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'Twilight' of a Bygone Screen Era

March 08, 1998|Bill Desowitz | Bill Desowitz is a regular contributor to Calendar

When "Donnie Brasco" screenwriter Paul Attanasio was asked about competing against "L.A. Confidential" in the current Oscar race, he retorted that at least Curtis Hanson's noir crime film was a "real movie." Such is the continuing lament about Hollywood's qualitative decline, which now coincides with a longing for the '70s--Hollywood's last Golden Age, when storytelling and soul-searching still mattered.

Well, "Twilight," Robert Benton's wistful murder mystery, which opened on Friday, is the first "real movie" of '98, defining the present through an understanding of the past, evoking both the '70s and Hollywood's earlier Golden Age. It's what we used to call a "movie-movie": well-crafted and executed with such precision and self-reflexiveness that there's a communion between the filmmakers, actors and filmgoers. In other words, an uncommonly mature point of reference.

This interplay, lest we forget, occurs through shared beliefs as well as shared film-going experiences (more about this later), not to mention those essential dramatic devices called backstory and subtext. So what better way to explore L.A.'s past and present than through a murder mystery featuring several actors with ties to Hollywood's last Golden Age? The combined ages of Paul Newman, James Garner, Gene Hackman, Susan Sarandon and Stockard Channing add up to nearly 320, headed by Newman at 73. In this day and age, it's an extraordinary demographic to market.

"Twilight" is a simple story about how a case of present-day blackmail unravels a 20-year-old mystery about the death of a movie star, enhanced by its rich cast and narrative skill. Newman, who's becoming more and more like a venerable Spencer Tracy, plays a former cop and private detective. He's an ex-alcoholic, he's divorced, he's getting old and he's surviving with no real purpose. Sounds like most Newman roles since the '70s.

Newman's Harry Ross also shares an affinity with Art Carney's Ira Wells, the over-the-hill gumshoe in "The Late Show" (1977), Benton's first private eye film. In fact, Benton readily admits that there are fingerprints from the '70s all over "Twilight." Harry Ross is actually named after Hackman's Harry Moseby from "Night Moves."

While Benton inserts certain visual clues from the '70s (including a reflective motif from "The Long Goodbye"), along with appropriate slang, he mainly strives for a timelessness in conveying the age-old disparity between L.A.'s glamour and sleaze. This is accomplished through cinematographer Piotr Sobocinski's striking contrasts in darkness and light and a conspicuous architectural diversity. But these are just the kind of cultural reference points that defined the great films of the '70s.

For example, married screen stars Hackman and Sarandon live in the Moderne-style Santa Monica house once occupied in real life by art director Cedric Gibbons and actress Dolores Del Rio, designed in '29 and containing a lavish Art Deco interior design. Hackman and Sarandon's ranch house above Malibu is an abandoned Frank Lloyd Wright project. Garner's house in the Hollywood Hills was designed in the '40s by Wright apprentice John Lautner, who also worked on the Malibu project.

"Twilight," originally titled "The Magic Hour," a more fitting and poetic metaphor, dispenses with the complicated machinations of plot to concentrate on the complicated machinations of character. This too connects it to the best films of the '70s--which, after all, were merely a more open and graphic extension of earlier conventions.

Or, as Benton says, "It's the complicated mystery about love and affection that you never really solve. Each moment is filled with love scenes between these people."

Each moment is also a telling example of ever-shifting relationships. Sarandon emerges nude from her swimming pool and Newman averts his gaze, alerting us to his romantic idealism. Then, in classical two-shot, they sit together and she flirts, complains about husband Hackman and admits that she cheats on her daily cigarette ration. Newman, who's already told us in voice-over that he's still drawn to the seductions of the world, hands her a cigarette and plays right into her hands.

Like the femme fatales of the '70s (Faye Dunaway in "Chinatown," Nina Van Pallandt in "The Long Goodbye," Jennifer Warren in "Night Moves"), however, Sarandon displays a compelling sadness when confronted with her worst fears. But she's never too vulnerable, such as the time she struggles to light her cigarette, refusing Newman's gallant assistance.

Hackman, incapacitated by cancer, is just as manipulative. But he and Newman convey a very special bond. They sit and play gin and communicate through a warm, elliptical shorthand. In their initial encounter, Hackman teases Newman about his pink shirt, and Newman reminds Hackman that it was a gift from him. (The shirt plays a more sinister role later on.)

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