Welcome to Savannah, Georgia. A City of Hot Nights and Cold-Blooded Murder.
The Deep South is often portrayed in the movies as a mysterious place, where sex and intrigue are masked by courtly manners, old money lifestyles, and deeply rooted traditions. I grew up in the southeast, and though I have pretty good manners, I somehow missed out on the whole old money lifestyle thing, and I can assure you it didn't take much masking material to cover up my sex life. I guess I forgot to sign up for something. Always read the instructions carefully!
But for a film or novel, it's hard to beat this kind of drawling ambience as a stage for deliciously wicked story telling. The music is soulful, the weather is warm and sticky, and the women are beautiful. Or was it the women who are warm and sticky? Like I said, I missed that class.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a film steeped in this tradition. Directed by Dirty Harry himself, the film is an adaptation of the novel of the same title. Though he's famous for coming up with pithy one liners just before blowing away some punk with a hand gun capable of launching a communications satellite, Clint Eastwood is also a big fan of jazz music, and a pretty darned good director. In this film, he marries these loves together (well, the directing and the jazz music anyway) to create a terrific home theater experience. The kill ratio is pretty low, but it's got a lot of other things going for it.
The novel is based pretty closely on reality, so most of the people portrayed in the film are still alive and kicking, and the Savannah locations portrayed in the book are mostly those actually used in the shooting of the film. In a couple of cases, folks written about in the novel portray themselves in the film.
John Kelso, played by John Cusack (Grosse Pointe Blank, The Road to Wellville, Floundering) is a Yankee reporter who is hired by Town and Country magazine to cover the Christmas party of Jim Williams, played by Kevin Spacey (Hurlyburly, The Usual Suspects, L.A. Confidential.) Williams is 'new money' who's grown wealthy by buying up antiques and homes from the local old money as the wells have dried up. He is a world-class host, and his parties are legendary.
Kelso arrives in town, expecting just a straight mercenary gig, which will be written up in a 500-word piece of journalistic fluff that hardly anyone will read anyway. But, it's money and it's not terribly hard money. So first it's off to meet Williams, who gives him the quick tour and incidentally sets up a lot of the plot background. We learn that Williams' house was built by the grandfather of the songwriter Johnny Mercer, a patron saint of lounge jazz and mega-prolific songwriter, who is buried there in Savannah.
Eastwood uses this connection to make up almost the entire soundtrack of the film out of Johnny Mercer songs. I'm not a big fan of that style of music, but I have to say that they are presented so well and sound so good on this DVD that I was tempted to go make a martini and put on some shades. Many popular vocalists of yesterday and today sing the versions on the soundtrack, including Rosemary Clooney, K.D. Lang, Paula Cole, and evidently (though I didn't notice it at the time, which I guess is a good thing) Eastwood and Spacey each give it a go. The songs used as the backing for the menus in particular are spine tinglers, with soft music and throaty female vocals.
Anyway, back to the plot at hand…After having covered the party, and having met some of the more flamboyant specimens of Savannah nightlife, Kelso goes back to his room to get some sleep before his flight out in the morning. But sirens and yells awaken him across the street. He runs over to discover that Williams has shot to death Billy Carl Hanson, played by Jude Law (eXistenZ, Gattaca, The Talented Mr. Ripley), who earlier that night had made a drunken scene and threatened Williams.
At this point Kelso calls his agent and tells him to forget the party write-up, that Savannah is like "Gone with the Wind on mescaline" and that he wants to stay and write a book about the place. As a way to get into the action, he approaches Williams and Williams' attorney about helping out with the investigation in return for the right to write a book about the events. Williams agrees and Kelso becomes a private dick, trying to work out the details of the murder and to free Williams, for whom he has developed a good bit of respect and admiration.
Among the folks he meets in his explorations, the most flowery is The Lady Chablis, played by the actual person, Frank "Chablis" Devau. Chablis is an over the top cross dresser who does regular comedy shows at a local club. Chablis also has knowledge of Billy Hanson, and Kelso finds her very interesting, so he ends up dealing with her quite a lot. In one particularly funny scene, Chablis shows up at a black debutante ball that Kelso is invited to, and embarrasses him in the extreme.
Another character is Minerva, played by Irma P. Hall (A Family Thing, Patch Adams, Soul Food) the local voodoo priestess. Though Williams is no fool, he likes to cover all his bases and he involves Minerva in the case to help him with his mojo I assume. Minerva's office is the local cemetery, where Williams and Kelso meet her to work out his spiritual issues, and she also propels the story along in a number of ways by saying the right things at the right time.
Though the novel had no love interest for Kelso, this is Hollywood so the insurance backers require a love interest. Hence the character of Mandy Nichols, played by Clint's daughter Alison Eastwood (Absolute Power, Friends and Lovers, Black * White) was introduced for that reason. There were some complaints, as I remember, that she didn't really have the acting chops to pull it off, and was just there because she's daddy's girl. But I think she did a pretty good job, and she certainly is very nice to look at. As it happens, Mandy is a singer in a local lounge that she runs with local lounge lizard deluxe Joe Odom, played by Paul Hipp (Lethal Weapon 3, China Girl, Face/Off.) Yet still more set up for some smoky jazz singing, which I believe that Alison sings herself.
From there the plot progresses through the twists and turns of the trial, Kelso's attempts to find the truth, his growing understanding of Williams' secret life, and his deepening emotional attachment to Mandy. I won't cover the rest of the plot details since this is a mystery flick and I don't want to ruin it for you.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic video, except for some small shortcomings, is overall quite impressive. Flesh tones in particular, on my system at least, were rendered very well, and the shadow details and resolution were excellent. The locations are quite lush, as are the antique and wood laden interiors as well, so it's quite a treat for the eyes.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital audio is not a surround-fest, but it's well recorded and the surrounds are used to provide ambience that never distracts you away from the visuals. As mentioned above, the musical bits sound very good, and might have you chewing olives at the local fern bar if you aren't careful.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This is a special edition disc, and it has a good number of entries in the special features menu. However, almost all of them are purely text oriented. The only one that is really interesting is the tour through the local scene, where we meet some of the people portrayed in the film. It uses a little map of the downtown area where the film was made, over which you can cursor and select particular buildings where action occurred. I was though disappointed not to have a commentary track on this one, since I'm sure there was a lot more back story that could have been imparted.
Other than that, I don't have much bad to say about this film or its packaging on the DVD. Perhaps the audio could have been a little more exploitative of the surround system, but it's not a biggie in this otherwise very engaging film.
If you like a good southern mystery, or you just like to sip martinis in your slippers and bathrobe, this might be a good DVD for you to check out. The story is quite well done, with enough twists and turns to keep you interested, the characters are memorable, and the DVD is sufficiently technically well wrought to keep the delivery vehicle from getting in the way of your enjoyment of the contents.
Kevin Spacey and John Cusack are both excellent actors and they come off very well together here. And the other players all generally perform to par as well. The extras are mostly locals, so the vibe is very authentic. Jude Law is also a powerful and versatile actor, but his screen time in this film is relatively light. I would have never recognized him as the character from Gattaca had I not checked his credits for this review.
Even having seen this disc a number of times before—I purchased it for myself a good while back—I still enjoyed it thoroughly when revisiting it for this review. This is a good sign that it has the right stuff. Now if ya'll excuse me, it's time for my cigar and brandy on the veranda.
Acquitted, since I'm trading in my Judge's robes for a zoot suit.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Production Notes
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