Mulholland Falls Review

Los Angeles. 1953. Detective Max Hoover (Nolte) is head of the Hat Squad, a task force given special license to rid the city of gangsters and hoodlums, consisting of himself, his partner Coolidge (Palminteri), the oft-married Hall (Madsen) and taciturn Relyea (Penn). They are a tough group of men, used to dealing out instance justice with their fists, rather than through negotiation and lengthy paperwork. On the same day the horribly broken body of a beautiful young girl, Allison Pond (Connelly) is found mashed into the ground of a building site, a reel of film is sent to Hoover which shows her frolicking with General Timms (Malkovich), chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. The sender turns out to be Jimmy Fields (McCarthy), a 'fruit' and friend of the girl, who has secretly recorded her assignations with Timms and a variety of lovers, one of whom, it transpires, is Hoover himself. Soon Fields is dead and someone has sent Hoover's wife (Griffith) film of him with Allison. As the FBI turn up in L.A to warn Hoover off the case, it transpires he's in much more trouble than he thought at first. He stands to lose his friends, his wife and... maybe... his life!

Sorry, but the melodramatic précis is in keeping with the film's noir style and, make no mistake, 'Mulholland Falls' has all the makings of a terrific noir thriller. Firstly there's its extraordinary cast, which gives us one of the most believable tough cop quartets of all time, a veritable four Hat Men of the Apocalypse. Then there's the handsome photography by the legendary Haskell Wexler, which brings every fedora rim and tanned inch of Californian flesh into focus with breathtaking clarity. Add some compelling action set pieces and a twisty plot that keeps you guessing and one would think that the film was a winner.

Unfortunately these elements are let down by a clumsy and unconvincing script and an overall lack of involvement that ultimately proves isolating. It's not a lack of action per se that's the problem here; as befitting the director of the incendiary 'Once Were Warriors', the fight scenes are punchy (sorry) and thrilling and the shoot-outs effective. But there's a worrying variation in tone throughout, as the script tries to awkwardly by turns inject humour (a running gag about Palminteri seeing a psychiatrist doesn't improve through repetition) and sentiment, without providing the necessary backstory to make it believable.

In the end, the film's stellar cast even proves something of a burden. It's odd to find performers as seasoned as Treat Williams and Bruce Dern in blink-and-you'll-miss-them bit parts. The key foursome, while perfectly cast, don't get a lot of screen time and their interactions are prosaic at best. The combined weight of this latent thespian talent sits in the body of the film like an undigested meal, disorientating the viewer. Also, while the visuals are gorgeous, the screenplay is oddly static, shifting from scene to scene with little grace, giving the film as a whole the look and feel of an episode of Michael Mann's late 80s TV drama 'Crime Story'. I suspect Tamahori would have preferred comparisons to 'Chinatown' and 'L.A Confidential', and can only put it down to Pete Dexter, who wrote the screenplay and co-wrote the story. Interestingly, one of the film's undoubted strengths, its superb appearance, stems from the work of legendary production designer Richard Sylbert, who worked on 'Chinatown' and makes a cameo appearance in 'Mulholland Falls' as the coroner.

While the cast list is over-stuffed, that's not to say there's anything wrong with the actors. Nolte is never less than convincing and he's predictably excellent as the hard-drinking, cosh-wielding Hoover. In the Nolte mold, the man's outward violence belies an inner weakness; throughout the film he's consuming cigarettes and alcohol and lashing out brutally, as if trying to staunch or avoid some inner pain. It's Nolte's special gift to give a brutal, hard-faced bastard like Hoover a kind of transparency, allowing the audience to see that the rage which fuels him stems somehow from self-hatred as much as an aggrieved sense of fairness. This is a man who, given a slight change of circumstances, could just as easily be on the other side of the law.

Connelly, for her part, could scarcely be more lovely. If Kim Basinger in 'L.A Confidential' was supposed to look “…better than Veronica Lake” according to the eagle-eyed Bud, then this writer will claim that Connelly’s appearance here makes a mockery of the full-figured, auburn-haired legacy of Rita Hayworth. Her role here is part of what one might term her early career, before the birth of her first child caused her to begin changing the type of projects she worked on, from sexy thrillers like ‘The Hot Spot’ and ‘Mulholland Falls’ to challenging, character-driven drama such as ‘House of Sand and Fog’ and ‘Requiem for a Dream’ (ok and ‘Hulk’ too). It’s interesting to compare her performance here, where she’s emotionally committed but still slightly out of touch with the material, to her Oscar-winning part in ‘A Beautiful Mind’ where she’s much more confident and at ease onscreen, visibly having a much deeper understanding of the character.

This is generally a very fine looking transfer from MGM. The colours are rich and the blacks during the several dark indoor sequences are adequate. During several flashback sequences, a frankly overdone filter effect is used that makes everything blurry, but this can't really be blamed on the transfer.

The 5.1 mix does credit to the excellent sound design: the crunch of fist in face resounds crisply, the deafening report of guns has a richness and Dave Grusin's rather limp score is nevertheless conveyed warmly.

Sadly, only the original theatrical trailer is included on the disk.

'Mulholland Falls' has the air of a missed opportunity, providing all the component parts for a cracking noir thriller without ever really bringing them together in a dynamic, innovative way. The film comes on a double sided disk, with the widescreen presentation on one side and the full screen version on the other. There is a R2 version available and I don't know how this transfer compares to that one, although as far as I can tell it shares the lack of extras.

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