Weekend Film Recommendation: Twilight

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).

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

19 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Twilight”

  1. I have to admit that, after only reading the title, my first reaction was: “What?”

    Then I read the rest of the review and found out which “Twilight” movie you were referring to.

    So, did you do that on purpose? 🙂

  2. “First I was a cop and then a private detective. And then…a drunk.”

    Serious question here. Why do people who like these sorts of movies like them? I honestly do not get it. The whole genre of noire (and most action movies) are predicated on “heroes” who are broken human beings; and I assume their success means people want to watch this sort of human being, but I just don’t get the appeal. Personally I have zero interest in this sort of thing.

    One theory of the appeal of science fiction is that (part of it) is the last refuge in literature of competence, of people who actually know WTF they are doing and how not to screw up their lives. While it’s a long time since I read much science fiction (and of course movie SF is a different beast from written SF) this seems about right. To take the most recent SF I read, namely _Eiffelheim_, the parts I enjoyed most were the intelligence of the medieval priest in analyzing his situation, while the parts I enjoyed least were the present-day psychodrama between the historian and his GF which read like the author’s editor told him “throw in some emotion, throw in some ‘life problems'”.

    1. Part of the appeal is that the “broken hero” role gives an actor a little more to work with — it adds the “man versus himself” layer to to the adversities he (or she) must overcome.

      1. But, to put it bluntly, so what? How is this different from an artist deliberately painting using only their feet? The results may be remarkable, for footwork, and may be of interest to other artists.

        But in a world of a million artists (and a million movies) the metric is surely something like “how much pleasure does this give me”, not “how technically difficult was this to achieve”?

        To put it differently, IMHO the Ontological Hero (man battling against a situation) is vastly more interesting the the Psychological Hero (man battling against his own incompetence).

        1. Your key phrase here is “IMHO” — to which you, like everyone else, is entitled. But are you really unable to understand how other people might react differently when confronted with identical stimuli?

          Are you really unable to appreciate how the inner workings of an anti-hero can bring pleasure to others (BTW, I don’t see how playing a flawed hero is a ‘technical’ problem like accent, prosthesis, or period style) in the same way that a well-constructed problem and problem-solver bring pleasure to you?

          That said, it isn’t (for many of us) the intrinsic flaws in the hero that attract our attention — it’s how well the whole character is conceived and played. The whole character, not just the parts of whom we may or may not approve.

          1. Some of us who have broken places in ourselves really do like seeing broken heroes (or heroines) accomplish something, even if that something is only to figure out what is going on.

          2. For pity’s sake, how much of Shakespeare would we have to pitch without “broken heroes”?

    2. The whole genre of noire (and most action movies) are predicated on “heroes” who are broken human beings

      I really don’t think that’s a fair or useful characterization of film noir. Remarkably, I find the first sentence in the Wikipedia article rather apt: Film noir is a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas, particularly those that emphasize cynical attitudes and sexual motivations. Take, for example, two of my favorite noir films (and two of my favorite movies of any kind), The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity. In the latter, the hero (if you can call him that) played by Fred MacMurray is lured into committing a crime by a woman who plays upon his sexual lust. He ends up broken, but he didn’t start out that way. In The Maltese Falcon, the landscape is littered with people twisted and broken by greed and lust, but the hero, played by Bogart, while a rather cynical observer of the pathology around him, is the only one who’s whole. I suppose it’s possible to watch both of these pictures and not enjoy them, but I find that exceedingly difficult to imagine.

      I must say also that, while I can’t judge Twilight, never having seen it, I find it hard to think of a film as “noir” that wasn’t shot in glorious black and white.

      1. I find it hard to think of a film as “noir” that wasn’t shot in glorious black and white

        No mention of his being one of the handsomest men who ever lived? Or is that too shallow?

        @Herschel: To respond to your two separate comments, I love B&W but don’t be too literal, there are some great noirs in color
        like this one (in which I noted as well that Denzel suffers from handsome Paul’s handicap)

  3. @Katja: You mean there’s another movie called “Twilight”? I really must get out more. : )

  4. You write of Paul Newman: extraordinary range, emotional subtlety and intelligence (in addition to being a mensch in real life)

    No mention of his being one of the handsomest men who ever lived? Or is that too shallow?

  5. Reaction to Maynard:

    My take is diametrically opposed to yours. I think it was Socrates who said (I paraphrase), “When I was young I studied the stars, but when I grew older I studied why men know what is good but do bad things” (I’d appreciate it if one of my esteemed blogging colleagues corrects this misquote). I guess I feel the same way, having started out in electrical engineering but segued into criminology over the years: I felt that EE problems were generally solvable, but the problems of crime can’t ever be solved completely, since we’re shooting at a moving (and dodging) target — pardon the metaphor.

    Science fiction is interesting, especially when it gets into how societal issues arise from technology as distinct from exclusively tech-geek ones. But to me the human condition is much more interesting than sci-fi.

    1. Except, Mike, there is a crucial missing step in your claim — the proof that LITERATURE is the appropriate mechanism by which to study this issue…

      I’m not claiming I’m not interested in humanity. But if we should have learned anything from recorded history, it is that humans are extremely capable of deluding themselves as to the real nature of humanity. Why exactly should I believe that Shakespeare’s or Tolstoy’s view of humanity is closer to reality than, say, Freud’s or Nietzsche’s? The latter two, like the former two, are telling a good story which sounds plausible; but the plausibility lies in the way the story hooks into the human mind, not in its actual truth.

      If you’re going to say that reading great authors is a good way to understand the human condition, you’re going to have to explain why the very similar act of going along with whatever the culture says at the time (whether that’s “slaves deserve what they get” or “women are ruled by their wombs” or “Africans have no history”) is not a good way to understand the human condition.

      I think there ARE interesting things one can learn from literature, but those things are anthropological — “how did this author/culture think”, the sort of thing that Hubert Dreyfus does with literature — which is NOT the same thing as claiming that the literature is teaching us verities about humanity.

      1. Maynard, I don’t understand what you mean by “the real nature of humanity”. In fact, what do you mean by “humanity”? That’s too general a term for me, sorta like how David Brooks typifies how “we” act.

        I read fiction in part to understand individuals in other times and places (e.g., what it was like to live under Hitler’s Germany), and how different people reacted to different stressors. And if not literature, by what mechanism do we study it? Social science surveys?

        1. Yes, we study and learn these things through the mechanisms of social science and history.

          First of all you are moving the goalposts — in your original post you claimed literature helped you understand (flaws in) humanity, now you are switching the goalposts to understanding history. This second is a weaker claim, one that I am more willing to endorse.

          Why on earth should literature, of ALL possibilities, be an accurate window into all of humanity? Consider, for example, your starting point of crime. You may believe that Raskolnikov is teaching you about “crime” but let’s be serious here. Raskolnikov is teaching you about a particular (modern, Christian) view of crime. He’s not teaching you about how crime was perceived in hunter gatherer societies, or in Bronze-Age Greece, or in Rome, or in “shame” rather than “guilt” societies.

          Similarly, for example, Shakespeare. I have no problem with people reading Shakespeare to learn about Elizabethan culture; I have real problems with people who claim that Shakespeare is “universal”, who read, for example, twentieth century views on anti-semitism, or racism, or sexism into his works, or claim his characters represent human archetypes appropriate to all societies of all times.

          I have no idea what to do with your claim that there is no such thing as humanity. Humanity is what is studied and what has been learned by anthropologists (paleo- and otherwise), by doctors and biologists, by historians, by social scientists from cognitive scientists to sociologists to psychiatrists. The fact that many of these people (getting worse the further back in time we go) were prisoners of their times and limited in what they knew or were willing to consider does not negate the enterprise — and that is precisely the point; as compared to literature these more academic disciplines have mechanisms in place, imperfect though they may be, to jettison the errors of the past and to grow real knowledge over time.
          Am I saying that you will learn more about humanity, REALLY, by reading Herbert Gintis than by reading Shakespeare? Yes, that is exactly what I am saying.

          1. I must say I find this conversation bizarre. Maynard started out sniffing at his inability to enjoy film noir, and seems to have progressed to an expression of disdain for art in general. If you don’t like movies, of course you won’t enjoy film noir. If you complain that art doesn’t teach you about humanity, you’re asking the wrong questions. If you find no enlightenment in Doctor Strangelove or Othello or a Mozart string quartet, please don’t imagine that the work of art is the deficient partner in your conversation. Art does not propose to teach you lessons about humanity, and if your complaint is that it fails to do what it doesn’t try to do, you need to rethink your position. Art is made to teach you about itself. Crime and Punishment cannot be expected to tell us how to think about crime and punishment, but to allow and encourage us to think about Crime and Punishment.

            I have no doubt that Herbert Gintis is an estimable fellow, and perhaps one will learn more about humanity, whatever that might mean, by reading his work than by reading Shakespeare. I find the prospect of learning more about Shakespeare’s art and mind by reading his sonnets to be of a different order of value.

          2. Of course humanity exists; my concern is with “humanity” as a unit of analysis. “We” are diverse, and I guess I’ve become a micro-type, I suppose due in part to my being married to an ethnographer.

  6. I’m not generally a fan of any (much less all) of the interent traditions pertaining to Friday, esp. those pertaining to cats and entertainment (these 2 being mutually exclusive IMHO and spanning most of the genre). However, at some point I began to enjoy this particular “tradition”, likely because it mentioned a movie that I was familiar with (or a movie with which I am familiar) and I agreed with the judgement. Certainly since the Devil in a Blue Dress post, I’ve been looking forward to these each Friday morning (and generally having to wait for several hours!).

    Anyway, I had never heard of Twilight, but on top of the points above, it had 3 of my favorite actors (and I suspect I date myself when I admit that Witherspoon (“Who?”) is not on this list). I obtained and saw it earlier this week, and it gave me mucho pleasure.[1]

    Thank you.

    1. There was a time when I thought that any movie with either Sarandon or Raul Julia could not go wrong. Then, to my chagrin, I saw in short order, “White Palace” and “Tango Bar.” Still love ’em both, of course, but …

    1. marcel — thanks for this positive feedback and have a great weekend (with I hope, a good movie).

Comments are closed.