Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Twilight (1998)

After having accidentally been shot in the leg by Mel (Reese Witherspoon), the wayward daughter of his clients, former Hollywood stars Jack (Gene Hackman) and Catherine Ames (Susan Sarandon), ex-cop turned private eye Harry Ross (Paul Newman) ended up moving into the couple’s mansion, living above their garage as an all-round hanger-on. Among the things that keep him there are a rather big crush on Catherine, who is playing up to it like the Hollywood pro she is, the loneliness of a man whose only child died years earlier and who doesn’t seem to have much in the way of actual friends, and a sense of being needed, even if it’s only in his mind. It certainly isn’t money keeping him there – Jack isn’t paying Harry anything.

Things begin to take a more interesting (in the probably made-up Chinese curse kind of way) turn for Harry when Jack asks him to deliver a package that looks rather a lot like the kind of blackmail money envelope you always see in detective movies to a woman. Soon, Harry’s wading through rather a lot of dead bodes, encounters shady people, reacquaints himself with old police partners (Stockard Channing and James Garner, mostly), and stumbles circles around a dark secret someone is very obviously willing to kill for.

Robert Benton’s film about elderly private eye Harry Ross taking on one last case, is a bit of a quiet joy, strolling through quite a few standard detective tropes, myths about Hollywood (this is a very LA-centric movie), and so on, while having thoughts about class, aging, guilt and responsibility. The film never presents its consciousness of older detective movies with ironic air quotation marks, but does use the structure of the genre to talk about the things that interest Benson, carefully shifting and twisting an element here or there without attempting to make any grand gestures of deconstructions. Which fits my tastes rather nicely, for I don’t believe this genre actually needs to be deconstructed or ironicized any further than it already has been in the past.

Benton is not a viscerally exciting director – even those scenes where bad stuff happens to people seem calm and subdued – and the film’s tempo is of a slowness appropriate to the age of its stars. Instead, he’s trusting in his wonderful cast of veterans, character actors and extremely competent young blood to understand and carry the ideas of his film, which they do clearly, calmly and to great emotional effect. Paul Newman has of course never been a terribly great actor, most of his better moments were based on presence and face, but he can rise to the occasion in the right movie under the right director, and Benson’s sensibilities seem to be just the right fit. Newman certainly has a couple of highly regarded detective roles on his CV, too, fitting into Benton’s work with genre history here very well.

I am sure this isn’t a film for everyone – I’ve seen critics complaining about the film being too slow (it certainly isn’t fast, but I don’t see why it would have to be), the plot being preposterously constructed (as if that weren’t exactly the kind of plotting you’d expect of a hard-boiled detective movie), and so on and so forth – but if you’re like me, Twilight might be just the right paean to the private detective as moral arbiter (or knight in shining armour, Mr Chandler, if you insist), Dark Los Angeles, and shadows of the past that certainly do not become lighter the older you get.

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