Newman and Benton Get Their Groove Back

Robert Benton’s Twilight , from a screenplay by Mr. Benton and Richard Russo, begins with a splash of sunlight and swimming-pool water, and a flash of youthful flesh luxuriating in carnal congress in a Mexican resort hotel, and ends in the graying mists of the Hollywood hills, populated by variously damaged survivors with more past than future. Twilight is clearly not a film for focus groups, but rather for grown-ups who have read F. Scott Fitzgerald and share his insights about the rich, the famous and the beautiful being different from the rest of us, and not simply, as Ernest Hemingway demagogically retorted with the Popular Front wisdom of his time, because they have more money.

In Twilight , two beautiful people of Hollywood folklore-Jack Ames, a former screen icon, and his wife Catherine Ames-are beautifully acted by Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon. Theirs has been and continues to be a tabloid romance written in blood, though never theirs. They have always been careless, but there was always someone from their vast celluloid kingdom to clean up after them. That seemingly endless task has recently been entrusted to Paul Newman’s Harry Ross, a burned-out and washed-up L.A. private detective with something between a crush on and a lech for Catherine.

Harry had originally been steered to the palatial Ames estate by Raymond Hope (James Garner), one of Harry’s ex-cop buddies with a hillside mansion of his own. In Twilight , as in Hollywood since its first screen settlers, where you live and what you drive can be even more important than what you do. At the very least, these material proofs signify either how well you’re doing or how well you want the world to think you’re doing.

Harry’s first job for the screen royals is to retrieve their nubile nymphet of a daughter, the terminally sullen and smartass Mel Ames (Reese Witherspoon), from the probably mercenary embraces of Liev Schreiber’s Jeff Willis, one of the swarm of lucre-sniffing locusts infesting Hollywood. Harry takes care of Willis easily enough, but he is not so lucky with the enraged Mel, who accidentally shoots him in a region sensitive enough to set off speculation in Los Angeles that he has lost the last remnants of his already diminished virility. But this is only the first ordeal Harry must endure in his chivalric services to the Ames movie monarchy. It is but a comic prologue to a tale of blackmail, treachery, betrayal, murder and the truth revealed from an uncovered grave. Along the way, Mr. Benton and Mr. Russo have endowed Twilight with the nuances of a novel and the seeming ellipses of a screenplay adapted from it, even though the script itself is an original.

Mr. Newman’s Harry has come a long way from the Hud (1963), Harper (1966), Hombre (1967) trilogy. The roguishness has faded from the piercing blue eyes, and has been replaced by something wiser and mellower. He was once the charismatic big star Mr. Hackman and Ms. Sarandon could never have been, despite their enormous talents. Yet it would have been a mistake to cast Mr. Newman as the aging ex-star. A Pirandellian pall would have fallen over the proceedings as viewers would lament the little bit of Norma Desmond in every faded screen deity. By being cast as a patsy with no delusions of grandeur, Mr. Newman is able to sneak up on audiences with a modulated version of the old magic. For their part, Mr. Hackman and Ms. Sarandon have a lot of fun spicing up their imperious roles with expertly delivered doses of guile, vinegar and vitriol.

Much of the plot of Twilight is reminiscent of both Mr. Benton’s Nobody’s Fool (1986), from Mr. Russo’s novel with its existential locale of Last Chanceville, and Mr. Benton’s The Late Show (1976), with Art Carney as an aging private detective and Lily Tomlin as a dizzy-dame sidekick. Curiously, Mr. Carney was a dozen years younger as the detective in The Late Show than Mr. Newman is as the detective in Twilight . Yet it was out of the question for the Carney character to have sex with the Tomlin character or anyone else. His TV sitcom fans would never have accepted such lewd behavior.

Indeed, many older viewers were shocked by the violence in The Late Show because of Mr. Carney’s lovably avuncular presence in the cast. By contrast, Mr. Newman has never been a stranger to sex and violence. As Hud, he even helped Patricia Neal win an Oscar by raping the character she played. In Twilight , Mr. Newman’s Harry enjoys an adulterous interlude with Catherine Ames, and at the final fade-out he is en route to a fling with a lady cop warmly and yet ironically played by Stockard Channing.

The point is, Mr. Carney was never young and lustful in movie terms, and Mr. Newman can never be old enough to withdraw from the hunt. As for the rest of Twilight , it draws, as did The Late Show , on many of the riffs and flourishes from the classic private-eye melodramas in the noir canon derived from the novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. The inevitably ill-fated Elisha Cook character is reprised by the combined team of Mr. Schreiber’s Jeff Willis, Margo Martindale’s Gloria Lamar and M. Emmet Walsh’s Lester Ivar, a trio of losers in the criminal enterprises they initiate. Giancarlo Espositos’s Reuben, a private dick wannabe until he realizes how life-threatening the occupation can be, provides a needed comic counterpoint to soften the aftershocks from spasms of brutish and clumsy violence.

Twilight is the kind of movie that people who have sworn off violence on the screen should see for its civilized virtues. The hard-core ghouls will stay as far away from it as they have tended to do with Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown and Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential . For the characters in Twilight , it is not yet Sunset Boulevard time. They are still teetering on the edge of the abyss, but they are scratching and grasping for life amid the faded elegance of past glories. The cast and their collaborators have succeeded in preserving the nobility, idealism and underlying morality of a genre that of late has too often succumbed to the cynicism and amorality of our age. Twilight lights up the cinematic sky with its craft and grace, and it sparkles even when it descends into the darkness of the soul.

Rea’s Escape to New York

Robert Dornhelm’s The Break , from a screenplay by Ronan Bennett, based on an idea by Stephen Rea, is held together mainly by the heroically understated charisma of Mr. Rea, the most underappreciated actor I have ever seen on the silver screen. He alone makes The Break worth seeing. In other respects, this is an inadequately articulated and flimsily constructed movie about an escaped Irish Republican Army prisoner named Dowd who seeks a new and nonpolitical identity in New York, and finds himself in the midst of an amateurishly revolutionary Guatemalan conspiracy. Pursued by the F.B.I. and knifed in a scuffle with urban lowlifes, Dowd drifts into involvement with the Guatemalans, led by his dishwasher friends Tulio (Alfred Molina) and Paco (Jorge Sanz). Dowd drifts also into a love affair with Tulio’s sister Monica (Rosana Pastor), who bears a strong resemblance, with her sad Madonna eyes, to Roisin (Maria Doyle Kennedy), the Irish sweetheart he left behind in Belfast.

Drift has been the operative word for Mr. Rea’s screen persona ever since he eased onto the screen in Neil Jordan’s Danny Boy (also known as Angel ) in 1982. Since then, he has become best known for his strange, genuinely surprising relationship with a transvestite played by Jaye Davidson in Mr. Jordan’s The Crying Game (1992). For me, and for hardly anyone else, Mr. Rea reached his peak in 1993 with Les Blair’s Bad Behavior , opposite the enchanting Sinead Cusack. I was alone in thinking that this was the best movie of 1993. The Break is not as good, but Mr. Rea makes it worth seeing, particularly for his final, tragically self-defining expression-one of a man for our time of absolute chaos.

The Shue Thing: Harrelson’s Helpless

Volker Schlöndorff’s Palmetto , from a screenplay by E. Max Frye, based on James Hadley Chase’s novel Just Another Sucker , should be more fun than it is. It’s the kind of out-and-out trash that is almost guaranteed to be a guilty pleasure, particularly with three ultratalented babes like Elisabeth Shue, Gina Gershon and Chloe Sevigny. The big problem is Woody Harrelson as the newspaper reporter Harry Barber, who has just been released from prison after being cleared of the trumped-up charges used against him in the Florida seaside town of Palmetto.

Despite being welcomed back with open arms, open lips and open legs by Gina Gershon’s Nina, a girlfriend who has “found” herself as a money-making sculptor in his absence, Harry is bitter, bitter, bitter. (Has Woody Allen started a run on Harrys, with Mr. Harrelson here and Mr. Newman’s Harry in Twilight ?) Hence, sour, whiny Harry is fit to be bamboozled by the first dame to come along to offer him a scam requiring almost no work at all. Enter Ms. Shue as Rhea Malroux, the whistle-bait wife of Felix Malroux, a rich man who is dying of cancer. Rhea seems too good and bad to be true, if you know what I mean. Harry isn’t completely fooled, but he is fooled just enough to find himself mixed up in two murders. There are many twists and turns in the narrative, but as Bobby Clark said in and of Victor Herbert’s Sweethearts , “Never was a thin plot so complicated.”