The second, and decidedly superior product, from Robert Benton last weekend. In the recent Feast of Love, Benton traded in the solid, veteran cast from his previous film Twilight for a set of young and sexy pawns to cater to navel-gazing empty-headed philosophes. This film, however, takes major advantage of its L.A. setting, incorporating the right sites and sights of those sites (and corresponding implications about L.A. and its inhabitants) to construct a solid “neo-noir” (as they’re calling it) that would make the old boys proud. If Hollywood movies have taught us anything, it’s that there is nothing good, moral, or hopeful to be found in Los Angeles. It’s a doomed city, as it was from its earliest days when a bunch of capitalist idealists decided to settle in an area when a soon-to-be-depleted water supply, no harbor, and virtually no chance of survival at the onset of the Industrial Revolution. The area had no life in it, but they forced life into it, anyway.
The newspapers were infamously responsible for a good chunk of this forced growth, acknowledged by Jack Ames (Gene Hackman), who says that what the L.A. Times says is good enough for him, truth-wise. This acknowledgment commits that famous error of noir characters, conflating or confusing truth with fact. (Ames is referring to a supposed murder that the Times claimed was a suicide.) Ames’ poor health fits the bill of the castrated patriarchal figure who finances and initiates the investigation, which of course turns out to implicate him and those close to him.
Speaking of castration, the opening scene almost castrates Harry Ross (Paul Newman), as 17-year old Mel Ames (Reese Witherspoon) accidentally puts a bullet into his inner thigh. As a result, the police force mistakenly believes this P.I. has lost his manhood when in fact he’s quite virile, especially for a senior citizen. The diegetic “audience” (basically the police force and James Garner’s character Raymond Hope) assume him to be no threat, having lost his instrument of power. Hope even asks Ross point blank if he’s still got it. The same point correlates to Ross’ ability to invade the intimate spaces of women without them feeling threatened. At their first encounters in the film, both of the Ames women (daughter and mother) are fully undressed when Ross penetrates their hotel room and swimming area, respectively. Though Mel is disappointed to see him and Catherine (Susan Sarandon, the chief femme fatale) delighted, neither is phased in the slightest at encountering this particular male figure while bodily exposed.
That Harry has no space of his own – forced to live with his client and client’s attractive wife – fits with the down-and-out nature of his character and the nature of noir’s glory days: always in the past (or always the stuff of dreams). The sinister characters – whether directly implicated in the crimes or guilty by association – dwell without exception in those notorious Modernist style cliff homes overlooking the L.A. Basin. These are the homes of the successful, and to be successful in L.A. involves a lack of scruples (at least in the movies). The P.I. character may not have many scruples, but he does have some. He’s interested not in ascending but in surviving. He may temporarily disregard conventional morals (such as destroying evidence, breaking and entering), but only for the pragmatic greater good. Harry’s days are bygone days or attempts to re-enter bygone days. The same can be said of his clients and his nemesis. At the same time, there’s a “I can’t go back to that” element that is undeniable, but only in moments of intense duress. Noir’s defeatist fatalism must admit in moments of clarity that even the past was no more glorious than the present. Harry’s past includes a divorce and alcoholism. Raymond’s past returns him to the flat Basin from the jagged cliffs. Raymond’s last name, “Hope,” and his eventual death capture the inevitability of the dark world of L.A. success and the crime that must accompany it. The ironically hopeful ending for Harry returns him to a liminal past – not the distant past but further back than the present. He returns to a vacation spot, a dream, a temporary escape from all that is unavoidable in his life. As is often the case with noir protagonists, however, Harry is an amnesiac, forgetting this film’s opening setting and his almost-castration, which took place at a vacation spot in Mexico.