Created by Robert Benton and Richard Russo
Retired, and just plain tired, Hollywood gumshoe HARRY ROSS takes odd jobs (and once, a bullet, trying to rescue their jailbait daughter) for his old pal and dying movie star, Jack Ames, and his one-time sexpot actress wife, Catherine. He bides his time, when he's not being shot, with former cop Raymond Hope, who also occasionally does some work for the Ames'.
Then Harry is asked to do a little favor for them, and ends up immersed in a web of blackmail, murder, sexuality and moral excess. As the film's slogan goes, "Some people can buy their way out of anything. Except the past."
The film's a fine character study, evocative of such Chandler classic as The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye, with rock-solid performances by some private eye vets, it features 73 year-old Paul Newman (Harper, The Drowning Pool) as Harry, James Garner (Marlowe, The Rockford Files) as Ray Hope, and Gene Hackman (Night Moves) as Jack Ames. And writer/director Robert Benton's travelled this turf before, too, with 1977's excellent The Late Show.
"Richard (Russo, his co-writer) told me he wanted to do a private eye movie," says Benton, in some pre-release publicity. "In fact, I had shot a movie here about twenty years ago called The Late Show with Art Carney and Lily Tomlin and it had been a particularly enjoyable experience for me. We knew right away we wanted to write for Paul."
It seems Benton continues to be fascinated by detective stories. "The private eye is kind of a romantic urban hero. He is caught between cynicism and idealism and by tradition, he's a complicated figure and that has always interested me. ..it seems to me the private eye form offers you such a wide spectrum of society, from the very wealthy to the sleaziest low-rent characters you can find. And those are always interesting characters to write about," says Benton.
"The real story of the movie is the unraveling of people's lives...how rich and complicated life gets. It's so beautiful here (in Los Angeles) and these are very extraordinary, beautiful people. Their sense of privilege, beauty, wealth and intelligence is such a part of their lives that they take it for granted. It's a gift given to them...it's become like breathing for them. It must be deeply agonizing when you come to the end of the run after things have always gone right for you," notes Benton. "Within this movie there are all kinds of layers of love stories and things that happen in a mystery. And I think the mystery unfolds out of character in this, not from a set of traditional clues," he adds.
With all that talent involved, how unwatchable could it be? Despite its lukewarm reception by audiences, it's one of the most satisfying P.I. movies of the nineties, a compelling slow burn treat that aims far higher than the usual kiss kiss bang bang of most P.I. flicks of its era.
In fact, I think this under-rated and neglected gem is the long-lost last Lew Archer film, the natural conclusion to a trilogy Newman began decades earlier with Harper and The Drowning Pool. Once again, Ol' Blue Eyes is essentially Archer travelling under an assumed name (could it be that the hero's surname is a tip of the fedora to Archer's creator, Ross Macdonald?), and once again he's digging up long-buried family dirt, but this time, it's hitting a lot closer to home, in a scenario that at times recalls Macdonald at his very best. Recommended.
-- Terrill Lankford, author of Shooters, Earthquake Weather and Blonde Lightning.
-- Barbara Shulgasser, The San Francisco Examiner
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.
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