Appellate Judge Dave Ryan knows the secret of good film noir: it's all in the hats.
"This is L.A. This is my town. Out here, you're a trespasser. Out here, I can pick you up, burn your house, f—k your wife, and kill your dog. And the only thing that will protect you is if I don't find you. And I've already found you."
Mulholland Falls, a neo-noir drama from director Lee Tamahori (The Edge, Die Another Day) and screenwriter Peter Dexter (Rush, Paris Trout, Michael), has all the ingredients for success: a killer cast, plenty of period '50s atmosphere, sex, violence, and Jennifer Connelly's exceedingly ample thorax al fresco. So why does it fall a bit flat? It's the story, dollface…
Facts of the Case
It's 1953, and Max Hoover (Nick Nolte, Affliction) is living large. As the head of an elite four-man task force within the Los Angeles Police Department that answers only to the Chief himself (Bruce Dern, in one of several uncredited cameos), he can do whatever he sees fit to do in his efforts to keep crime out of the city—including killing the occasional bad guy in his way. Keeping the home fires burning is his wife Katherine (Melanie Griffith, Working Girl), the prototypical Good Wife.
We first meet Hoover and his squad (Chazz Palminteri, Michael Madsen, and Chris Penn) as they're roughing up a mid-level Chicago mobster (William Peterson, CSI). They take him to "Mulholland Falls"—a cliffside on Mulholland Drive in the Hollywood hills—and give him a "ride" down it. He doesn't enjoy it in the least, of course.
Trouble begins when the mangled corpse of a beautiful young woman (Connelly) is found at a subdivision under construction. Although her battered and broken body makes it looks as if she's taken a ride down Mulholland Falls herself, the coroner finds that her body had not been moved—she died right there in the subdivision's dirt. We soon learn that the girl's name is (was) Allison Pond, and that she's Hoover's former mistress.
The next day, a spool of 16mm film arrives at the police station in an unmarked envelope, addressed to Hoover. The film shows Allison in "action" with yet another lover, whom Hoover does not recognize. Also included with the film is a handwritten phone number.
Hoover discovers that the film was sent by Allison's friend Jimmy Fields (Andrew McCarthy, Mannequin), who was also the cameraman. Jimmy, who was also Allison's neighbor, had been secretly filming her trysts through a one-way mirror. Now, Allison's dead, his apartment has been trashed, and he's scared witless.
Fields points the finger at the mystery man in the film, who turns out to be an Army general named Thomas Timms (John Malkovich, Rounders). Timms is one of the Fathers of the Atomic Bomb, and currently heads the Atomic Energy Commission. Hoover attempts to question Timms, but runs up against his ramrod-stiff subordinate Col. Fitzgerald (Treat Williams, Hair) instead. Hoover isn't used to being thwarted in his investigations, and pursues the general via…alternative methods.
But Timms is more powerful than Hoover had anticipated, and the FBI—in the form of a Special Agent named McCafferty (Daniel Baldwin, Homicide: Life on the Street)—is brought in to impede his snooping.
Will the murder of fair Allison ever be solved?
Ultimately, the biggest flaw Mulholland Falls had was bad timing. It's really not a bad film at all—but compared to Brian Singer's The Usual Suspects, which preceded it by a year, and Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential, which followed it in 1997, it's a distant also-ran.
Mulholland Falls pushes all the correct neo-noir buttons—it's got the requisite tributes to Chinatown and other noir classics, the bad cops, the buxom babes, a smooth jazz score (courtesy of jazz pianist Dave Grusin), and solidly gruff, masculine male leads. What it doesn't have is the zippy, twisty plot that makes for great film noir. The film meanders along in a very linear fashion. There aren't any real surprises in the story; everything pretty much plays out exactly the way you'd expect. There's also a decided lack of conflict in the story. Potential foils for Hoover, such as the FBI agent, wind up being relatively impotent. The big "secret" revealed at the end isn't particularly interesting, and certainly isn't a satisfying payoff for the film. There's plenty of style here, but in the end, there's just no substance.
An examination of the lost potential of one character—Jimmy Fields—is illuminating. We quickly learn that Fields is Allison's "best friend," and homosexual to boot. She also had no idea that he was filming her. In the world of noir, Jimmy should be a significant part of the plot—there are several ways in which he could have been given a motive to kill her. Maybe he was running a blackmailing scheme, and she caught on. Maybe he really wasn't gay, and killed her in a fit of jealousy. And so on and so forth. But the film paints itself into a corner from the beginning—the very nature of Allison's death eliminates virtually every potential suspect from consideration (if you think about things for a second, that is). So Jimmy's just a McGuffin—and quickly fades from the film after he's served his plot function of getting the film into Hoover's hands. In the end, it doesn't even matter that he's gay, although the film half-heartedly attempts to give that fact some relevance. Finally, Jimmy's limited role is a waste of an exemplary performance from (of all people) Andrew McCarthy (SwitchERRRRRRR!!!!!!), who's positively Kevin Spaceyesque here. So much potential; such disappointing execution.
This is a bare-bones release from MGM; no extras are to be found save for the theatrical trailer. The dual-sided disc gives you your choice of a widescreen or full screen transfer; each has a passable Dolby 5.1 surround mix for audio.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This film has a really fantastic cast. Nolte growls and frets his way through the film like the grizzled veteran he is. All things being equal, I would have preferred to see Madsen in the lead—but I could say that about virtually every film he's been in. He and Palminteri simply don't have enough screen time here—they're great actors who are perfect for this sort of film, but their second-banana-level characters limit how much they can contribute to the piece as a whole. But when they are on the screen, it's usually pretty fun to watch them. (There are some occasional klutzy comic relief scenes, but they're not horrible.) Malkovich is his usual quirky self; he comes across as the bastard spawn of Al Franken and Michael Stipe here. Treat Williams plays his usual "military guy" role, which he always does well. There are a couple of other uncredited cameos besides Peterson and Dern (and it's always good to see Bruce Dern!)—look for quick appearances by Rob Lowe (The West Wing) and Louise Fletcher (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) as well.
The distaff portion of the cast is there just to look good, and to look like they're women from 1953. They certainly achieve that—Griffith comes straight from the Tess Trueheart mold, and Connelly is jaw-droppingly gorgeous.
And really—the story isn't that bad; it's just bad relative to its immediate competition. Just because you can see everything coming from a mile away doesn't mean it isn't fun to watch it all unfold in front of you.
Mulholland Falls isn't the best neo-noir film in the canon, but that doesn't make it a bad film. Fans of the genre really should give it a chance, if they haven't seen it already. Just don't let yourself compare it to The Usual Suspects or L.A. Confidential. Those two films are classics; this one is merely pretty darned good.
The court liked the film, but can't overlook the somewhat unorthodox police tactics by Officer Hoover. The court is afraid he's going to have to do some time for his repeated violations of others' civil rights—unless he could introduce the court to that Connelly gal…
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