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.
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.