Newman, Hackman, Sarandon: a present-day Raymond Chandler-inspired whodunnit. Hardboiled to go. The heady promise of a dense, Byzantine-plotted script in the finest traditions of the genre. A twisting tale with guns, blackmail, murder and a mysteriously missing ex-lover. The chance to ride the new noir wave rejuvenated by the masterful LA Confidential. How could this film possibly fail?
But, astonishingly, it does. Here’s why: director/screenwriter Robert Benton (Nobody’s Fool) has, after a spirited beginning, gone and crammed a by-the-numbers and uninvolving drama into a slight but still paradoxically overlong 95 minutes. Never has death and dishonour seemed so dull.
Twilight is a deliberately ambiguous title. It refers to the characters in the twilight of their lives and explores the themes of loss and gain in their time of reflection, regrets and rose-tinted nostalgia. It also examines the sundown world they inhabit: the shady underbelly of an LA landscape, rife with suspicion, greed and rampant immorality.
Although both elements are gently dichotomised throughout, everything else pales in the face of Newman’s clichéd noir character. He reels out every hoary old chestnut, from his (tick them off) cornball voice-over and heavy bourbon and fags consumption, through his broken marriage and casual affair with Sarandon (while hubby Hackman is dying of cancer), to his past brushes with alcoholism and his world-worn, cynical/idealistic romantic urban-hero persona. Must all PIs be this predictable?
But Newman, the old dog, rides above the limitations of his role with ease. Coupled with useful supporting roles from James Garner as an old fixer for the Ames’ and Stockard Channing as a ’tec’s former paramour and now police lieutenant, Newman manages to justify his presence admirably. Hackman and Sarandon, however, perhaps sensing their characters are two-dimensional, curiously devoid of smouldering sexuality and playing second and third fiddles to the lead, run on massively understated auto-pilot throughout. Albeit a predictably high-class auto-pilot.
So, forget the languorous bittersweet conversations interspersed among the mildly diverting shoot ’em ups. Forget the all-too-obvious “we know who did it” denouement. Instead, take the time to enjoy the beautiful cinematography and the excellent location-by-location tour of LA architecture – which as the productions notes reveal, are drenched in Hollywood folklore and are far more fascinating than the film itself.
For Twilight is, ultimately, a supreme example of a movie scandalously unworthy of the awesome and hardly exploited powerhouse talent within it. And that is unforgivable.
Despite a stellar cast and a sun-drenched and gloriously photographed Los Angeles, nothing can save this join-the-dots whodunnit from its crushing mediocrity. And that, Robert Benton, takes real skill.