Nashville Scene

DIRECTED BY: Robert Benton

REVIEWED: 03-16-98

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 principals involved.

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, electrifying essence.

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 sets.

--Noel Murray

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Other Films by Robert Benton
Nobody's Fool

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Kiss of Death

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