My name is Harry Ross, and here’s the way my life has gone: First I was a cop and then a private detective. And then…a drunk. Also, in there somewhere, a husband and a father. You’d think with all that, the world would lose its power to seduce. But you’d be wrong.
So intones Paul Newman’s character in this week’s movie recommendation, the deliberately old fashioned 1998 film noir Twilight directed and co-written by the estimable Robert Benton. The film centers on a wealthy Hollywood family comprising former movie stars Jack and Catherine Ames (Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon) and their teenage daughter Mel (Reese Witherspoon).
Let me pause to note that two sentences into this recommendation and I have already mentioned 5 Academy Award winners!
The plot: After a disastrous effort to take Mel away from a stupid, sleazy paramour (Liev Schreiber), Harry was injured and moved in with the Ames family. He has long since recovered, but sticks around ostensibly because Jack has been diagnosed with cancer. But the truth is he is desperately in love with Catherine. Jack sends him on a mission to pay off someone whom Harry suspects is blackmailing the couple. He cares about both of them, even if he doesn’t completely trust them, so he returns reluctantly to private detective work. Thus begins a tortuous mystery involving murder, betrayal and long-buried secrets.
Though intentionally packed with many 1940s noir elements, the film from another point of view is a twist on the old detective stories in that the classic private investigator (e.g., in The Big Sleep) was an outside critic of his rich and powerful clients, less wealthy but with better judgment and morals. Here, Harry Ross is not much more than a pet, living on the estate of his benefactors, doing menial work and longing for Catherine’s love when he is in fact (as Mel puts it) a bit player in a movie starring other people.
The unmatched cast also includes James Garner, Stockard Channing, Margo Martindale, John Spencer and M. Emmet Walsh (In a vivid part given that he doesn’t even say a word!). Directing such a seasoned and talented group must have been a pleasure for Benton, who clearly has respect for the genre. He also contributed a script with sharp dialogue as well as some well-timed funny lines. Many of the scenes recall either specific 1940s detective films or at least their general style. If that isn’t Old Hollywood enough for you, the Ames house was once the home of Dolores Del Rio and Cedric Gibbons.
Reese Witherspoon and Liev Schreiber were cast I assume in the hopes of bringing in some younger viewers, and perhaps as well for their sex scene, but they bring much more than that to the table. Both are strong performers who pass my newbie test of screen greatness: They are completely at ease in scenes with the established superstars around them.
The only thing that clanged for me in this movie was the introduction about 35 minutes in of a comic sidekick played by Giancarlo Esposito. His character just doesn’t fit the mood of the rest of the picture, and his scenes are the one part of the film where things drag a bit. Other than that, this is for me irresistible viewing and I find it mysterious that it was not a hit with audiences when it was released. I suspect it underperformed because it was aimed at an older audience in an era when said audience did not buy many movie tickets (As the Boomers age, films like this have done better box office, which is fantastic if like me you enjoy films that are aimed at someone other than teenagers and adults who think like teenagers).
I can’t close this review without noting that this is already the third time this year that a Paul Newman film has been recommended here at RBC (Slap Shot by me and Cool Hand Luke by Johann). Compare the performances in those markedly different movies and you will see what an acting treasure he was, with extraordinary range, emotional subtlety and intelligence (in addition to being a mensch in real life).