Friday, November 2, 2018

Twilight (1998)

March 6, 1998, release date
Directed by Robert Benton
Screenplay by Robert Benton, Richard Russo
Music by Elmer Bernstein
Edited by Carol Littleton
Cinematography by Piotr Sobocinski

Paul Newman as Harry Ross
Susan Sarandon as Catherine Ames
Gene Hackman as Jack Ames
Reese Witherspoon as Mel Ames
Stockard Channing as Lt. Verna Hollander
Giancarlo Esposito as Reuben Escobar
Liev Schreiber as Jeff Willis
Margo Martindale as Gloria Lamar (aka Mucho)
John Spencer as Capt. Phil Egan
M. Emmet Walsh as Lester Ivar
James Garner as Raymond Hope
Clint Howard as an EMS worker

Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Produced by Cinehaus

No vampires in this film, just Paul Newman in the starring role in a neo-noir that I enjoyed more than I thought I would. There is probably a generation of moviegoers who find it very difficult to forget they are watching Paul Newman when he is in a movie. I am one of those moviegoers. That inability to see past the star and focus on the film’s narrative is often a fault for a film, but not so for Twilight. It’s about murder, betrayal, blackmail, corrupt cops and private investigators (the film has so many noir elements); it is also a fun movie. And it is a bit of relief to know that Paul Newman—I mean, Harry Ross—does his best to stick to his moral compass in spite of all the betrayal and corruption around him, and there is plenty of both.

Harry Ross is a retired Los Angeles police officer and occasional private detective who is down on his luck, so down on his luck that he lives over the garage at his friends’ estate. His friends are Jack and Catherine Ames, popular actors who can afford to take in their friend and give him some odd jobs so he can maintain some sense of dignity. The film opens with Ross looking for the Ames’ daughter Mel in Mexico. He finds her, in the company of her boyfriend Jeff Willis, and attempts to bring her home. Ross has no trouble with Jeff Willis, but he didn’t count on Mel’s feistiness: She manages to get Ross’s gun and accidentally shoot off a round, which hits Ross in the thigh.

Cut to two years later, and Ross is being led into an interrogation room at a Los Angeles police station. Former coworkers recognize him as he passes by, and many talk in whispers about his unfortunate accidental shooting in Mexico. Rumor has it that he was shot in the groin and thus has lost his manhood. This misunderstanding becomes something of a running joke throughout the film because (a) the rumor is false and (b) Ross and the viewers are the only ones who know that throughout most of the film.

(This blog post about Twilight contains almost all the spoilers.)

Harry Ross is in the police station to discuss what he knows about the death of Billy Sullivan, Catherine Ames’s first husband. Sullivan died under mysterious circumstances years ago, and some in the law enforcement community aren’t happy that his death was never investigated more thoroughly. Ross is also there to tell what he knows about the death of Raymond Hope, another retired police officer and private investigator who once did a lot of work for the Ameses.

Ross tells his story to two police detectives as a recorded statement, which the film provides in flashback; in fact, most of the story is told in flashback, another hallmark of noir. The flashback allows viewers to see events from Ross’s perspective. We learn the extent of the betrayals and the corruption as he does. The film occasionally uses Harry Ross’s voice-over, which reinforces the narrative perspective from his point of view and lets us see some of what he is thinking. This narrative perspective makes it very easy to identify with Harry Ross and thus to root for him.

I should admit here that Paul Newman in the lead role of Harry Ross in Twilight adds a lot to the enjoyment of the film, at least for me. I do have some misgivings, however, about Newman in this role. Newman was seventy-three when he starred in Twilight, and it is a little unbelievable that, as a private investigator, he outshoots and outmaneuvers many of the (younger) characters he is trailing. Stockard Channing plays Lieutenant Verna Hollander, Newman’s former partner on the Los Angeles police force and also his former love interest. Channing is nineteen years younger than Newman, and it was also hard for me to believe that the two characters Channing and Newman play might renew their former romance at the end of the film. Lieutenant Verna Hollander’s little maneuver to discover whether Harry Ross still has his manhood struck me as tasteless. But I was able to overlook the negatives and enjoy the story, misgivings included.

From what I have read online, Twilight didn’t open to positive reviews in 1998, and I do hope that time will prove to be kinder to the film. Paul Newman is a good reason to see it. And James Garner is a very pleasant surprise in the role of Raymond Hope. Garner is another star who, like Paul Newman, makes it hard to forget he’s an actor playing a role, but he turns in the most nuanced performance in Twilight, and he is another reason that the film is so much fun to watch.

1 comment:

  1. I saw Twilight years ago, a DVD rental, I think, before the vampire franchise existed. I've always enjoyed the movie. I agree with you on some of its flaws/drawbacks, but really enjoyed James Garner, Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman, Stockard Channing...the cast is deep in talent, including a very young Reese Witherspoon and a youthful Liev Shreiber. It's a good if not great neo-noir. As you mention, it is difficult to forget that Newman is Newman, but it doesn't really matter in this film and he does do a fine job in the role of Harry Ross.