Charles Taylor reviews 'Twilight' Directed by Robert Benton. Starring Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, and Gene Hackman.

By Charles Taylor

Published March 6, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

In the midst of neo-noirs, postmodern noirs, sci-fi noirs, noirs where every genre trademark -- from classic cars to femmes fatales -- is presented as if it were a pristine exhibit at a museum of pop culture, the relaxed air of "Twilight" comes as a relief. Set in contemporary Los Angeles, it's a noir, plain and simple, not a twist on the genre or a dissertation. Handsomely shot by Piotr Sobocinski, "Twilight" clocks in at a trim, pleasurable 90 minutes. Though the mystery doesn't need nearly that long to unravel (every surprise is telegraphed), from moment to moment, the performances are all so good that it's easy to overlook the plot's flimsiness.

A collaboration between Benton and novelist Richard Russo (whose book "Nobody's Fool" was the basis for Benton's last movie), the screenplay uses a detective story as a pretext for a film about aging and death. That's a sure way to invite the sentimentality that lurks beneath nearly every hard-boiled exterior; but when you're watching Paul Newman and Susan Sarandon engage in fond old-acquaintance backchat, or Newman and James Garner talking about what became of former cohorts, you remember how satisfying that sentimentality can be when it's held in check by an actor's intelligence.

Newman plays Harry Ross, a retired private eye who's become a permanent house guest at the home of two old friends, movie stars Jack and Catherine Ames (Gene Hackman and Sarandon). A few years earlier, when their daughter Mel (Reese Witherspoon) ran off to Mexico with a boyfriend, Harry tracked her down and brought her home. But he got himself accidentally shot in the process and went into a boozing tailspin. Sober now, he's asked to do just enough so that everyone can pretend he's not living on the Ameses' charity. The plot hinges on a blackmail threat, the murder of a retired cop who may have been behind it and the never-solved disappearance of Catherine's first husband. Really, though, it's no more than an excuse for Benton to give his actors a series of extended scenes.

"Twilight" hums with the pleasure the actors take in their work. Time and again, they come up with gestures or line readings that seem to contain the entirety of their characters. For Witherspoon, who's able to show the vulnerable side of a hard-edged kid without going soft, it's the little heartbreaker of a moment after she's made love with her boyfriend and asks him, "Do you love me? It's OK if you don't." And later, when she asks Harry point blank if he's in love with her mother and then assesses what awaits him with a pitiless "Poor you." For Stockard Channing, as Harry's old police partner, Verna, it's the embrace she gives Harry when she comes upon him unexpectedly at a murder scene followed by the brusque instruction to an officer: "Cuff him." For Liev Schreiber, as Mel's former boyfriend, it's the callowness that makes him a born patsy. For Garner's old buddy Ray, it's the suggestion of sneakiness beneath his usual relaxed ease. And for Margo Martindale, who, as one of the blackmailers, is in a great tradition of tough, wisecracking movie broads, it's the rueful weight she puts on her final line, "I never learn." It's a moment of classic noir futility, as devastating as the question at the end of Stanley Kubrick's "The Killing": "What's the use?"

The press material for "Twilight" says that "there is no such thing as a Gene Hackman role." I'd never deny Hackman's versatility, but as Jack Ames, who seems even more riddled with regrets than with the cancer that's killing him, Hackman shows, as he has before, that he may be better than anyone at playing likable, weak men who know they're weak and despise themselves for it. Hackman has a way here of making every biting comment, every bit of anger, sound like a self-reproach.

Sarandon has made no secret of trying to find roles that express something of her political and feminist convictions. So it seems strange to find her in a film noir, considering that women in the genre almost always function as betrayers or destroyers. In the adolescent fantasy of hard-boiled detective fiction, the uncorruptable man stands up to the corrupt world, only to find out that the woman he's fallen for is part of that same rottenness. Sarandon opens up another possibility, one that brings the adolescent bent of the genre into the open. She plays Catherine as a woman who's faced hard choices that few people could imagine, done what she had to do and now refuses to apologize. Most of her scenes with Newman play as sublime flirtation grounded in years of affection. She slips into their scenes as if she were slipping into a deliciously warm bath. There's a lovely moment when he comes upon her skinny-dipping in the pool and turns away, even though, as she kiddingly reminds him, he's seen her nude in the movies plenty of times. What's amazing about the moment later on when Harry asks Catherine if she loves Jack enough to kill and she answers, "You bet," is that there's no diminished affection for Harry in her answer. She's telling Harry, "That's how it is, and if you're not tough-minded enough to accept it, too bad." Without a trace of preachiness, Sarandon turns one of the genre shibboleths on its head.

The role of Harry Ross doesn't allow Newman the intensity and daring of the best scenes in "Absence of Malice," "Fort Apache, the Bronx" or "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge." But in a movie whose subject is aging, the way Newman looks (still fabulous), and the casual grace and understated dignity in the way he handles himself, counts for everything. I'm not the first person to observe that, after years as a great movie star, Newman, upon reaching middle age, started showing the depth and range and gravity of a great actor. That he acquired those qualities without losing his star's charisma meant he had become one of those rare performers who can give us the best of both worlds.

Everything Newman has gained as an actor becomes apparent when you contrast this performance with another one he gave as a detective in the bad, jokey 1966 movie "Harper." The role showcased the cockiness that was the younger Newman's trademark, but it had next to nothing to do with the character it was based on, Lew Archer, the hero of Ross MacDonald's great series of detective novels. ("Harper" was based on MacDonald's "The Moving Target.") It's hard not to think of those books, watching "Twilight." They too were about California dreamers who find the identities and lives they've built for themselves threatened by a buried secret, a blood tie that can't be broken. MacDonald's detective stands for the type of human-scaled heroism that still seems possible after we accept the inevitable compromises of life. Archer, who understands that you pass judgment on others at the price of narrowing any understanding you've gained of them, works his cases hoping that his instinctive empathy won't be pushed past its limits. Harry Ross is a weaker, more indecisive man, but Newman's performance in "Twilight" echoes the decency and doubts, the almost gentlemanly approach of MacDonald's hero. This modest entertainment, as much about the pleasures of acting as it is the refinements that come with age, offers an example of both: the sight of Newman at 73, getting closer than probably any actor ever will to putting Lew Archer on screen.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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Movies Susan Sarandon Twilight