Cinematographers call it the "magic hour"--twilight's last gleaming of pink and blue and gold before the sun dips below the horizon. On summer days/nights, I often run out of my house in order to bathe myself in the magic hour's luminous glow. To me, all life's poignancy is contained in that suffusion of light and air just as night's shadows are moving in to reclaim everything. Robert Benton's Twilight is set at that moment in a man's life when the sun takes a last deep breath before choking on the darkness. Starring Paul Newman as a former cop, former private investigator, former drunk who's about to come out of retirement, it's a noir film, but a noir film with its very own shade of noir. Instead of high-contrast blacks and whites sliced by Venetian blinds, we get these lazy, hazy colors that have been refracted off the billions and billions of particles in Los Angeles' smoggy air. Instead of cigarette smoke, we get a woman--Susan Sarandon's Catherine--who's trying to quit. In Twilight, the air's already hard enough to breathe. For smog is hell on the lungs, though it makes for some gorgeous sunsets. Newman's Harry Ross has been living with Jack (Gene Hackman) and Catherine Ames ever since their runaway daughter accidentally shot him when Harry tried to bring her back from Mexico. Famous movie stars, Jack and Catherine are Hollywood royalty, and their palace is the house once owned by Delores Del Rio--a chunk of '40s swank that's almost a separate character. Harry's been there so long he feels like a member of the family, but in fact he's something between a member of the family and part of the hired help. When Jack, who's dying of cancer, asks him to deliver a package to a certain Gloria Lamar, Harry never thinks of refusing, and yet the delivery launches him on an investigation involving blackmail and murder. Catherine's first husband disappeared some 20 years ago under mysterious circumstances, but that's what Hitchcock used to call a McGuffin--a plot device that means more to the characters than it does to us. In Twilight, it's the characters and (especially) the actors playing the characters who move things along. Benton has assembled a veritable Dream Team--not just the Oscar-winning leads, but James Garner as the Ames' longtime Mr. Fix-It and Stockard Channing as a police lieutenant who gives Harry a break when he really needs one. The script, by Benton and Richard Russo, is a smorgasbord of noir morsels ("It smells different on them," Harry explains when Catherine says lots of women wear her perfume), and it's immensely pleasurable to watch the actors chew on them.
Benton, Russo and Newman collaborated on the admirably low-key Nobody's Fool, which was set in a small town in upstate New York, and it's not hard to see Newman's Harry as the West Coast version of Newman's Sully--nobody's fool but his own. With the possible exception of Clint Eastwood, I can't imagine anyone else who could make this role work. It takes a seventysomething hunk who's still raging against the dying of the light. If there's a problem with Twilight, it's that it doesn't always match Newman's intensity. Benton's a very slow, deliberate director--not such a bad thing in the era of Con Air and The Rock. But slow and deliberate can also indicate iron-poor blood. Nobody's moving too fast in Twilight, and yet the movie itself is often moving--one magic hour after another.