Friday, June 15, 2018

Neglected Gem: Twilight (1998)

Paul Newman and Susan Sarandon in Twilight (1998).

The writer-director Robert Benton adapted Richard Russo’s novel Nobody’s Fool to the screen in 1994, and the movie’s depiction of small-town lives interlocked in a hop-along Rube Goldberg fashion has a lot of charm. The dawdling humor and the performances of the three leading actors, Paul Newman, Bruce Willis and Melanie Griffith, almost make up for the way the story is shaped as the salvation of Newman’s character, an irascible old bastard who has to learn the value of his family and of friendship, to face old demons, to patch up his son’s ailing marriage, and to teach his grandson not to be afraid. That’s a hefty load of personal growth for 112 minutes. I prefer Twilight, which Benton made four years later from an original screenplay that he and Russo co-wrote, an autumnal detective noir in which the major characters are all aging Angelenos. Newman is Harry Ross, an ex-drunk ex-cop turned P.I. who’s been living rent-free in the home of the last client who employed him, Jack Ames (Gene Hackman), and his actress wife Catherine (Susan Sarandon). Officially Jack is Ross’s employer, but it’s really a sinecure. Ames’s daughter Mel (Reese Witherspoon) wounded Harry when he tried to get her back – for Ames – after she’d run away with her gold-digger boyfriend, so keeping Harry on the payroll is Jack’s way of compensating him. Mostly he retains Harry as a poker buddy. But he does send him on the occasional errand, and one of these has the feel of a blackmail pay-off – especially when it turns up the corpse of another retired cop (M. Emmet Walsh, who gets a good moment or two of screen time before the picture kills him off).

The unsolved case at the bottom of the mystery is two-decades old: the disappearance of Catherine’s movie-star first husband. The aptly named Twilight is about old connections that linger like ghosts over the lives of men and women who were once young hellions; it’s about old loyalties and old regrets. The cast of characters includes other cops – Raymond Hope (James Garner) and Harry’s one-time partner Verna (Stockard Channing). It also includes Gloria Lamar (Margo Martindale), a parole officer who falls for her young charge – Mel’s ex-beau Jeff Willis (Liev Schreiber), whom Harry managed to put behind bars for a time – and wrecks herself over him. Harry sticks to the case out of friendship for Jack, and also out of guilt because he’s in love with Catherine and Jack’s dying of cancer, and out of a conviction that Catherine was the reason for the blackmail. The movie’s spun out on a tone of rueful melancholy, and though the script is slight, and the look of the picture isn’t much (Piotr Sobocinski shot it), it stays with you.

Benton’s long suit, as always, is his skill with performers. The movie is shaped as a series of acting moments, and the cast, which also includes Giancarlo Esposito and John Spencer, is so remarkable that you’re content to be pulled along from one of these intimate exchanges to the next. After they’ve had sex, Mel asks Jeff if he loves her, and the mournful look in her eye tells you she’s already worked out the answer. Verna, arriving on the scene after Harry phones in the ex-cop’s murder, tells Harry how good it is to see him before ordering him cuffed, and there’s no irony in either her voice or the gesture. Jack, who had an attack while his wife was in bed with Harry, asks him casually, over a hand of poker, if Harry’s his friend, and if he thinks Catherine still loves him. Gloria tells Jeff, who’s bungled things, as usual, how pathetic he is – and it’s clear that she’s reflecting on her own folly in hooking up with this clown who’s half her age.

The best acting comes from Garner, Sarandon and Martindale, whose exit from the picture is as memorable as any scene in a film noir from this era. Sarandon is handed the most badly misconceived scene in the movie and almost makes it work; she also gets to impart a rendition of the great Ray Noble ballad “The Very Thought of You” in a pleasing, cottony voice. Newman isn’t quite in form; his voice has grown foggy and less expressive. It was the first time I remember getting the sense that he wasn’t up to conveying all that he wanted to in a performance. (He was seventy-three, entering his last decade.) But even a diminished Paul Newman is something to watch, and he has some fine reflective moments. You could certainly see why he wanted to team up with Robert Benton twice in a row; by 1998 there weren’t many directors left in Hollywood who still thought in terms of performance rhythms and understood how to build a movie around them. Back in 1977, Benton’s second feature, The Late Show, with Art Carney and Lily Tomlin – also an offbeat noir – promised a career of unconventional character studies. But he’s never delivered on that promise; The Late Show is the only first-rate movie he’s ever directed. He never lost his touch with actors, though, and in Twilight it seems almost like a benediction.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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