Sunday 17 May 2020

Twilight by Robert Benton and Richard Russo

Like a lot of people these days I am curating my own personal film festival. 

My approach is to listen to interviews with directors who particularly interest me, archived on the DGA's invaluable website. These are often terrific, deep-dive interviews that last for several fascinating hours.

It's an approach that is leading to the discovery of some real gems, none of them more wonderful than this 1998 detective thriller by Robert Benton.

Benton started out in movies as a screenwriter — he co-wrote Bonnie and Clyde. 

And then went on to direct Bad Company, The Late Show, Kramer vs Kramer, Places in the Heart...

And Twilight. Not to be confused with a series of teen-favourite movies about vampires and werewolves moping around the Pacific Northwest.

No, this Twilight was entirely the creation of Robert Benton and Richard Russo. Russo had written a novel called Nobody's Fool which Benton had filmed, starring Paul Newman. 

The novelist did some work on that script and Benton enjoyed collaborating so much that he sat down with Russo to dream up a private eye tale set in Los Angeles, a sort of modern day film noir.

And, my word, were they successful.

I don't know how I missed Twilight when it came out, but it's an absolute beauty of a movie. Dark, sardonic, funny and thrilling, it pushes all the right buttons.

And it begins with one of the most perfectly formed brief anecdotes I've ever seen in a film. 

We meet ex-cop and private eye Harry Ross (Paul Newman) in Puerto Vallarta where he has come to bring home runaway teenager Mel Ames (Reese Witherspoon, never more beguiling).

Mel is down in Mexico with her deadbeat boyfriend Jeff (a magnificently dodgy Liv Schreiber).

Jeff is not very pleased to have their idyll interrupted by a middle aged detective. There's a scuffle, a gun goes off and...

Well, suffice to say, the entire premise of the ensuing story is set up here, beautifully and efficiently.

It's a story that will involve Mel's parents, Hollywood power couple Jack (Gene Hackman) and Catherine (Susan Sarandon). Mr and Mrs Ames are both movie stars, though now somewhat in decline.

Beside the swimming pool of their stunning mansion, Catherine tells Harry that she and her husband are broke. Harry is having none of it. "I'm broke," he says. "You're over extended."

And not just financially. Jack and Catherine are out of their depth in a rising tide of blackmail and murder. And it's Harry's task to save them.

Complicated somewhat by the fact that Jack is Harry's best friend, but Harry's in love with Catherine.

In no time at all Harry is being shot at and arrested, as he tries to work out who is doing what to whom and why.

This is a classic detective tale, immaculately fashioned and deeply satisfying. Also, very funny, with priceless supporting performances by Stockard Channing as a cop and James Garner as another private eye.

Twilight may not have the stature of say, Chinatown or Night Moves. But it's certainly worth including in the same discussion. 

And it's wonderfully, richly enjoyable, with luminous photography by Piotr Sobocinski and an enticing score by Elmer Bernstein.

In fact, I think I'll go and listen to Bernstein's music now.

(Image credits: The white English language poster is from Imp Awards. The black and white photo of Newman with the gun is by Lorey Sebastian and, along with the black poster is from IMDB. Reese Witherspoon with Newman out of focus in the background is from Zimbio. The Spanish poster and all the other images are from the extremely useful Movie Screen Shots.)

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