Thursday, September 1, 2011
At One Time Or Another
Yes, I may defend the films of Blake Edwards more than most people but that doesn’t mean I’m always going to let things slide when it comes to a few of them. Sure, I said a few halfway generous things about A FINE MESS and when it comes to SON OF THE PINK PANTHER, his unfortunate cinematic swan song, I at least tried to approach the film in a charitable way in order to place it in the context of his entire career. But I’m on record as having less kind things to say about the likes of MICKI + MAUDE and BLIND DATE so even I’ve got my breaking point and that may be where SUNSET comes in. Pairing two big stars the director had worked with in the past—namely, Bruce Willis and James Garner—while both exploring a piece of Hollywood lore and attempting a melding of genres SUNSET has ambition but it feels like an almost total washout, a film with such a surprisingly lethargic feel throughout that it just feels dead almost from the very first scene. So little of it works to the point that it becomes not only a bad film but a genuinely curious one as if somebody just stopped paying attention to what was going on during the production. Admittedly, there are a few elements found in there which make me almost sympathetic to what was being attempted but maybe even those could be considered a reach and probably just proves that I can’t bring myself to ever be too negative towards his films. Still, I guess this one comes pretty close. I saw it on opening weekend way back at the end of April 1988 and even at that young age I didn’t think it worked though it was difficult for me to really understand why. Now, all these years later, looking at the DVD for my very first viewing since then I was more than willing to keep an open mind but remember what I said about the very first scene? That’s about as long as my optimism lasted.
Hollywood, 1929: Famous cowboy movie star Tom Mix (Bruce Willis) is ordered by his studio head Alfie Alperin (Malcolm MacDowell), powerful producer and former screen comedian himself, to star in a movie based on the exploits of Wyatt Earp (James Garner) with the legendary lawman even coming to Hollywood to serve as technical advisor. The two men hit it off and when Earp is asked to do a favor for long ago lady friend Christina (Patricia Hodge) who just happens to be Alperin’s wife, involving her son Michael (Dermot Mulroney) Mix tags along as he begins to show Earp around Hollywood. But what happens instead soon leads to a discovery of murder and the two men, along with studio publicist Nancy Shoemaker (Kathleen Quinlan) and Cheryl King (Mariel Hemingway) who is a close acquaintance of the murder victim, find themselves in the middle of a wide-ranging Tinseltown conspiracy.
Like several of Blake Edwards’ other films, SUNSET opens with a sequence which turns out to be part of a movie being shot--the moment we hear ‘cut’ happens coincides with the director’s onscreen credit--setting the stage for the world of artifice this is set in, a Hollywood world of mirrors, where no one is what they seem, legend or not. This is one of several elements in the film where I found myself vaguely reminded of certain plot beats from other films by Edwards, rhythms which should feel comfortable in this context and recognizably a part of his work but it feels like the proper inspiration never hit in writing this screenplay (Edwards receives sole credit, based on the unpublished novel by Rod Amateu) to make this work on its own. There’s a surprising lack of engagement—a feeling of dead air that can’t even by found in some of the more manic films he directed that people hate—and by a certain point it really does feel like he was simply content to get the scenes as written in the can with little fuss and move on. For long stretches there’s very little in the film to point to as stylistically resembling one of his films outside of the expected Scope use, a few scene transitions and introducing Mariel Hemmingway in a pageboy haircut and dressed as a man to insert the requisite male-female gender confusion. Scene after scene just lies there and in spite of an intriguing cast few people get a chance stand out, especially surprising considering how actors in other Edwards films often make huge impressions in just a single scene.
Bruce Willis had worked with Edwards the previous year on BLIND DATE which implies the two men got along yet looking at this film now (I may as well point out that the credits for SUNSET bill it as “A Hudson Hawk Production” three years before that film was released), his presence is kept so low-key that even though it’s only his second starring role in a feature it feels like little more than a walkthrough for the actor on the level of what he’d later do in WHOLE NINE YARDS-type projects, maintaining the absolute minimum of interest and though we see Tom Mix do a few trick stunts on his horse no one seems to have thought to really work this stuff into the movie and the laid back personality he projects never seems like somebody who would even bother to show off in this way. Tom Mix objects to Wyatt Earp’s arrival which is immediately followed by the two getting along immediately upon meeting nevertheless, but it’s all kept on a level of mild banter at best so no real chemistry ever develops, there’s no real spark to any of their scenes beyond just a feel of geniality. It’s as if, mirroring how it plays in the film, Willis himself found out that he was going to be sharing the spotlight right before shooting started so he agreed to show up and get along with his co-star but not do much more than that. As a result Garner, who almost seems to be playing it as if he showed up with only a day’s notice to do a favor for his old friend, just runs off with the film by effortlessly by injecting what little charm there is all on his own from the first moment he appears. As weak as some of the material might be, he does a strong job with what turns out to be the lion’s share of the dramatic stuff as well, with Willis either absent or off to the side at points where you’d expect him to be in the middle of all the action. It’s hard not to wonder what problems were apparent in the script and what was changed later on in editing—we never even meet the murder victim so it’s tough to have much of an interest in why she was killed and when another key character dies offscreen late in the film, almost never to be mentioned again, it feels like the movie has just lost interest in its own story. Or was never clear on what it was in the first place.
Vincent Canby in his New York Times review called SUNSET such a mess that he “thought the projectionist had misplaced a reel, but he hadn’t” which says something about how the various parts of the story never really connect but more to that point there’s just no life to any number of individual scenes to give things a tangible reality, none of the joy found in other films where Edwards seems to love letting things play out in long takes. And from this, no consistent tone ever really develops. The basic concept of these legendary figures teaming up sounds like a romp, if not a flat-out comedy, about the good old days of picture-making and that sort of feel seems injected sporadically but at the same time much of what goes on is surprisingly nasty and unpleasant—lots of talk of rape and that sort of thing—which drains any possibility of charm out of the would-be banter. “Half the movie wants to be cheerful and the other half seems morbid and disenchanted,” said Roger Ebert in his mixed review but reading that sentence strikes me that if a film correctly executes such an array of tonal shifts that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. SUNSET, on the other hand, quickly just becomes too disjointed, too disinterested with itself, too lackadaisically drifting from one scene to the next, never seeming to remember to keep us interested in the story. No actual rhythm ever takes hold--even the 1983 Edwards remake of THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN, which I don’t really like very much, feels like it’s slow and sedate for reasons that are at least connected to what the movie is trying to be. Here, it’s just a mish-mash of tones and plot strands that never seem to come together. Too many elements feel either half-hearted or glossed over like Earp flashing back to what really happened during a certain shootout as he watches the reenactment filmed and there is a feel that the film really wants to be about how looking back through rose-colored glasses eventually puts forth the lie that is history (“Give or take a lie or two” is the oft-repeated refrain which was even used on the film’s poster and some other pertinent dialogue ties into this as well) but the movie never does enough with any of this for it to develop into a coherent theme.
There are tantalizing glimpses of what might have been an interesting storyline, like a visit to a brothel where the girls all look like movie stars that makes me wonder if James Ellroy stumbled across this on cable while writing the novel of L.A. CONFIDENTIAL and the sight of the legendary Wyatt Earp in an airplane probably makes SUNSET unique for that reason alone. It also strikes me that casting James Garner as Wyatt Earp is pretty great in concept too but I guess I should finally give John Sturges’ HOUR OF THE GUN a try if I want some satisfaction out of that. And there is a certain amount of intrigue present during the climactic sequence set at the Academy Awards where certain revelations come to light, many of which surrounding the sourness felt in the portrayal of McDowell’s obviously Chaplin-like figure—I imagine partly meant to be what if he had retired from acting to run United Artists—which inserts a backstory seemingly based on the Thomas Ince case, filmed by Peter Bogdanovich as THE CAT’S MEOW. I don’t know if this is meant to be the director offering his own opinion on Chaplin or just a general exploration of a particularly dark chapter in early Hollywood. Maybe it makes the most sense to look at it all as a very dark attempt by Edwards to place the most beloved icon in Hollywood history (as well as a legendary comic figure, making me wonder if there’s any of Edwards’ feelings about Peter Sellers in there as well) at the center of the sleaze, cruelty and nastiness that infiltrates it and has always been there, no matter how glitzy it may always appear from the outside. It’s certainly a consistent theme from the man who made THE PARTY and S.O.B. but there’s no darkly comic kick to it this time, let alone any grudging affection that can be found at the bottom of this particular cocktail, so it all comes off as maybe a little too dark—Alfie Alperin, seen in his comic guise as “The Happy Hobo” is so obviously meant to be Chaplin that it almost just becomes kind of a head-scratcher. Was Edwards trying to get back at him for something from decades past? And yet, even within such a muddled concept some of it feels surprisingly poignant--when a major character makes a dying confession late in the film the moment plays as not only strangely and surprisingly disarming, it allowed me to suddenly feel sympathy for what is essentially one of the film’s villains. Because this film that I had felt so disengaged from was somehow able to pull this off I found myself suddenly both achieving a certain amount of respect for it but also feeling bad that it didn’t live up to this moment more often so it could figure out what it really needed to be mixed in somewhere through all those tonal shifts.
I’ve spent so little time even thinking about Bruce Willis while writing this which has to say something. The book “Returning to the Scene: Blake Edwards Volume 2” by William Luhr and Peter Lehman states that the actor studied several films Mix starred in only to have Edwards direct him to play the part in his own style. Clearly Willis is trying to not play the part as MOONLIGHTING’s David Addison but doesn’t seem to have any other ideas so, with his career-defining role of John McClane still several months in the future at this point, Tom Mix just kind of vanishes into the woodwork. When there’s the would-be showstopper of him dancing a tango at a nightclub it really doesn’t have any effect at all. It’s Garner who has the true charisma and as strange as him playing love scenes opposite Mariel Hemmingway (who's not at all bad and she seems to be trying, but there's not much to work with) he has true screen charisma, sometimes getting laughs or some kind of emotional response out of almost nothing at all. It’s just not enough to save the movie. Malcolm McDowell seems game as the Chaplin-like figure with just the right touch of menace but that it doesn’t seem quite right really isn’t his fault—either his performance or his character just seems like it should be in a different movie. Patricia Hodge plays a sort of regal fragility which seems intriguing but the movie doesn’t have much of an interest in her. Jennifer Edwards, daughter of the director of course, does bring something of a brittle intensity to her role as Alfie’s sister, continually trying to seem more posh than she knows she is and any awkwardness that seems evident—it’s as if the character is acting as much as she is—makes sense, particularly in her final scene. M. Emmet Walsh has some enjoyable moments as the studio security chief (I can’t entirely hate a movie where he and Garner spar with each other), the always welcome Kathleen Quinlan is pretty much wasted as Tom’s romantic interest (her hair doesn’t do her any favors either, even if it is period appropriate) and Joe Dellasandro doesn’t get to make much of an impression as gangster Dutch Kieffer. In what appears to be his first feature, Dermot Mulroney has a role that we hear more about than we ever see so it feels like some of it may have been left on the cutting room floor, Vernon Wells of THE ROAD WARRIOR and INNERSPACE is an Australian tough guy who turns up to fight Willis and Edwards regular Herb Tanney cameos as a train conductor billed as “Steem Tanney”.
The one element of the film I have absolutely nothing bad to say about, which probably comes as no surprise, is Henry Mancini’s score which is particularly good even for him, both bringing much of the drama and suspense that actually feels a part of the story when it’s required and a western theme which is so good, so phenomenally rousing, that I kind of wish a western could be made to go around it—when a full-blown version of it kicks in late in the movie as Tom and Wyatt set out on horses it’s probably the most alive moment in the whole movie and for once totally sells the high-spirited adventure and sheer movie-ness that it’s striving for. Yet another reminder how much someone like Mancini and the rich sense of melody that he could bring to all the films he scored, Edwards or otherwise, is still missed today.
In real life the two men really were in fact friends along with being much older than they’re both portrayed here. They never solved mysteries together but Mix was a pallbearer for Earp when he died in January 1929, as anyone who remembers Robert Mitchum’s narration at the end of TOMBSTONE will confirm. That very little of this particular film has to do with real life, give or take a lie or two, isn’t really that big an issue since it’s all supposed to be fanciful anyway but it does seem strange that the film pretty much ignores that silent films were essentially over by the time the film is set (a reference to “Fox and Chaplin are gambling on sound” doesn’t make much sense at all) and Tom Mix was nearing the end of his superstardom. I can imagine someone regarding SUNSET as elegiac in its look at another age of Hollywood but there really isn’t anything in the actual film to support such a label. I’m not even sure if the title is supposed to reflect the end of that era, coinciding with the beginning of the Academy Awards and the building up of the industry as sound takes over, with the wild days of silent films as represented by Tom Mix serving as the last remnant of the old west that Wyatt Earp represents. That sounds like an interesting concept but I’m not sure it’s really found in this movie, at least not without some digging. Hell, maybe the title is just a reference to Murnau’s SUNRISE anyway. For Blake Edwards, SUNSET feels like a movie that got away from him at some point, made all the more clear by the things in there which do somehow stand out for all the right reasons. When James Garner’s Wyatt Earp at the very end is told, “Come back,” as he leaves and the legend replies with, “You never know,” the moment feels so optimistic and yet sad that it’s nice to imagine these heroes frozen in time, never facing their mortality, living out their legend in a sunset that never ends. Again, that’s not really in the actual movie but sometimes, especially when I’m watching Blake Edwards films over and over, I need to try to find these things anyway.