Review: Twilight

[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, March 6, 1998]

Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.

Twilight is a pretty good movie that will give steady pleasure to some viewers while probably leaving others restless for more aggressive stimulation. Put it another way: the new collaboration between Robert Benton, Paul Newman, and Richard Russo—the team behind the excellent Nobody’s Fool—is less a movie than an idea for a movie, a meditation on ways in which movies have been soothing and satisfying in filmically better times. In particular, it is a meditation on the private-eye genre, on the codes of honor and human connection that that genre has explored, even defined, and on Paul Newman himself—a solid actor for more decades than many of today’s moviegoers have lived, and a beautiful man who has, at last and inevitably, grown old.

Newman plays Harry Ross, an ex-cop and lapsed P.I. with a lot of grief behind him. Harry has become an adjunct member of a glamorous Hollywood household—live-in gin partner, handyman, and soulmate to former matinee idol Jack Ames (Gene Hackman), who indulges, even encourages Harry’s undeclared passion for Jack’s movie-star wife Catherine (Susan Sarandon). The Ameses owe Harry because he once tracked their teenage daughter (Reese Witherspoon) to Mexico after she’d run off with a rather hapless stud. Thanks to an inglorious accident, Harry took a bullet in the thigh on that mission. That was two years ago, yet somehow we feel as if Harry and the Ameses’ quasi-familial history reached back a good deal longer. Another esoteric point of interest is that Harry’s modest wound has become the stuff of legend: his old police cronies think he had his dick shot off. That Harry himself remains unaware of his Hemingwayesque notoriety makes for a curiously oblique running joke.

The main action gets underway when Jack asks Harry to do him a favor—deliver an envelope full of money to a woman named Gloria Lamar. “You won’t need your gun,” Jack says, but one astutely angled look at Gloria’s hilltop house poised against a sunset L.A. vista is enough to assure us that someone has to be dead or dying inside. Teasing out how and why will occupy the main portion of the film, and—as in The Late Show, Benton’s 1977 valentine to the private eye—the cast of characters isn’t large enough to allow for many red herrings. However, Twilight is interested in character, not plot, and Benton’s tender regard for even the most forlorn of noir bit-players enables each to sound his or her distinct note of regret and loss.

With its wraparound flashback structure, mirror shots, and extensive doubling of image or incident, Twilight is an avowedly reflective film. It’s also full of movie echoes—Newman’s Harper and Hackman’s Night Moves, the coded Howard Hawks games with Harry lighting cigarettes for Catherine, another M. Emmet Walsh private eye expiring under a bathroom sink. But for once these aren’t cute hommages or “postmodern” parlor tricks. They’re part of the texture of life in an imaginative country where we’ve all visited, lived, grown older. – Richard T. Jameson


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