A slow-burn neo-noir distinguished by a cast of past and future Oscar winners and nominees, Twilight brims with style and fine performances, but never quite adds up to the sum of its parts. Writer-director Robert Benton's tale of a retired cop who becomes embroiled in a decades-old Hollywood scandal is elegant, literate, surprisingly violent, and occasionally provocative, and Kino's excellent video and audio transfers immerse us in L.A.'s affluence and squalor. If you're a fan of the genre and stars, Twilight is definitely Worth a Look.
The term "fixer" is part of our lexicon today, but 25 years ago we weren't as familiar with these loyal minions who skulk in the shadows and quietly clean up the messes of their very rich, often very famous, and very reckless clients. Press agents often played the fixer role in Hollywood's Golden Age, but they passed the torch to retired cops, unscrupulous lawyers, and private detectives as time marched on. Twilight - not to be confused with the insanely successful teenage vampire franchise that produced a quintet of vapid blockbusters between 2008 and 2012 - shines a spotlight on these unsung lapdogs who, according to one of the movie's characters, are simply bit players in the epic lives of their narcissistic and smug bosses.
One of only a dozen films helmed by Oscar-winning writer and director Robert Benton, Twilight doesn't rise to the lofty level of Kramer vs. Kramer and Places in the Heart, but it's an effective homage to the film noirs that captivated audiences in the 1940s and 1950s. Quiet and introspective overall, yet punctuated by jolts of violence and some gratuitous titillation, the picture presents a cynical view of Hollywood's elite and their insulated world of privilege and entitlement. The atmospheric mystery fuses style and substance, features a literate script by Benton and Richard Russo (who also collaborated on the far better Nobody's Fool, as well as The Ice Harvest), and boasts a dynamite cast of accomplished actors, all of whom bring their A game, but somehow Twilight remains strangely unsatisfying. With its Los Angeles locations and steamy undercurrents, the film tries to emulate Hollywood's two best neo-noirs - Body Heat and L.A. Confidential - but it's too cerebral, simplistic, and low key to wield the same power.
A brooding former cop with a checkered past, Harry Ross (Paul Newman) works for and lives with faded movie stars Jack and Catherine Ames (Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon). He keeps their recalcitrant teenage daughter Mel (Reese Witherspoon) in check, provides companionship for the ailing Jack, who's battling terminal cancer, and runs "errands" for the couple when their sins require intervention. When Jack tasks Harry with delivering an envelope of cash to a petty blackmailer, Harry thinks it's business as usual, but he quickly becomes ensnared in a deceitful web that dates back two decades to an explosive cause célèbre that put Jack, Catherine, and Catherine's husband at the time on the front page of newspapers across the country. As Harry tries to unravel the mystery, he realizes he's also an expendable pawn in a deadly chess game, and his unwavering loyalty to Jack and Catherine doesn't count for as much as he thought.
A throwback to the terse, atmospheric detective yarns popularized by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett in the 1940s, Twilight also honors Lew Harper, a private investigator Newman portrayed in 1966's Harper and 1975's The Drowning Pool. Twilight gives Newman a final shot at playing a rumpled gumshoe and doesn't try to pass off the actor, who was a spry 73 at the time of production, as anything other than an aging man in his "twilight" years.
The script's focus on over-60 characters likely dampened box office enthusiasm, but Benton and Russo - much as they did in Nobody's Fool, which also stars Newman (and also failed to find a wide audience) - provide keen insights into their jaded, regretful, and exhausted psyches. The languorous dialogue scenes play well and really ramp up the shock value of the violent interludes, but the lack of verbal sparks lend the film a flat and, at times, sleepy feel. Twilight is the type of movie that plays much better on a second viewing when you can more fully appreciate the pregnant pauses, significant glances, and wily motivations that pepper and fuel the plot.
Accomplished actors are required to transmit all the subtleties and Twilight is chock full of them. I didn't examine the full cast list before popping the disc in my player, so imagine my surprise when in addition to the top-billed Newman, Sarandon, and Hackman such esteemed performers as Witherspoon, James Garner, Stockard Channing, Liev Schreiber, Margo Martindale, John Spencer, Giancarlo Esposito, and M. Emmett Walsh (who's only on screen for a couple of minutes and doesn't say a word) cropped up early in the film. All contribute stellar work and their magnetism holds our gaze even as the film's pacing flags.
In this age of teflon dons, Twilight strikes a chord and perhaps resonates more strongly today than it did in 1998. Its tightly woven narrative doesn't fray upon reflection and unlike many neo-noirs that try too hard to emulate their role models (Benton's 1982 Hitchcock homage Still of the Night is a good example), it feels authentic. Though Benton percolates his brew a bit too long, the movie builds to a surprising climax and satisfying denouement...then tacks on a cheesy ending that leaves a saccharine aftertaste.
The best noirs are hard-boiled and ruthless. Twilight walks that walk, but its soulful presentation softens its sharp edges. It's a well-made, well-acted, and largely entertaining movie, but instead of leaving us breathless, it leaves us cold.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Twilight arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a sleeve. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. (A DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track is also included.) Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
No remastering seems to have been performed on Twilight prior to its Blu-ray release, but judging by this lovely 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer, it doesn't need any. Yes, it would have been nice to remove the few errant nicks and spots that dot the print, but for the most part, the source material is in excellent shape. The evident but natural-looking grain not only preserves the film-like feel, it also provides essential texture for this noir mystery. Superior clarity and contrast produce a picture filled with fine detail and depth that faithfully honors the elegant cinematography of Piotr Sobocinski, who would pass away at age 43 just three years after Twilight's release. Reflections in mirrors and glass, the rough bumps on stuccoed walls, and the weaves of various fabrics are all crisply rendered, blacks are rich, and the bright, well-defined whites never bloom. Pastel colors like Newman's pink polo shirt, the sea green stucco siding of an apartment building, and the pale orange hues of the smog-infused sunsets are lush and skin tones appear natural and remain stable throughout. Excellent shadow delineation and sharp close-ups also distinguish this very pleasing presentation that will thrill the film's fans.
Both a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track are included. I couldn't detect any surround activity in the 5.1 mix, but it supplies clear, well-modulated sound. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows of Elmer Bernstein's elegant score without any distortion, and all the dialogue is easy to comprehend. Sonic accents like gunfire and shattering glass are crisp, subtleties like faint dripping water, a creaky door, and waves crashing against the shore supply plenty of atmosphere, and solid bass frequencies occasionally punctuate the action. Silences are clean and no pops or crackle intrude. The 2.0 track sounds strikingly similar, so you can't go wrong with either option.
A couple of extras enhance the disc.
Audio Commentary - Film critics and noir experts Alain Silver and James Ursini sit down for a thoughtful, insightful, and informative commentary that examines the difference between traditional film noir and neo-noir, the character dynamics that fuel the plot, and Benton's approach to the material. They also identify the myriad authentic locations used in the movie, relate the Twilight characters, plot and style to several classic film noirs (most notably The Big Sleep with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall), and note that many contemporary critics classified the movie as a "geezer noir" because of the advanced age of Newman, Hackman, and Garner. Silver and Ursini enjoy a relaxed rapport and their scholarly yet accessible discussion is well worth a listen.
Theatrical Trailer and TV Spots (HD & SD, 5 minutes) - The film's original preview and five TV spots all contain snippets of scenes that didn't make the final cut. A slew of trailers for other Kino releases featuring Newman, Sarandon, and Hackman are also included.
A fantastic cast featuring four Oscar winners and two nominees bolsters the appeal of writer-director Robert Benton's slow-burn neo-noir. Twilight never scales the heights we expect, but its believable, air-tight story, stylish look, and fine performances make it worthy of a spin, especially if you're a fan of Newman, Sarandon, Hackman, Garner, Witherspoon, Channing, Schreiber...the list goes on. Excellent video and audio transfers and an intelligent commentary track add luster to Kino's presentation of this entertaining, but far from spectacular noir mystery. Worth a Look.