that presumably would have come right at the end of the movie, as well as more scenes featuring John Spencer’s Police Captain and James Garner. As it now stands the film runs a scant 90 minutes (plus credits), so it is clear that it was somewhat pared back in post-production to keep things to their essentials. This suits a film that tries so hard to be like the best of the Film Noir films of the classic 40s-50s period, though it can make it feel, on occasion, perhaps a bit cursory and, after a detailed build-up, a little rushed at the climax. Certainly the wrap-up scene at the end, between Newman and Channing, while amusing, does have a slightly tacked-on feeling. But apart from Esposito’s role as mentioned above, these are the only criticisms I have, and they are minor compared to the compensations in the shape of some excellent performances and a carefully made and engrossing mystery. Just don’t go expecting anything supernatural in it – that’s just a whole different kettle of genre …

I Included this title in my list of Top 20 Private Eye Movies and to the degree that it aims to sum up much that has gone before in the genre, it also stands on its own as a fine example of Neo-Noir, aided in no small measure by a spectacularly good cast. Newman, Hackman and Garner are much older than we remembers them from their heyday in the 50s and 60, but all deliver wonderful performances in a melancholic mood – and Susan Sarandon is just breathtaking as a ‘femme fatale’ who eschews cliche with a carefully constructed and totally believable performance as a woman who will do truly anything for her man. We should all be half so lucky!

Video Availability: Available in a technically perfectly adequate if disappointingly barebones DVD release.

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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24 Responses to Twilight (1998) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

  1. Mike Sutton says:

    What a lovely piece of writing! I saw this in the cinema and loved it then and I still love it now. Not quite on the level of the majestic “Night Moves” of course – we can’t all be Alan Sharp or Arthur Penn – but still pretty good.

    • Cheers Mike, very kind. Well, no, not in the same league as Night Moves – but Benton is no slouch of course, having co-written Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and with Bad Company made one hell of a directorial debut!

  2. John says:

    Good one! Reese Witherspoon was a much more interesting actress when she was very young than she is now. I still remember her in this doing a slightly Chandleresque character and her debut in MAN IN THE MOON. And Susan Sarandon is such a sultry and deadly character in this.

    • Hi John – I know what you mean about la Witherspoon – up to Election she had a nice line in often dislikeable characters with redeeming features but it’s been pretty much downhill since the success of Legally Blonde! Sarandon is just fabulously deadly in this movie – one of the best things about Twilight for me is that you can completely believe that everyone is in thrall to the characters she and Hackman play because they are genuinely deductive and charismatic characters – qute often in movies you are told that peiple are full of charm but you rarely believe as it is usally stated rather than demonstrated (but that’s movies for you – no substitute for the real thing …).

  3. Colin says:

    Very nice Sergio. I’ve not seen this movie all the way through, having caught part of it on a late night TV showing in Greece about a year or so back. I’m going to try and track it down though – you’ve sold me on it.

    • Cheers Colin – would really like to know your take on it. Very inexpensive purchase I think on DVD. I hope it appeals as it is frankly custom-built for Noir fans like ourselves (in fact, isn’t everybody a Film Noir aficionado? there ought to be a law …).

      • Colin says:

        Noir and neo-noir does have a fairly wide appeal – aside from hardcore fans, the focus on complex and often destructive relationships holds a kind of fascination for lots of people.

        • It has that real advantage of offering a broad enough approach to meld into virtually all genres and yet to offer tropes that are instantly recognisable without necessarily feeling too constricting. Or at least, when it’s done right. In the case of this film its the big stars that help make it stand out but all the stylistic mannerisms and flurishes are very capably represented – it comes down to being able to succumb to the charm of the well-made movie. It’s not trying to challenge your preconceptions (like, say, the Coen brothers might), or necessarily reinforce any steretypes either (any big budget Hollywood movie you care to mention). But it does want to have a look at why we can be so willingly persuaded and even seduced by star glamour and of course by the thrills of crime movies in general.

  4. StephenD says:

    Great movie. I saw it almost by accident a couple years ago because it had Paul Newman in it. Unless I remember it wrong, this is the movie with the great line “When the client says you don’t need a gun, that means bring two”.

    • Hi Stephen, thanks for the comments. Yes, that great line does indeed belong to this movie. The sheer quotability of its dialogue is another one of its great assets. I really should have made more of that in the review!

      • Colin says:

        That’s another of the major attractions of film noir, and neo-noir, right there – the dialogue. Aside from a distinctive visual style, twisty plotting and cynical take on the world, there’s the language: slick, cool, memorable and quotable. It’s hard to think of a noir picture, even the most humble, that doesn’t feature some knockout lines.

  5. iluvcinema says:

    I remember seeing this film all those years ago. It was so understated yet effective as a crime thriller. Major props to an excellent cast and assured director.

    • Thanks for the feedback. It’s the kind of movie that gets seen less and less in theatrical exhibition more’s the pity – today it would probably get made by HBO, but I was glad on re-watching it that it really stands up.

  6. Patti Abbott says:

    I really do miss him. And I remember this fondly.

  7. Yvette says:

    I’m with Patti on missing Newman. I can hardly believe he’s gone from the world. I remember him too as such a beautiful younger man. Of course, he also made for a very attractive older man as well…..sigh.

    How come I never heard of this movie? Oh well, you’d think I’d get tired of asking that question. Needless to say, after your wonderful review, I’m adding it to my list. I find that often modern film noir has a self congratulatory feel to it, but I’m willing to take another look.

    Plus I am a HUGE fan of screenwriter and novelist Richard Russo – I’ve read just about everything he’s ever written. I’ve been meaning to watch NOBODY’S FOOL with Newman, as well. It’s on my list.

  8. One of my favorites of all time. Paul Newman was fantastic. But so were the others. It is one of the few movies I’ll be watching over and over.

  9. Jeff Cordell says:

    I like this movie as well. Your review nailed it perfectly. I tell those who are interested that it’s a good way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon – if you have such things in your life. I watched it again a couple weeks ago after getting off duty. Our night tours go from 18:00 – 06:00 and I need to unwind after getting home. This was a good one to unwind with.

    • Thanks very much Jeff – what I like about it is that it is in many ways a deceptive movie in that the plot, dialogue and characters make it highly entertaining as an hommage to classic noir but its exploration of the effects of aging in particular belong resolutely to a more modern era and I think marks it out as a film that hopefully will stabd the test of time. This is very typical of writer-director Robert benton, who did exactly the same thing with The Late Show starring Art Carney and Lily Tomlin – if you haven’t seen that one you really should.

      • Jeff Cordell says:

        I agree with you. I own “The Late Show” and it’s also a good one. You know it’s funny, but I didn’t even realize that Robert Altman produced that film until a few days ago. Which is when I decided to watch “The Long Goodbye”.

        • It is kind of great how some of these things all seem to connect in some small way – but there was a slightly more collegiate feel to cinema in those days I suppose before magabudget blockbusters were all studios were prepared to bankroll. Ah well … onwards!

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