Thursday, July 18, 2019

Without A Sense Of Guilt

“Roger died,” said the text. I knew this already. I just hadn’t wanted to be the one to tell her. This was the day, several years ago now, a lifetime ago now, that Roger Ebert died. We still remember him as a great writer and critic as well as someone who bravely fought cancer in his final years after his voice was taken away but often in the dead of night it’s going to be about his screenplay for the legendary BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. The film’s director Russ Meyer continues to be celebrated for it as well and though he’s also known for the likes of VIXEN and FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! it’s BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS that I return to, often in the dead of night, always trying to figure out just what this film is that’s unlike any other. Originally released in 1970 with an X rating (changed to an NC-17 years later), the film is known these days partly due to pop culture references in places like AUSTIN POWERS but all on its own is about as compulsively entertaining as any movie ever made and rewatchable as few others have ever been, making multiple viewings almost mandatory, the more the better. There is nothing like it. That’s even on the poster: This is not a sequel. There has never been anything like it.

There has still never been anything like it in every possible way and there are few films that bring the same exuberant rush of dangerously pure cinematic crack to every single shot, every single manic cut. You can’t say that about many films made these days and you certainly can’t say it about the original VALLEY OF THE DOLLS but no sane person would ever write about that film anyway (full disclosure: I’ve seen VALLEY OF THE DOLLS exactly twice but have seen BEYOND exactly 5,643 times). The thing about BEYOND is that, as extreme as it is, as much as it gleefully dispenses with anything resembling actual life in the real world, there’s something about it which is impossible to resist that somehow lets you identify with its madness. It’s the perfect film for L.A., making you think of those people in this town who fall into your world, the ones who keep you up until all hours of the night and what tears that connection apart in the end. For a long time I used to say that one of the reasons you keep going to parties in L.A. is the hope one night you’ll end up at Z-Man’s—for the first party, obviously, not the last. Since I don’t go out to parties as much anymore that dream isn’t as strong, but we all need to hold out a sliver of hope for these possibilities.

Kelly MacNamara, lead singer of the rock group The Kelly Affair along with guitarist Casey Anderson (Cynthia Meyers) and drummer Petronella Danforth (Marcia McBroom), suggests to manager/boyfriend Harris Allsworth (David Gurian) that they give L.A. a try which will give an excuse to look up her long-lost aunt Susan Lake (Phyllis Davis), the heir to the family fortune. When they are reunited, Kelly’s presence causes suspicion in Susan’s lawyer Porter Hall (Duncan McLeod) but she wastes no time inviting everyone to a party thrown by teen rock tycoon Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell (John LaZar) who after hearing them perform immediately announces that he can take the band which he renames The Carrie Nations and make them the biggest rock group around. As they rise on the charts with everyone getting sucked into the fast rock lifestyle, Harris is left behind and as Kelly squabbles over the family fortune that Porter Hall insists she won’t get a penny of, each of the girls begin to lose sight over what they really care about as they tumble further into that hard living land known as the valley of the dolls.

Sure, I could have made that synopsis longer adding a few more characters and incidents but we’ve got places to be. To accurately describe BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS is to fully understand it and I’ve never made that claim. To say the film is simply exhilarating isn’t quite enough, because to only specify what it achieves in one way is selling it short. It’s a glorious piece of exploitation, it’s a rock movie, a melodrama, a spoof, maybe even a little bit of a feminist film as well as a commentary on the nature of movies itself. Roger Ebert’s hand in the script (official credits: story by Ebert and Meyer, screenplay by Meyer) is a reminder of how while providing the expected melodramatic tropes it also plays as a compendium of maybe just about everything he had ever bemusedly noticed about movies up to this point, the sort of details he later compiled in his various glossaries of movie terms and clichés.

Along with how utterly quotable it is, said the spider, et cetera, it’s all filtered through the Russ Meyer prism of extreme sexuality, hell extreme sense of everything within the frame, of manly men and, more importantly, as many well-endowed women in a shot as is ever possible. The combination of the writer and director’s viewpoints explode in an array of madness which creates an immensely colorful and cluttered widescreen image that rapidly shoots from one type of film to another. It leaves no time to catch your breath as if daring you to scream uncle in the first ten minutes but once you get adjusted to the rhythms there’s also a joy to its arch playfulness as well as a strange familiarity as if a remake of a film we’ve watched in dreams but can’t quite remember.

Right from the start the sheer density of what Meyer brings as a filmmaker is undeniable, beginning with the kaleidoscopic way of structuring the film and how the baffling sequence of events under the opening credits make no sense but of course it all will eventually. What gets teased at the start is inevitable, just like much of what happens in inevitable, just as Z-Man seems to understand it always is. The perfect ideal for a Russ Meyer shot is a packed widescreen frame, possibly at a canted angle, one that cuts as fast as possible to the next before we’ve fully registered what’s in it, but as intense as the pacing is even during a brief scene filmed from every conceivable angle it always feels focused, none of it is ever random. The early frenzied montage used to illustrate everything we need to know about the people and places of Los Angeles (“Rich Aunt Susan?” “Bitch Aunt Susan.”) works now as part time capsule and part something else entirely but also on a smaller scale is the manic intensity of the fashion studio introduction to Susan Lake that shortly follows which is just as dizzying, barely giving us a chance to catch our breath. From early on the film always seems to be looking for bits of footage to insert in other places as part of that approach to make its point, the series of edits in rapid succession whether what’s coming between Casey and fashion designer Roxanne (Erica Gavin of VIXEN) who takes an immediate interest in her or a simple reminder of the joys of what Edy Williams’ lecherous Ashley St. Ives does in a Rolls versus a Bentley.

The first Z-Man party introduces us to seemingly a hundred people, some of whom we’ll get to know and others we’ll never see again, with snatches of pseudo-hipster cool dialogue that never make complete sense spoken by the most eccentric bit players imaginable and who the hell are all these people anyway. “This is my happening and it freaks me out!” Z-Man famously exclaims while showing Kelly around his pad, introducing her to what will be all the supporting characters in the film, nothing subtle about all that exposition but fitting for this rock tycoon who has taken control of everyone in this city he knows inside and out. Z-Man says they’ll be superstars and, poof, The Carrie Nations are superstars, the band’s rise to success depicted in a tableau of the girls performing bracketed by what they think of as the two men in their lives on each side, repeated later almost in a mirror image as the darkness of that success takes hold. It’s the strong, decisive women of Meyer’s films at the center of it all and whatever mistakes they fall into still have power that the men, almost all weak in their own ways, are never able to handle.

For Russ Meyer, the maverick approach of his independent films combined with the studio aesthetic seems perfect for the Hollywood collapse of 1969-70 in the wake of EASY RIDER and all the events of the time. I can never explain what it is about movies circa 1970 for me that feel a little nightmarish as if there was something about the film stock or lenses used but maybe I’m just thinking about this film in particular which always seems to come from somewhere unexplainable or maybe it’s just the unreal fashions and all that hair on the women, playing as both an exaggeration of the time and a total representation of it, or at least what I think it was. There’s no point getting caught up in the unending debate over what exactly camp is but there’s too much style found in the way BEYOND is staged and shot to ever consider it a bad movie, let alone an intentionally bad one, it’s just a style that is almost impossible to pin down. Everything about it is calculated in a pre-fab way, every second has just a little more intensity to it than you’d expect, the characterizations too vivid and when compared to the likes of MYRA BRECKINRIDGE which happens to be the other X-rated 20th Century Fox film of 1970 (they came out a mere week apart and what a time that must have been) it’s a reminder of how much that film is an unfunny chore to sit through once you take away the holy-shit vibe, no discipline to its offensiveness.

BEYOND constantly veers close to the cliff of total anarchy but never falls over, reveling in each heightened “Since the last time I saw you, you won the heavyweight championship! Congratulations!” moment. The music has some of that blatant manufactured pop style to fit the fake groovy vibe but it also has an unexpected power, whether that never-ending scream that kicks off the anthem “Find It”, the cheery hippie vibe of “Come with the Gentle People” or how well the later “Look On Up At The Bottom” goes with the darkness that’s falling over everything. All throughout, the music correctly highlights the specific tone of the moment whether for wacky Russ Meyer sex antics, the soap opera organ that invades the most histrionic moments or the title track by The Sandpipers presented totally poker-faced as if meant to be the theme for the normal version of this movie and no one said anything to stop them.

Plotted in the immediate wake of Tate-LaBianca and released the following summer after arrests had been made, part of where the story leads may be done in extreme tastelessness at least partly because of who one of the stars of VALLEY OF THE DOLLS was, after all, but on the other hand if an exploitation movie doesn’t exploit anything then what would be the point. The excessive nature of how even the most basic scene is staged almost manages to disguise how much of a modestly scaled film it is with almost the entirety of the main unit footage shot on either the Fox lot or presumably out at the Fox ranch in Malibu, but there’s always something within the clutter to disguise it (that said, a few night shots of Edy Williams driving, maybe on Wilshire Blvd, have a dangerous kick to them and I wish there was more of this sort of thing).

The film isn’t perfect, granted, since a few characters fall away when the film doesn’t have anything left to do with them and it does dwell too long on Porter Hall’s financial machinations in the middle section, dragging things with more literal plot than it really needs. This is a film about emotions, after all, and it never has to make any more sense than the fury of those emotions (the way Sam Fuller describes Cinema in PIERROT LE FOU comes to mind), the excess of the second hour’s rising fervor and the bloodshed of the climax which seems to come out of nowhere, coinciding with a use of the famous Fox fanfare to provide a joke late in the film if you’re listening for it during just about the grisliest moment. It’s all an exaggeration of what movies usually are as well as real life. But in Hollywood very little ever has to do with real life anyway.

BEYOND was almost going to serve as an actual sequel to VALLEY at one point and the draft I’ve read even has the names of the two characters from the first film before they were changed, presumably after threat of litigation from the author of the original novel but as Vincent Canby said in his New York Times review, “Any movie that Jacqueline Susann thinks would damage her reputation as a writer cannot be all bad.” Released in late 1967, the original VALLEY OF THE DOLLS was a huge hit at the time, presumably meant to be serious but since then has always been a so-bad-it’s-good joke. Coming several years later, BEYOND was meant by Meyer & Ebert to be a joke in the first place but is heightened to the point that gives every scene an unexpected intensity, never holding back on each overly emphasized emotion which manages to make it all the more strangely real, that cruel showbiz feeling of standing on the outside looking in.

Even now I still kind of hope for the best for some of the characters after the credits roll and also feel bad for a few who didn’t make it that far and don’t quite get redemption via the epic closing narration which in its benediction offers sympathy to only some through its skewering of conservative morality. In some ways the entire film is a joke, a borderline offensive joke down to the perverse dark humor of at least one particular sound effect, daring us to actually care about some of these people but it’s also a film about what films are in the first place and it lets us make up our own minds. The mayhem of the climactic party lives up to its nightmarish aims and while the most surprising revelation is the most problematic in this day and age it still plays out as a perfect joke about those last-minute revelations that come out of nowhere, answering everything and nothing all at once. Whatever new thing the film becomes on each viewing it’s always a combination of the L.A. we want to find and the one we’re afraid might still be out there, maybe even when we answer our phone in the dead of night. Maybe there is no code to crack when it comes to BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, merely simple acceptance of how in its own way this movie is really every movie.

All of this goes perfectly with the unrelenting energy of Dolly Read as Kelly who commands the film and seems ready to devour the world in every scene, no matter how much she loses sight of the people around her, no matter how many times her English accent slips in. It’s charming, just as Marcia McBroom also has a bubbly charm as Pet and she’s the one who seems to have the most fun with some of the over-enunciated dialogue she’s given to say and her scenes with Harrison Page as law student/love interest Emerson Thorne are just about the most relaxed of anyone. Cynthia Myers as Casey gives what is maybe the rawest performance in the film, her nervous energy bubbling under until it explodes without a hint of irony and is one of the strongest elements to really challenge whatever we might think this film is supposed to be. It comes through in her scenes with Erica Gavin, who herself is part of what is probably the film’s most notorious image and as much as it sometimes feels like the movie cuts around her, Gavin still gives her part more soul than it feels like was on the page.

John LaZar is extraordinary as the unforgettable Z-Man, fearlessly belting out every piece of pseudo-Shakespearean dialogue he has, becoming one with the film in his sheer display of intensity while David Guarian as Harris almost seems to be mentally wrestling with whatever intricate instructions Meyer has given him while saying the words, as if he’s struggling to stay afloat in all this as much as his character is. Michael Blodgett oozes sleaze as gigolo Lance Rocke who Kelly gets mixed up with while Charles Napier (all these years later, maybe the most recognizable person in the film) and his chiseled matinee idol looks play like he’s walked right out of an unseen Douglas Sirk film so he fits right in when reunited opposite the charming but slightly underused Phyllis Davis as Aunt Susan. Everyone here gets moments that will never be forgotten and it’s safe to say that for even some of the bit players here, this film is their immortality. When Edy Williams as Ashley St. Ives leans in close to David Guarian and says, “You’re a groovy boy, I’d like to strap you on sometime,” there’s nothing else to call it. Among the extended cast of bit players, Pam Grier is credited in the end crawl as “Fourth Woman” and is almost totally invisible but existing stills prove she was there for Z-Man’s party and I’ve actually spotted her, I swear!

And Roger did die on that day in 2013, sadly, but all things considered he made it longer than expected although still not as long as we wanted. Many years ago he gladly signed my copy of the script for this film, adding “Another BVD fan!” on the cover page. Russ Meyer passed away in 2004 and only made one other studio film after this, also for Twentieth Century-Fox, the considerably more normal and mostly forgotten THE SEVEN MINUTES which I haven’t seen in decades. Also in my own history, one day long ago I was wearing my BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS t-shirt while working on a low budget film when the cinematographer, the legendary Gary Graver, walked up to me and said, “I used to go out with…that one” pointing at one of the girls on the shirt (Erica Gavin, for the record). And through the years from my first viewing at SUNY Purchase in glorious 16mm Scope then to 35mm, the old Magnetic Video VHS, laserdisc, DVD and now that stunning Criterion Blu-ray, BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS continues to fascinate. Plus if you’ve ever seen it with a packed house you know that it just about destroys the place but even watching it by myself it still makes me want to examine each cut and figure out what’s going on there as if I’ll ever really get an answer. I’ll also remember how, in writing this film, Roger Ebert passed along a twisted reminder of what you sometimes need to expect from movies in the first place which is one of the reasons why they matter so much. And all that will be part of what I think of when I remember the text I received on the day he died, even if it is one of those pieces of the past you should decide to finally forget. But the film will continue, those words that Roger Ebert gave it will continue and the film in all its sleazy glory will be there to trust and count on, as the Carrie Nations once sang, come a rainy day.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

On Account of Darkness

Let’s slow this down for a minute. Because I recently went up for a job that in some ways I was perfect for but in others made me want to splash cold water on my face in terror, not because of the hours or what I’d be doing but because of the place itself. You’ve heard of this place, you might even be a fan of it, but you definitely have an opinion about it. And I wasn’t offered the job, I didn’t even hit it out of the park at the interview but if I’d decided to pursue it just a little more, who knows. Still, there was the angle of feeling like I’d be making a deal with the devil and I’ve worked in this world before so the language they spoke was one I recognized. And it made me wonder what sort of person I want to be from day to day, along with the realization that this might literally be a case of admitting you can’t pay me to give a shit about certain reality personalities out there in what we call the world. That’s the truth. I’ve gotten so far away from it already.

I can’t imagine watching SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS during the day. The vibe is just wrong. So much of it is made for the night, the later the better, the right time to be lingering in smoke filled bars with jazz playing as you wait for your next drink, wait for the next chance to make your move. The New York in this 1957 film was already long gone by the point I spent any time there but the world it presents is still as ferocious as ever. I understand that feeling of desperation while you’re in the middle of it all, knowing deep in the pit of your soul that you might be willing to do anything to get ahead. It’s a nastiness that you can identify with whether you like it or not for all those words in the script, for the performances found in that black and white nastiness of the New York night that makes up its world. The night, after all, is where the greatest betrayals take place, where the strongest desires feel closest, where the most traumatic endings are forced on you. It’s where this movie belongs.

New York press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is on the outs with ultra-powerful New York Globe columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) after failing to break up J.J.’s sister Susan (Susan Harrison) with rising young jazz guitarist Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). But he has one more plan to put into effect before the night is through to get him back in J.J.’s good graces and continue his ascent to the top, the only place he wants to be. But when the plan actually goes into effect Sidney finds himself having to do one too many favors for J.J. and it might be more than even he’s prepared to do.

The world in SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is Times Square, or at least it’s just about the only part of the world that matters, the only place we see that New York Globe delivery truck driving around during the opening credits to send the latest J.J. Hunsecker column out into the atmosphere. It’s a world of those bustling masses teeming with life that Sidney Falco is a part of, a world that he wants to rule but for now he’s still one of them as he waits for that bundle of papers to drop down on the sidewalk to hopefully give him some good news before going back for his hot dog. All these people are crowded together but it feels like everyone we meet in the insular universe of this film is directly connected somehow, even down to Sidney Falco being the nephew of Steve Dallas’ manager, a reminder of how everybody you know somehow knows everybody already and eventually it all closes in on you. “I’m no hero,” Sidney Falco flat out states near the beginning, just in case anyone who has bought their ticket to this film thinks otherwise, practically meta dialogue announcing to the screaming fans of Tony Curtis that they shouldn’t wait for him to be a nice guy, no matter how many dialogue references there are to him being pretty. Sidney Falco keeps a temporary sign taped to his office door, maybe waiting for the day he can put up a permanent one that’s gold plated, and one suspects it’s been there a while as he waits for just the right bonus check to finally come in and pay for all his dreams. He revels in those moments where people point out his insidiousness and he does what he wants with that simmering anger he has at the world when the film opens and he doesn’t deny it, forever intent on making people think he belongs there in Manhattan and not whichever outer borough he likely crawled out of. He goes after that ancient comic Herbie Temple with the story of passing along a line to J.J.’s column just to prove that he can, intent on making people crawl to him, over broken glass if necessary. It always feels like there’s a balancing act to the script (screenplay by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman from the novelette by Lehman) in the ice cold way it doles out the information we need to know and what it doesn’t hold back in the way things are said, the nastier the better, the more vicious the better. Sidney Falco’s “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river” to reassure J.J. about his plan taking effect is likely one of the most famous examples of this dialogue to go alongside J.J.’s own “You’re dead, son. Get yourself buried,” heard over the phone before we even meet him and the film is packed with these phrases, even down to the tossed off asides I wish I were clever enough to think of in my daily life. We hear those words mixed in with the black and greys provided by cinematographer James Wong Howe in how he shoots the film through those low angles that make the characters even more imposing, standing over each other out on the street so we get lost in that darkness ourselves.

Director Alexander Mackendrick’s other films include the likes of THE LADYKILLERS and A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA which don’t have much to do with this one but there was also the late 60s beach comedy DON’T MAKE WAVES starring Curtis, Claudia Cardinale and Sharon Tate which I’ve long had a crazy fondness for (it was also his last before a 24-year tenure at CalArts, including serving as Dean of the School of Film/Video there), maybe more than I should. The two films really have nothing much in common—and no way am I saying that DON’T MAKE WAVES comes anywhere close to being the masterpiece SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is—but if I want to reach I’d say that spoof of the southern California lifestyle almost has a comparable sense of place and of the mood in the air, the nastiness of New York held up against the arch promise of a new tomorrow out in California. Interestingly, the director is buried just a few yards away from Burt Lancaster at the same cemetery in Westwood and, come to think of it, Ernest Lehman is there too (Tony Curtis rests in Vegas, alas). Just like the characters in the film, they’re all connected and always will be but maybe because he’s the least known of anyone here Mackendrick becomes the odd man out in history but what he brings to the film is a sense of total control in every shot. In a way it feels representative of the personalities of both male leads, the way J.J. Hunsecker’s every movement is calm as opposed to how jitteriness felt from Sidney but regardless the direction keeps us close to the conversations and it’s always about what’s in the frame, paying close attention to the distance between characters even if just a few inches and remembering to give us a chance to observe the silent reactions to the horrible things being said. The ferociousness of the frame is always vivid as the camera follows Sidney’s own interest in what’s around him, even down to a subtle shift in shots moving in closer to the characters while keeping the same angle, forcing us to be closer to how that nastiness takes hold whether we like it or not. And in the way it knows how much the plotting of the film is in the abstract with the words spoken becoming its own form of jazz, which that music student eager to quiz Steve Dallas on his quartet is so eager to hear about but this is a world where no one explains themselves. You either know the language already or you don’t and the film always understands the meaning in those words, pausing to observe the silences as they take hold.

Unlike about a hundred other New York films that you can think of, there are no glorious scenic vista shots of Manhattan from overhead at the start of SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS. We’re right there in the middle of the island from the very first moment, seeing it just as the people in the movie do and the closest we ever get to a god’s eye view of the city from above is from the penthouse apartment terrace belonging to J.J. Hunsecker in the Brill Building (does the Brill Building have apartments? Did it ever?) as he overlooks his domain, fitting since he is, after all, god to this world that he rules. It still takes 20 minutes into the film before the character turns up in the flesh and it fittingly has to go to him, holding court at 21, as if he isn’t even in any rush to grace the film with his presence. And how many J.J. Hunsecker scenes are there in total, anyway? Nine? Ten? Whatever the number is, we see the full breadth of his character in that time and once in the film he takes full control even when the scene still technically belongs to Sidney, moving through it with the force of a jackal not quite ready to pounce on his prey and without a worry since no one is ever going to question him, glaring at everything through those glasses he uses as a shield. “I’ll clean my glasses for a better look,” he says at one point to mollify Suzy’s concerns over Steve but it’s those glasses that make him, the few times we do see him remove them it’s like he immediately has to move into darkness, his very being somehow incomplete. He keeps his ever-present sense of calm right up to the edge of physical violence and he knows that he barely has to move a muscle, a man so powerful that he barely puts on pretenses of politeness with people, cutting anyone who wants something down with all the honesty he cares to express. If he allows a peon like Sidney Falco to shine his shoes it would be out of the sheer goodness of his heart. ”Match me, Sidney,” J.J. threateningly tells him early on after cutting him down in front of others and maybe the only thing that keeps Sidney in good graces is declining at that point but he does eventually light that cigarette later on, right at the moment when J.J. casually threatens to take a baseball bat to his skull, the perfect phrasing to keep them totally in synch. As Sidney puts it, J.J. happens to be one of his best friends, after all.

We never quite know how far J.J.’s feelings for his sister go which is probably for the best, just as I’m never entirely clear on what’s up with their significant age difference. When we meet her Suzy seems proud to see Steve Dallas up on that stage and even relaxed enough around Sidney to joke with him but the way Susan Harrison plays her it’s like she shrinks as the film goes on, gradually becoming more fragile as if made of tissue paper to the point where it barely seems like acting. Seeing the film when younger I always got a little impatient whenever the film stayed with Steve and Suzy for too long as if they were lovers in a Marx Brothers movie taking time away from the good stuff. Now all these years later I know how essential they are to this world, their confusion held up against the greater forces they can’t control. Steve Dallas never comes off as the friendliest guy in the world to me but his integrity, as Sidney calls it, is always there, it’s just that he has no interest in playing anyone’s games so it’s clear what Suzy sees in him. He’s not her brother, after all. It still feels like the world around Steve Dallas has seeped into that stoicism, the way he throws around the “That’s fish four days old, I won’t buy it” phrasings but he still has to hold back his true feelings until Hunsecker gives him no choice. There’s not a shred of flippancy to him, ready to use everything he has to protect Suzy and her fur coat that he hates so much with the way Susan Harrison plays certain moments it’s as if she genuinely might not make it to the end of a take without collapsing.

The unrelenting darkness of SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS makes it at least noir adjacent although maybe it’s even nastier since the reasons for messing with people’s lives here are truly dark and complex, not for simple desires like love or money but for their own selfish glory and shot at even more power than they need. In other words, it’s more connected to the world we actually know and, besides, people destroy other people all the time and no one cares. Set over less than a day and a half and not even a particularly long film anyway, SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is these characters, these words, the cold in the air that’s felt when Sidney doesn’t wear a topcoat to save on tips. It’s the way Burt Lancaster answers the phone late at night and places the receiver down, leaving the caller waiting even longer for the privilege to exchange a few words with him. And the way the glorious Elmer Bernstein score seemingly never stops except maybe for when Steve Dallas plays his guitar with Chico Hamilton and the film bristles with that pounding feeling, moving as fast as a shot from one point to the other. It never holds back on what Sidney Falco, a man looking to win at chess without realizing he’s playing checkers, might be willing to do but the film lets almost no one off the hook, even Barbara Nichols’ cigarette girl Rita who protests over what Sidney expects her to do is just as much a part of that world as he is. It’s just Rita wants Sidney to think she’s not that bad. And he probably doesn’t even care anyway.

Every moment of SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is thrilling as it revels in that nastiness so much it becomes otherworldly, the story feeling cut to the bone, scraping away at it with no mercy and that pain is always felt since we see the hurt, we believe how far someone like Sidney will go for a shot at the brass ring. Even if it is one of the greatest screenplays ever put to film there are still a few places where it seems apparent dialogue was added after the fact to presumably clarify things (like early offscreen dialogue from Sidney to his secretary in order to explain the plot) but in some ways this reassures me that the people who made this film were still mortal. There’s still hope. Looking at the way Steve and Suzy are torn apart through all these machinations it feels like the start of the modern world, a lone man of righteous virtue bravely calling a demagogue using his power to chip away at anyone’s happiness he doesn’t personally approve of a “national disgrace” right to his face. “My big toe would make a better president” J.J. states after leaving his senator friend, a line in particular that I think of a lot in the past few years but I also suspect he wouldn’t mind doing it himself if it didn’t mean giving up that table at 21. When you live in this world, when you’re confronted with the hatred of those around you, it can force you to spend the rest of your life aware of the person you are. Even when Sidney Falco’s conscience finally nags at him he’s already too far gone for anyone, maybe even himself, to care. He’s just lost in the city up near the bridge, waiting, looking down but he’s still part of them and no better--this might be one of my favorite unsung moments in the film maybe just for the pure sense of New York in the shot with Sidney making his way up towards the bridge as traffic goes by, looking down at the club and what he’s putting into effect. Just as something bubbles up inside of me as Suzy walks off into the morning light of the film’s final shot, the frenzy of Elmer Bernstein’s masterful score reaching its conclusion. It’s impossible to avoid living in the world but when it comes to the life you’ve forced yourself into it can become clear that sometimes you just have to walk away.

And there’s the battle between the two phenomenal leads, Burt Lancaster and the sheer force of his imposing presence, unafraid to look people in the eye, intimidating them with just a few syllables. That feeling of pure ice he gives off is unforgettable and it’s as if you can see Burt Lancaster’s body shift when he realizes who he’s dealing with so when he spits out the legendary line “You’re a cookie full of arsenic,” it’s filled with that glorious combination of disgust and grudging admiration. The way every word slithers off his tongue is a form of perfection and Lancaster lives up to the poisonous legend that he is required to be. Through Sidney Falco’s nervousness and shallow veneer of confidence Tony Curtis gives what’s likely his best performance, snapping eagerly at every word he gets to speak and totally determined to keep himself in the ballgame, almost as if this press agent has been learning about his trade from seeing Kirk Douglas movies. The way he darts across shots plays like Sidney can’t go more than a few seconds without being noticed and staring people down as if daring them to call his bluff, unaware of how far the game he’s playing is going to go, forcing himself to look the other person in the eye as he tries to convince himself of his own awfulness. Backing them up is a remarkable cast with the nervous energy of Susan Harrison as Suzy, getting more and more fragile as the minutes tick b until all she has left is an ounce of determination that can save her alongside the more stoic conviction of Martin Milner and the way he keeps saying ‘smear’ as if the word rolling off his tongue is offensive to his very being. Plus there’s the self-loathing of Barbara Nichols as Rita telling Sidney off until there’s nothing left for her to do but give in, IN A LONELY PLACE’s Jeff Donnell as Sidney’s secretary, Emile Meyer as the cop Harry Kello calling at Sidney to come back so he can chastise him and the uncredited Lawrence Dobkin (endless credits in front of and behind the camera—his final role was a 2001 appearance on POPULAR) as rival columnist Leo Bartha pushed to his limits via attempted blackmail, particularly strong in his few minutes onscreen.

So may as well pick up the pace again. I’ve got some things I need to figure out. Just can’t lose sight. Even during the day. J. J. Hunsecker is mostly based on the legendary columnist Walter Winchell who in the world we live in now is largely forgotten (but if you’re interested, the 1994 biography by Neal Gabler is pretty great) but this film is still alive, powerful enough that it still has a hold, you still feel the desperation that comes through as the New York feel pulsates through every scene and it’s one of the most rewatchable films for those late hours where you can’t decide if you want to be in the center of the world or hide away from it as long as possible. There are few other films like it, few that have this sort of power. Just as Sidney Falco finally realizes, it’s a reminder of how close you can get to your dreams as you find out for yourself what you were willing to do, what some people around you actually did do and what all that means for the people they turned out to be. Maybe all you’re left with is the rush of those moments where you came close. That’s what the New York of SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS was, that’s what Los Angeles usually feels like now. Still, as always, I love this dirty town and as long as that’s the case the hold this film has on me will be one I completely understand.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

More Without A Voice

Maybe Jean-Pierre Léaud in DAY FOR NIGHT has the right idea. Look in the newspaper, pick a movie, go to the theater and grab a sandwich if there’s time. What else do you really need? I mean, you’re in France in the early 70s and you want to go to restaurants? You go to the movies. Makes perfect sense. It sounds like a fantasy, especially since Jacqueline Bisset is going to be turning up soon, and it can be a nice fantasy right now to imagine that films really do matter, all films, that they matter just as much as air, water, food, the better to enrich us and our lives. It would be nice to believe that more people felt this way but we all know it’s not the case and, in fairness, there are plenty of other things to worry about right now. But for a few days each year we can pretend. Too much time has already passed since this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival which was held way back on April 11-14, 2019 but it even seemed to go by too fast when it was actually happening. Not long ago I was listening to an episode of the podcast Drinking While Talking hosted by my friend Jill Blake (one of the greatest people I’m lucky to know) along with Wade Sheeler (he seems like a good guy too, just don’t know him as well) where they discussed this year’s festival and I got melancholy over it all once again. Several quick interviews were played with people waiting on line for various screenings, a reminder that Jill even started to get me and the delightful Anne Hockens on tape at one of them before told to get in line but we never got back to it later so I don’t appear. The weekend just kept moving. Everyone scatters off, living different versions of these films mattering for a few glorious days.

For this year’s festival I was a TCM Ambassador and I’ll proudly continue to be one if necessary, telling people how great all this is, trying to convince them to see a Dorothy Arzner, Jacques Demy or John Carpenter or explaining that NASHVILLE is one of the best films of the 70s even if I didn’t actually make it to that screening that included what sounded like an eventful discussion with screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury and stars Keith Carradine, Ronee Blakley and Jeff Goldblum. You can’t get to everything, after all, and the rest of the weekend is about meeting up with the other people there in between those films, often in passing, the ones who went where you didn’t. This year’s festival theme was “Follow Your Heart: Love at the Movies” which played as loose as the theme always does but I suppose you could find the link to love in just about any film playing whether it was directed by Douglas Sirk or if it involved escaping from a place like New York or Alcatraz. I mean, if Snake Plissken doesn’t have something to do with love of cinema I don’t know what does.

The opening night red carpet gala, which like always I didn’t attend (that was when I was upstairs in the Chinese 6 seeing the terrific pre-code NIGHT WORLD), was centered around the 30th anniversary of WHEN HARRY MET SALLY and putting aside that I saw that film on opening day for crying out loud so I refuse to admit it can possibly be that old I suppose it qualifies. The evening also included a special tribute to founder Ted Turner to mark what was not only the 10th TCM festival but also the very week of the network’s 25th anniversary itself. One thing you get reminded of right away while there is that people really do care about TCM and the fact that they do is maybe an answer of how much films can still matter these days. It’s a question that can be asked right now especially in the wake of the end of Filmstruck late last year and frankly I’m still not entirely over what happened but the outrage that came out of it counts as a partial answer to the question. You just need to find the people who care about the films, all films, to give that answer.

The basic structure of the festival is familiar enough now—following a few Wednesday get-togethers, Thursday begins slowly at the Hollywood Roosevelt with a few events like Meet TCM and Bruce Goldstein’s annual trivia contest, which was maybe harder than ever this year (my team didn’t win but I don’t think we embarrassed ourselves). Then as the red carpet event begins at the Chinese on the other side of Hollywood Boulevard it’s like someone pulls the trigger on a starters’ pistol and the objective is to see as many films as you can over the next few days until you’re close to passing out, or at least until you forget about even grabbing the occasional sandwich. But there were some modifications this time, particularly how the infamous theater #4 in the Chinese 6 multiplex which has become a festival running gag by this point due to how fast the pre-codes fill up in there went unused by the festival this year, it would seem due to the shifting up the street to the Hollywood Post 43 of the American Legion. This left only two houses in the Chinese 6 used, the 448 seat theater #1 and the smaller theater #6 at 266 but that one seemed to take over for the #4 with a good amount of the pre-codes taking its place in there so the fever continued. It seems clear that as long as the festival is around with higher profile and relatively newer titles downstairs playing in the main TCL Chinese theater, the (hopefully) 35mm drug of choice for many hard core fans of the more obscure films are still going to fill the houses upstairs. At times the lines still aren’t always entirely under control, seemingly one of the quirks of how it’s all organized, but ultimately you have to plan for the weekend you want to know how to pace yourself within the footprint of the Chinese, Egyptian and Roosevelt to find the movies that matter to you.

And, as always, it’s the best time of the year as well as the most intense, getting to meet up with friends at the various gatherings the night before, getting to meet new ones, getting to spend a few days in the bubble where maybe the biggest worry is a pre-code filling up one of the theaters and in just about every film the audience applauds an appearance by a familiar character actor in a bit part. So here are a few thoughts about some of the films and experiences. It’s not everything I saw but these are a few that mattered.

Friday morning began with this 1932 pre-code directed by Dorothy Arzner. Hard drinking reporter Jerry Corbett (Fredric March) meets and marries beautiful heiress Joan Prentice (Sylvia Sidney against her father’s wishes which leads to her finding out just how much the booze means to him even when his writing ambitions start to pay off, along with an early appearance by Cary Grant, and all in 78 minutes. One of the glories of seeing these pre-codes is being reminded just how much plot could be squeezed into these brief running times (the 1932 pre-code NIGHT WORLD, also at this year’s festival, came in at a mere 58 minutes) as well as the sinful vibe found in them, raising the toast of the title as the next drink goes down, along with the marvel of both Fredric March and the luminous Sylvia Sidney, this was also likely the best of all the films I saw for the first time this year. Along with the mini-Arzner festival the New Beverly played in May, discovering the work of this director who deserves to be ranked among the greats has been a glorious eye-opener.

The fresh air of a Truffaut film is such a tonic and in some ways this pragmatic love letter to making movies is one of his very best with a sense of humanity to it all shines through, of the limitations of making a movie, of the camaraderie, of the compromises that are made but how you keep plugging along for the love of it, for the life of it. Maybe I don’t believe that anything in the world we actually live in is ever so consistently collegial as it is here, let alone filmmaking in the 70s, but it’s still nice to dream. The film was not only introduced by Eddie Muller, who recounted how he was forever changed after seeing it as a teenager, but we also got the astonishing Jacqueline Bisset in person to discuss it with him.

And she was a delight, everything you’d want her to be, going past the allotted time she had to talk not only about making the film but also the classic film-adjacent subjects of working with George Cukor on his final film RICH AND FAMOUS as well as memories of John Huston who she worked with several times. She even did her impression of that director and I still don’t know what could be better than that. Bisset mentioned that she always felt somewhat distant from Jean-Pierre Léaud while making the film which fits with his character as well, always in his own head asking others the eternal question of are women magic while everyone else is simply trying to get on with their work to make a good movie. The actress stayed around after to watch the film which is about the craft and job of work while the dream nature of film stays fittingly in dreams. It’s the sort of film where you want to grow up into the world of adults that it offers us, one where movies are always playing, often in our dreams, and what they represent to how we move through life.

My one nitrate screening of this year’s festival. The nitrate prints screened at the Egyptian since the theater had the projection booth retro-fitted to do so a few years back have regularly turned up in the evening slot and the party vibe in the air on Friday night went perfectly with this film, not one of the most revolutionary of the genre or even the darkest but a hugely enjoyable one regardless. I’ve seen 1948’s ROAD HOUSE (no relation to the Swayze, for the record) before but it’s so much fun. Directed by Jean Negulesco, it’s possible it stands apart from other films noir due to its slightly different, vaguely TWIN PEAKS vibe and how the film transcends its fairly simple story mostly through that mood along with the complexities of its characters. It’s not the generic city of so many noirs and though maybe lead Cornel Wilde isn’t particularly memorable, there’s still that bowling alley and small town feel along with the growing fury of Richard Widmark and the wisecracking Celeste Holm left stranded on the outskirts of scenes to spar with the other actors as her character gets repeatedly dismissed. But most of all there’s the low key world weariness of Ida Lupino and the way she talk-sings “One More For the Road” in a way that defines the term sultry–Holm gets the legendary line, “She does more without a voice than anyone I’ve ever heard!” when it’s clear no one in the place knows what to make of what’s just happened and it’s Lupino who, in the way the film loves and supports her, becomes a true icon by the end, playing a character who seemed like a possible femme fatale at the start but wasn’t one at all, merely a woman who is intelligent and alluring yet also someone who is trying to make their way through the world. She also gets the final moment which acknowledges her independence as well as how this was much more than a simple story of a woman caught between two men, a reminder of the power the actress had when she was onscreen and what it represented.

A non-THIN MAN romp starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, it’s also one of their most crazily enjoyable, taking the farce to truly bonkers heights. When introducing the film at its Saturday 9 AM screening at the Egyptian, Illeana Douglas (who, as she proves every year, is still one of the best, and most underused, of all TCM hosts) asked if anyone knew how many films Powell and Loy made together when the entire packed house shouted “Fourteen!” This was the place for that. The film was utterly ridiculous and yet it worked, playing as totally effortless no matter how much it amped up the zaniness, earning the laughter that seemed to grow throughout the film and became one of the most pleasant surprises of the entire festival for me.

It’s not that I have any particular interest in or knowledge of Tarzan movies but this turned out to be the first time I’d ever seen one of the festival’s yearly presentations featuring Craig Barron and legendary sound designer Ben Burtt where the two men offer demonstrations of how effects and sound design in various classic films were pulled off (they also appeared for a TCL Chinese screening of RAIDERS which I’m sure was amazing). With this TARZAN sequel they took this opportunity to break down how the pre-code pulled off some of its then-revolutionary sound and effects work, but most fascinating was Burtt talking about his years-long fascination with trying to figure out the sources of the famous Tarzan yell. This was the fourth in the series (the Maltin book says it’s cited by series buffs as the best of all) and is most interesting for both its pre-code vibe of the colonial look at Africa along with all of the elements that would most likely not have been included if the film had been made just a few short years later including a particularly surprising (for 1934, for now, for whenever) nude swim featuring the leads, or at least their doubles. Running a full 105 minutes (looking it up, apparently there have been multiple versions over the years), the film gets as much mileage as it can out of all that effects footage featuring the animals so it maybe goes on too long but that in itself at least was a reminder that in Hollywood some things have never changed.

As in, “The all-holy ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK”. Sometimes a film turns up on the schedule that you’re determined to get to and for me this was one of those. With director John Carpenter and star Kurt Russell appearing it wasn’t even a question and they delivered in their appearance before the film with both men in high spirits, both having a blast for the packed Saturday night house as Russell expressed his gratitude to the director for transforming his career and I was particularly intrigued by his descriptions of the surprising perils that wearing an eyepatch turned out to present. Sometimes a screening at TCM is like a religious service, bowing to the cinematic beauty of it all but this one was like the rock concert of the festival. You could ask if ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK , now 38 years old, belongs at TCM which could be answered by saying the likes of Ernest Borgnine and Lee Van Cleef are in the cast but you could also just say that that it’s ESCAPE FROM goddamn NEW YORK. The film is so much about the craft that John Carpenter brings to it which is highlighted in the all new 4K restoration that was screened so more than ever what stood out to me was the mood, the frame, what it means to simply observe this film.

It’s the ultra-coolness of Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken, those gestures that Frank Doubleday as “Romero” makes in the corner of the frame, the way it pauses for Lee Van Cleef to stare out at the island of Manhattan to consider the situation, the kineticism of the legendary score by Carpenter and Alan Howarth and, maybe most of all in how it stays with us, the way Snake studies Donald Pleasance’s President during their final moment together. It may not be the masterpiece that the following year’s THE THING is but it offers a scrappiness to every scene that transcends whatever the basics of the plot points ever are, the sparseness of the frame combined with that low budget horror movie vibe always hanging in the air to catch the danger felt in this Manhattan. The movie may not do much with the concept of ‘New York’ but in presenting this barely futuristic, comic strip hellscape the film keeps moving all the way to its darkly comic end, a rock n’ roll fuck you that when watched right now feels like it means more than ever.

One strong cup of coffee for so early on Sunday morning, that’s for sure. It was another packed house, this time for a film that I’d wanted to see for years but had never gotten around to. Shot by legendary cinematographer Gegg Toland, I’ve mostly been aware of MAD LOVE due to Pauline Kael speculating that since it was an influence on the look of CITIZEN KANE based on the similarity of old Charles Foster Kane in that film to Peter Lorre here. Even if not the case the film is twisted in a way that I never think of 30s MGM movies as being with comic strip imagery that barely seems part of the decade it was made in at all. For those others who haven’t seen it, Lorre plays Dr. Gogol, a brilliant surgeon who transplants hands onto the body of an acclaimed pianist mutilated in a train crash without telling him they once belonged to a mad killer recently executed. And it does all this in less than 70 minutes, another wonderful running time I wish we got more of. The early screening was introduced by Bill Hader who joked about his love of the film’s trailer (Peter Lorre, relaxing at home, answers the phone and tells an admirer about his new movie), a little bit on the career of director Karl Freund and in the process became responsible for what was likely the first ever TCM Festival intro to reference Eric Red’s BODY PARTS (was that me cheering loudly for that one? Could be and I really should see that film again). Lorre’s first American film, MAD LOVE contains the ornateness of 30s MGM movies around the edges but it’s twisted in a totally unique way. There will never be anyone else quite like Peter Lorre.

For the last movie of the festival I finally made it up Highland to the American Legion’s Hollywood Post 43, a neat building which includes an art deco bar in the basement that dates back to the days of prohibition, which apparently I’ve driven by countless times over the years and never knew contained a theater which has recently undergone a multi-million dollar renovation. Because of the setting BUCK PRIVATES was an ideal choice for that final slot, not just because of the military storyline but getting to see Abbott & Costello plus the Andrews Sisters made the end of the festival a true case of going out on a high note. Plus for me there was the nostalgia factor as well thanks to the memories of seeing Abbott and Costello films on WPIX in New York long ago. I’m more interested in the musical numbers now in addition to the comedy but at a certain point I realized that I barely remembered anything past the hour mark, maybe because I rarely made it to the end back in those days or maybe the propaganda angle means that there’s no real ending to the film anyway (I guess that ending came in the sequel BUCK PRIVATES COME HOME six years later but that one didn’t have the Andrews Sisters). Just that we will go off to war and the American way of life will go on even if Lou is never going to win at craps. So there wasn’t really an ending. If only the TCM Festival didn’t end either. But at this point it had to and all that was left was the big, packed closing night party back down at the Roosevelt which featured a big toast to the channel's 25th anniversary.

Sure, there was also the pre-code NIGHT WORLD which I mentioned before starring Boris Karloff as a nightclub owner with lots of fun and shooting and drinking and Busby Berkeley choreography along with daughter Sara speaking before the movie about her father. And MY FAVORITE WIFE. And Sirk’s MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION. And ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT with Bogart battling Nazis in New York. Plus a few that I passed on in favor of other choices but why be depressed about any of this—I also still haven’t done a midnight show at the festival after all these years but I’m sure they’re lots of fun. And weeks later it once again seems like one of those wonderful dreams. While I was up the street seeing BUCK PRIVATES the closing nitrate screening at the Egyptian was THE DOLLY SISTERS while the main Chinese theater closed it out with GONE WITH THE WIND, the first film ever shown on TCM exactly 25 years ago and it was playing on the channel at that very moment. The point is for those few days it’s wonderful even though we can’t live in the fantasy forever and the world isn’t going to follow along with that anyway. But at least we get that weekend. At a certain point in DAY FOR NIGHT the director played by Truffaut himself talks about how the film is starting to come together with a life of its own and that’s what the festival is when you’re there, in the middle of all those people. Film is life and as Truffaut himself reminds us in DAY FOR NIGHT, Cinema is king. We just have to remember that.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Just The Hired Help

There are times when you become very aware that maybe you’ve been doing this too long. Not that you have any other ideas. But no matter what, you’re not one of the kids anymore. Robert Benton’s neo-noir detective drama TWILIGHT was released a full 21 years after his acclaimed Art Carney-Lily Tomlin pairing THE LATE SHOW and very deliberately seems designed to go over similar ground—it was even called THE MAGIC HOUR at an early stage before the talk show featuring Magic Johnson around that time scooped up the name. But while THE LATE SHOW feels like it was about many things—a tribute to noir, a look at how L.A. had changed between the 40s and 70s, the inevitability of facing the end—TWILIGHT, now 21 years old itself, is partly about the last thing and offers some noirish flavor but mostly feels like it was about Robert Benton wanting to work with Paul Newman again after the acclaim the two had received for NOBODY’S FOOL a few years earlier. Which, in fairness, isn’t the worst reason for a film existing I’ve ever heard. In its own quiet way, TWILIGHT offers a refreshingly mature approach to its look at people whose time has run out but it never really amounts to much, partly because it doesn’t feel like there’s enough meat in the basic storyline but also because it’s missing some extra element that would make it feel just a little more special. Maybe the whole thing didn’t come together somewhere along the way or maybe Benton simply wasn’t as tuned into the changes in the world as he used to be. Still, it’s not bad to sit through partly since we’re no longer getting starring vehicles for Paul Newman, not to mention a few other people here, so it at least offers the pleasure of spending a little time with him. Which may not be enough for an entire film but, these days especially, it counts for something.

Two years after private detective Harry Ross (Paul Newman) is accidentally shot in the leg while trying to bring runaway Mel Ames (Reese Witherspoon) back from Mexico, he is retired, no longer drinking and living in the guest house of her parents, movie stars Jack (Gene Hackman) and Catherine Ames (Susan Sarandon). When Jack, his cancer no longer in remission, asks Harry to deliver an envelope for mysterious reasons, the errand leads to a surprising encounter with an ex-cop (M. Emmet Walsh) dying from a fresh gunshot wound and firing back, leading Harry to become curious what was so important about that package. As Jack’s health worsens, the case catches the interest of Harry’s ex-partner on the police force Verna Hollander (Stockard Channing), which leads him to seek help from limo driver Reuben Escobar (Giancarlo Esposito) who wants to team up with Harry in the private eye world as well as fellow retiree and old friend Raymond Hope (James Garner) as he investigates the murder which may lead to answers involving the mysterious disappearance of Catherine’s first husband long ago.

Endings come before you know it. In some ways TWILIGHT begins where you might expect a film like it to end, down in Mexico as if it’s the last scene of some NIGHT MOVES/LONG GOODBYE mashup where the main character has hit the end of the line, one fuckup too many and we’ll never return with him to L.A. But here it’s only the first scene (and I doubt they actually went to Mexico to shoot it, but never mind) and unless the rest of the movie is actually part of a dying, drunken haze VERTIGO-style we have to return, you always have to return to L.A., there’s never any escaping once you’ve surrendered to that seduction. You live there long enough you begin to feel like you’re spending much of your time observing the beautiful people from afar and one of them swimming in a pool is a key image in the first few minutes of TWILIGHT, a film partly about staring down at them floating through life as you try to avoid the bitterness which comes with the feeling luck didn’t strike you the same way. Written by Benton and NOBODY’S FOOL author Richard Russo, it’s an easygoing movie but maybe a little too easy without much of a hard bitten noir vibe to go with the storyline and it’s not that there’s a lot wrong with TWILIGHT but there’s not quite enough right with it either. It’s a film made by an older director working with some people close to his own age and it offers a certain amount of gravity to go with that but no real fireworks ever quite take hold, the mystery playing as murky as these things usually do until it all gets simply explained so it’s maybe just a little too clear cut, all the answers put out there. As a result, there’s not quite enough left to chew on, not enough to take away from any given scene beyond the basic plot points with too much of it shot in a fairly ordinary style that lacks a certain texture to give it extra life. There are pleasures found here but they mostly come from just watching Newman and his co-stars play off each other, basically hanging out together in scenes and it’s a pleasant vibe but not quite enough.

It’s a film populated mostly with older people who, rich or poor, are waiting around for nothing in particular, little to do but smoke and play cards and hope they aren’t completely broke as they create their own narratives of the past, hoping no one calls them on what’s being made up and wondering just how much luck, or lack of, played into any of it. Stranded among them, the few younger people in the film seem lost, not a part of this world, nothing but appendages, no real ideas for what their future is supposed to be. The laidback feel extends to how much of the film involves following Harry Ross as he drives from one place to another questioning people, one after the other, basically a showcase for actors to play scenes with Paul Newman but the L.A. locations are missing a distinctive flavor to make them stand out. Even when areas are specified they could have been shot anywhere and with touches like the running gag about a certain place where Harry may or may not have been shot it’s amiable but never quite clicks into place. For one thing, I have the nagging feeling that several of the leading roles seem miscast which means we’re watching great actors play out scenes they never fully inhabit. Newman is a little too neatly pressed and laid back as a worn out drunk, Hackman has the build of someone who could still kick anyone’s ass even though his character is supposedly dying while Sarandon comes off as too jittery for a woman just lounging around the house all day even if she’s not getting the plum roles anymore and trying to light a cigarette while being questioned by Newman feels like a leftover bit of Faye Dunaway business from CHINATOWN. Part of THE LATE SHOW was about how much the town had changed but this time around it doesn’t feel like there’s enough of the L.A. flavor, the details of those crummy valley apartments Harry Ross visits never quite filled in. “Sure beats Los Feliz,” he points out when visiting someone up in the hills above the smog and it’s a great looking modernistic house but the line still sounds like Benton hasn’t driven over to the area anytime recently to be aware of what’s changed.

There’s a maturity hanging over the film involving the ideas of fate and the end coming, they’re just presented too simply as if notes from the studio kept it all from becoming too layered just as the dialogue veers from razor sharp to at times a little too obvious, spelling out all the motivations a little too much. Along with the theme of acceptance that we all run out of luck sooner or later is the notion of how easy it is to be seduced no matter how old you are, no matter how worn down you are by it all, which feels more specific to the fantasy noir vibe the film tries to keep hanging in the air in order to remind us of the differences between the beautiful people, who have their own ideas of what being broke means, and the ones who weren’t so lucky. It’s the sort of thing that I sometimes wonder about myself while stranded in this town and Sarandon gets the big scene to trash her living room when confronted about this, demonstrating what really matters to someone like the movie star she’s supposed to be but it still feels like the film is holding back from the intensity that needs to come out of the moment. Even the plotting is a little haphazard with much of the first half set over one of those movie nights that illogically seems to go on forever, while a number of dissolves and fade outs that recur play as if the film is trying to make the experience somewhat dreamy to go with certain passages in Elmer Bernstein’s score but the device simply halts momentum, the film never quite gathering steam or passion; it was edited by Carol Littleton, no lightweight, but the rhythm moving from scene to scene at times feels off as if some transitional element was cut down. Again, I suspect there were problems but it feels like pieces were removed that might have clarified things or even fleshed them out but for whatever reason the storytelling had to be stripped down to its essentials.

The thing is, noir needs to be something and maybe easygoing isn’t the answer so while it’s not necessary for TWILIGHT to be as fatalistic or cynical as certain genre classics it still needs something else. For a lazy afternoon viewing the film is fine but like Benton’s earlier STILL OF THE NIGHT (another now forgotten thriller, also only around 90 minutes) it’s brisk to the point of feeling a little undernourished. So in spite of the title this isn’t a fatalistic view of the end in sight as much as the pleasant stroll that the final shot becomes, part of a scene that feels tacked on later maybe so the fadeout wouldn’t be quite so downbeat (a few shots not in the film can be spotted in the trailer, including a few from what may have been a darker ending). Part of that might come from how Paul Newman and his relaxed demeanor becomes one with the film, maybe a little too much, but when it comes to what he’s doing in any given shot the film springs to life whether a close-up of him putting the pieces together or even when he rises out of frame leaving his shaking hand in the shot to do the work. It helps us believe this legend playing someone who’s no legend at all, not in his profession and not with the people in his life, just trying to come to some sort of peace with that in the little time he has left while not losing sight of the good man he might almost have been. There’s added enjoyment in his scenes with Reese Witherspoon as the daughter of these two movie stars who knows that she’s just as much a bit player in her own parents’ lives as Harry is, used to not being loved by anyone and already at peace with the feeling since it’s the only way to get through the world. If the two of them had been paired up for the entire film it might have played too much like a 90s spin on THE LATE SHOW but maybe that clash of energies was what it needed. The themes are there and they stand out even more all these years later as I’m further down the line myself but they don’t stick enough. It’s the sort of film that was slightly underwhelming when it was released and is still underwhelming now even as I pay a little more attention to those touches that stick out on each viewing, wishing that it would come together more than it ever does.

That’s the thing about the beautiful people. They do what they want, they believe what they want and they create their own truth. The film begins and ends with a woman asking a man if they love them, each version of the question meaning something a little different, each version of the answer not really mattering. In Los Angeles the truth doesn’t matter anyway, especially when you know what the truth really is. And even the winners run out of luck eventually but you’re still stuck in this town facing the dreams of what you were going to be, the realities of what you never were and all you can do is accept if you really were one of the losers, even if you did decide to finally lay off the bourbon. Gene Hackman’s last moment here as the dying movie star weakly declaring, “I may beat this thing yet,” is his best and one of the most honest the film has, a reminder of how much these people fully deny the truth up until the very end. Which makes sense since it’s a film about endings. Sometimes, especially in L.A., endings that come before you’re ready can feel like they go on for years.

Here’s the thing. I think the three leads are excellent. I mean, of course they are. Paul Newman is that scrappy outsider, even at 73, still commanding the screen and of course one of the beautiful people but he fools us that he isn’t so over multiple viewings he’s the one part of the movie that really crystalizes, his unspoken responses and small gestures always doing more for what’s on the page. Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon are each able to pierce the screen with a glare when asked an unwanted question or even if they’re doing next to nothing in the frame, Hackman drooping down a little more in each successive scene, Sarandon looking a little more assured at the piano. The scenes have teeth in the way you can sense them putting on their characters in order to spar with him but I still can’t help but think they’re never quite these people. Maybe if Newman and Hackman had switched roles that would have made it more of a follow-up to Hackman’s great 70s detective movie NIGHT MOVES than this one ever is to Newman’s HARPER from the 60s, although he never seemed like a star who would have played this type of supporting role, just as I don’t think of Sarandon as the sort to do nothing but lounge around the pool all day.

Oddly, while the three above-the-title stars get the real fireworks it’s James Garner, not even on the poster (this makes me think there were billing shenanigans; he certainly warranted above the title mention on other films during this period), who casually walks off with the film in his pocket, playing a role that on the surface doesn’t seem all that different from what he did in the ROCKFORD FILES reunion movies made around this time but it fits perfectly and the way he digs deeper in his last scene is electric, giving every word he speaks an extra edge in a way that good ol’ Jim Rockford was never allowed to do. Plus his line, “Funny the things you never think about when you’re buying a house,” is probably the best moment in the film, one more reminder of how the past is always going to catch up to you eventually. Either way, it’s a great supporting cast too with Reese Witherspoon bringing a particular freshness to what otherwise may have just been stock character who knows more than she’s saying (and who, for the record, appears topless early on and I’ve learned recently that this appears to be what some people remember about the film more than anything else) but there’s also Stockard Channing and John Spencer working together before THE WEST WING as well as the oddball characterizations brought to it by Margo Martindale, Liev Schreiber, Giancarlo Esposito and M. Emmet Walsh who doesn’t get any dialogue as the awesomely named Lester Ivar but performs one hell of a death scene. While we’re on this subject I won’t mention who gets the other best death scene, but the way that person falls over in such a mournful style, seeming just so sad and fed up with it all, becomes one of those moments you can’t shake. I still think it comes up short but every now and then the film finds its way there.

It’s still a little too bad that the film wasn’t about the 90s the way THE LATE SHOW was about the 70s, which at least would make it a lovely period piece now beyond just the vibe of the decade or my own memory of seeing it at the Hollywood Galaxy, a place now missed by pretty much no one. One odd addendum to this film is that it actually opened in March 1998 on the same day as THE BIG LEBOWSKI, another neo-noir set in L.A., and TWILIGHT even did a little better that weekend (LEBOWSKI was, of course, what I saw opening day but priorities). But even then it was clear that in their aim to be completely irreverent in displaying their love for the form, the Coen Brothers nailed the absurdity in the genre’s fatalistic worldview and the way to ultimately abide while this film was just a little too polite about it all, wish fulfillment of writing a detective movie for the legend who stars in it but not saying anything that hadn’t been said before. It was forgotten pretty quickly and now, over twenty years after it opened, Newman’s gone. Garner’s gone. John Spencer is gone. Hackman is long retired. Sarandon gets attention for other things, but let’s not talk about that right now. Robert Benton hasn’t directed a film since 2007 (FEAST OF LOVE and, since we’re talking about endings, that was the last to ever play at the much missed National Theater in Westwood. Witherspoon, Schreiber, Martindale, Esposito are all fairly prominent these days but films like this aren't made much anymore and that’s the way it goes. Even the title is now famous for referring to something else entirely. TWILIGHT wasn’t Paul Newman’s last film but it’s still a nice place to leave him and watching it again now is a reminder that he’s starting to become another part of the past that gradually slips away. It always does. Time goes by in this town, much as we want to keep it from happening. But if you’re able to make a certain amount of peace with the past and stay off the bourbon, in the dead of night you just may be able to remember that you did what you could.