The unwritten rule of detective stories is that the hero should
be past his prime, or at least out of his era, because this one character
detail brings out so much of what makes the genre evocative. A private eye
travels among the seedy and the pretty and notices things that the actual
inhabitants of those classes would miss. He is constantly underestimated by
people who think they know what makes him tick; he may solve the case, but
he'll remain a loser to the end.
The genre needs these losers to set the story in motion. Even The Big
Lebowski--the Coen Brothers' frayed, inspired spoof on detective flicks
and L.A. malaise--features The Dude, a bumbling relic from the antiwar
movement. The Coens carefully set the film in the days preceding the Gulf
War--a moment of rah-rah militarism that may have been the death knell for
'60s-style pacifism. The subtle joke of the movie is that The Dude's era is
ending, though he continues to coast on his hippie cred. In many
ways--particularly in its choice of protagonist--The Big Lebowski is
the spiritual descendant of Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye,
without Altman's bold acridity.
In a different way, so is Twilight, the relaxed L.A. noir
from director Robert Benton, screenwriter Richard Russo, and star Paul
Newman (all of whom previously collaborated on the sublime Nobody's
Fool). Twilight is about the residue of the whole heady
Hollywood milieu that spawned The Long Goodbye--the very milieu that
spawned the careers of Twilight's cast.
Newman plays Harry Ross, an ex-cop turned detective who was on the verge
of retiring to the gutter before an old buddy (James Garner) sobered him up
and hipped him to a gig running "errands" for a once glamorous Hollywood
couple (Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon). As the film opens, Ross is living
above the garage at the couple's plush home while he recovers from a
gunshot wound that he picked up while trying to recover the couple's
daughter (Reese Witherspoon) from an illicit affair in Mexico.
While delivering a package, Ross stumbles across another ex-cop
detective (M. Emmet Walsh) with a fatal belly wound. Investigating further,
Ross finds himself embroiled in an extortion plot stemming from the
disappearance of an actor some 20-odd years ago. What he finds leads him
back to his employers, and to a mystery that seems to matter only to the
Twilight was originally entitled The Magic Hour, the
cinematic term for twilight--specifically, the golden cast that the dusk
brings to even the most mundane surroundings. Much of Twilight was
actually filmed at the magic hour, which gives the film a supple, warm
look. The new title is ultimately more appropriate, though, since this
story deals with characters who are in the twilight of their lives, with
maybe one more bright moment left before sundown.
The homes, apartments, and even police stations where Twilight is
set are covered with movie posters, old head shots, and yellowed press
clippings; the film implies all sorts of relationships between these aging
stars and the aging lawmen who idolize them and cover up their mistakes.
Unfortunately, Russo and Benton keep these implications subtle, with only
the occasional awkward speech to state the themes of the film.
Luckily, these actors are good enough to spur the audience's imagination
even when the film doesn't provide the details. Twilight's submerged
story--about the excesses of the acting community in the waning days of the
studio system, and how their glamour continues to seduce people who should
know better--is played out in the fake camaraderie of Newman and Hackman,
as well as in the timid sexual sparks that fly up from Newman and Sarandon.
Twilight is a quiet film, with almost no action--unless you count
the action of charismatic performers reducing their craft to its minimal,
Detective stories are rarely about their plots (although the best
ones admittedly have better plots than Twilight's pale plugger).
Instead, the framework of a gumshoe working a case provides an opportunity
for the audience to study the situation, and the people involved, and to
learn about what humans will do in desperate circumstances.
Twilight's Harry Ross, like the classic detectives of yore, tracks
the truth. The most that he gains is a little more awareness of the
pervasiveness of sin, and a way to pass the time before the sun completely