18 July 2008

TWILIGHT (Dir. Robert Benton, 1997, US) - A hidden gem of a movie, starring the ever cool Paul Newman

Prior to declaring himself officially retired after his final film role as the Irish gangster, John Rooney in Sam Mendes underrated gangster film, ‘Road to Perdition’, the legend that is Paul Newman was one of the most formidable, charismatic and coolest Hollywood actors of his generation. Contemporaries like Eastwood, Beatty, Hackman and Hoffman have all showed longevity and this in no doubt has been helped by their ability to age gracefully. Unlike Eastwood and Hoffman who continue to challenge themselves with the types of roles offered to the older generation, Newman effectively announced his retirement after he received the Oscar for best actor in 1986 when he reprised his role of Fast Eddie Felson in Scorsese’s ‘The Colour of Money’, a sequel to ‘The Hustler’, featuring arguably Newman’s greatest role as a disillusioned pool hall charlatan.

That’s not to say Newman had been waiting specifically for his Oscar so he could semi retire from Hollywood, and pursue his love of racing cars and home made sauces. Although a method actor, Newman made the entire process of performance a natural one by using his effortless charm and screen presence to generate sympathy for many of the characters he portrayed. Unlike Brando and Hoffman who were extremists when it came to implementing the method approach, Newman rejected physical transformation for an emphasis on spoken dialogue, subtle gestures and memorable mannerisms that left a deep impression on films like ‘Cool Hand Luke’, ‘The Left Handed Gun’, and ‘The Verdict’.

The films Newman made in the 90s were limited to just a handful, and his close collaborations with writer-director Robert Benton in ‘Nobody’s Fool’ and ‘Twilight’ are intelligent meditations on growing old. Whilst ‘Nobody’s Fool’ attracted notable critical acclaim, the follow up film, ‘Twilight, released in 1997 was the one that went unnoticed, deemed a commercial failure and quickly released onto VHS before it became another one of those interesting failures that critics like to write about when they have to put together a cannon of forgotten gems. ‘Twilight’ is a hidden gem and a forgotten film of the contemporary neo noir genre that rightfully deserves a place within the cannon of the best noirs made in the 90s, sharing company with films like ‘The Usual Suspects’ and ‘The Underneath’ for its intriguing updating of conventions.

Unlike most contemporary noir films, ‘Twilight’ is a film that really does model itself on the detective narrative, and finds it greatest parallels with the first phase of the noir movement, paying homage to classics like ‘The Maltese Falcon’, ‘Murder, My Sweet’ and ‘Out of the Past’. You could almost position ‘Twilight’ alongside another 90s noir film, ‘LA Confidential’, that also used the backdrop of Hollywood glamour, wealth and corruption to explore the noir dynamics. Though ‘Twilight’ is set within the confines of contemporary America, it is a film very much about the past, an old Hollywood that is recognisable in Benton’s inspired use of locations, that all hark back to familiar cinematic noir imagery, underlining how Newman and James Garner’s ageing private investigators are relics who have lost their place within a new society that prides itself on vanity, impulsiveness and momentary pleasures as symbolised in the naive and foolish characters played by Leiv Schreiber and Reese Witherspoon.

If ‘Twilight’ is another traditional noir tale of the femme fatale’s manipulation of male anxieties then what exactly makes this example of genre filmmaking so good? Ultimately, it all narrows down to coherent and engaging storytelling that allows the narrative to unfold with a degree of artistic sensibility and poise, permitting the audience spectator to become enamoured to the instantly likable persona of Harry (Paul Newman). Harry is a morally ambivalent character who lets himself become emotionally entangled in a guilt ridden relationship with Catharine (Susan Sarandon), a retired Hollywood actress who in true noir style spends her time skinny dipping whilst chain smoking like an embittered heroine from a Howard Hawks movie. James Garner is brilliantly cast as a corrupt and wealthy ex-detective who has comfortably retired in the Hollywood hills, living in an an architectural paradise of glass that offers him some degree of limited protection from his own shameful past.

Paul Newman like Warren Beatty has now officially retired from film acting but he chose to do so with a dignity and grace that is befitting of an actor of such emphatic humility. Like Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson, he is cemented his iconic status a long time with only a handful of films, and when Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) and in 'The Road to Perdition' guns down John Rooney (Paul Newman) towards the end of the film, he simply stares blankly at the camera, and though we know he is a dead man, we also know that we are watching somebody who is just more than a film star.


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