Mulholland Falls made an audible thud! on its release, and remains a beautifully cast and mounted production in search of a decent script. In 1996 it seemed a failed Chinatown wannabe, and just one year later was completely buried by the similar L.A. Confidential, which charted the fates of similar characters but was ten times the movie.
The shocking thing is that the cast is so good; eight years later it's highly enjoyable just to watch unerachievers like Melanie Griffith, Jennifer Connelly and Michael Madsen give terrific performances. Critics faulted the choice of director, the Kiwi wunderkind Lee Tamahori, but it has to be noted that there's little to fault in the scenes where characters face off - one brief confrontation between Griffith and her wayward husband Nick Nolte is stunningly good. No, the whole problem with Mulholland Falls is the story. The mystery is so obvious that our detective heroes should have solved it in a few minutes, and the revelation that nefarious and arrogant Army officers are responsible is neither interesting nor resonant. Kiss Me Deadly linked detectives and atomic crime to make a social statement half a century ago; this movie settles for a bland mystery.
Robert Towne's script for Chinatown floored us when a petty land-grab conspiracy in the early 30s suddenly bloomed into a kind of Original Californian Sin, the granddaddy of rip-offs that founded Los Angeles as a major metropolis. Evil Noah Cross (with a name that shouts water + betrayal) gloats over the reason why he's cheated and killed: He's making a grab for The Future, our future.
Mulholland Falls has the look and the location feel of 1954 LA down pat (thank Richard Sylbert's slick colors and 50s designs for that) but it has no resonance. The characters don't seem to be living in any particular place or living credible lies. The movie rushes in a big hurry to get to the next plot point, the next sex scene or violent tangle. Lots of characters move through but only the few leads stick. William L. Petersen, Bruce Dern and Louise Fletcher have only one scene or a couple shots each, and aren't allowed to take up space.
As with the worst of detective movies, we're introduced to a series of characters that have "next victim" written all over them, but our expert cop heroes never seem to catch on. They also don't really have a motive for their actions, but instead react to events. Nick Nolte's formidable top cop knows there's an incriminating sex film out there of him making it with good time girl Jennifer Connelly, but never dreams that the unscrupulous bad guys would do something like send it anonymously to his wife.
Mulholland Falls is about very interesting characters, the self-appointed violence unit that reportedly kept LA out of the hands of the mob in this early part of the 1950s (some people claim that they kept it secure for a few entrenched mobsters). They're really thugs and goons. The script has no problem showing them using mayhem to 'influence' aspiring criminals, their cynical gag of choice being tossing hoods over Mulholland Falls, a steep, rough cliff in the Hollywood Hills. For the film's 'meeting cute' flashback scene, Nolte gives a nasty hood what looks like a lethal dose of drugs, while Connelly looks on approvingly. How romantic - while standing over they body, they immediately realize they were made for each other over the body. It's difficult to invest completely in a character that murders people while wearing a badge. That harms the film's best scenes, the ones where Nolte relates to his faithful and betrayed wife.
The atomic conspiracy plot hook yanks these LA types out to the desert, where they seem even more out of place. Nolte and company get irked when they're denied entry to the top-secret bomb base (surprise). When they trespass onto a bomb site, the movie gets some nice images but does nothing but show our four heroes as a pack of thugs who don't like it when they don't get their way. And what do they really learn? Nolte already knows that Allison was involved with the top Atom general. She must have been killed by somebody on the atom base because of the piece of radioactive silicon in her foot.
So we have to be content with what Mulholland Falls does right, which can be found in its close-quarters acting. The group solidarity of the Hat Squad is attractive; we'd be ready for a sequel with these guys if the film hadn't knocked off a key character. Nolte shines throughout. Melanie Griffiths was never better (and seems to be made up to look older than she was). Jennifer Connelly is a curvaceous dream girl right from the 'headlight' obsessed year that saw the introduction of Playboy. Chazz Palmintieri is a soulful best buddy and John Malkovich an addled bomb builder who has discovered hot sex as his winter passion. Unfortunately, Malkovich's central speech about atoms and all matter being mostly empty space seems a more apt description of the screenplay than anything else.
Only Treat Williams is cheated, saddled with a one-note Army bad guy character too petty (and too obvious) to be the source of all the mystery.
Savant has seen a transferred workprint of Mulholland Falls that's about two reels longer than the released version. It has a lot of minor connective tissue that fleshes out the day-to-day reality of the cops' lives, but would also have bogged down the film's pace. There's a lot more of the sex scenes as well. But more important to the finished film are the opening and closing of the story, both of which were chopped up for the final cut.
The beginning of the movie shows Andrew McCarthy's 16mm films of happy Las Vegas tourists witnessing an atom explosion. The rough cut adds several unfinished bluescreen shots of the guests watching the mushroom cloud as if it were going off only a few miles away. I believe in reality the testing grounds were about 150 miles distant, and what the gawkers could see was a bright light in the the sky, especially at night. I was six when my parents visited relatives in Henderson, Nevada. Some kind of test was going to detonate at one in the morning, but try as I might I couldn't stay awake.
Note that at the end of the movie there is some dialogue about another bomb test that's only one hour away. The last scene in the desert, with Nolte hugging Palmintieri on the ground, continues for a few seconds in the rough cut. Instead of a volley of gunfire at a funeral, a nuclear blast is detonated in the background and the two detectives are engulfed in light and dust. Then the scene dissolves to the funeral. I can only presume that the filmmakers decided at the last minute to take out as much of the atom detail as possible, as the film already had enough. When I saw the rough cut ending I was prompted to laugh. That mushroom cloud looked pretty close, but Nolte is in great shape at the funeral. Did the Air Force and Army let just him walk away from one crashed plane and four corpses? Two of them were "resolved," as James Mason once put it, "from a great height."
The rough cut also included a moment that made it seem that Max and Katherine were going to get back together. That would have made the movie just a double-downer instead of a triple-downer.
It's odd how similar Mulholland Falls is to LA Confidential, and how much more successful the later film is. The cops in Confidential are actually more corrupt, but we like all of them because they have distinctive styles: the thug, the showbiz wannabe, the eager beaver. More importantly, each has a plan for their lives and want to advance in their own crooked ways. The movie acknowledges rampant racism and a fully-saturated mob presence in LA and doesn't try to pretend that the cops stand apart from either. And all the cultural details - Hush-Hush magazine, the Badge of Honor TV show, freeways being built, city councilmen on the take - are much more central to the LA scene than Mulholland Falls' overreaching non-statement about atomic oppression.
Around the time of the Hanging Munchkin hysteria, Savant actually got a pile of email asking about the UFO in the beach scene with Andrew McCarthy. If you watch the scene again, one of the single angles on McCarthy shows a blurry white object behind him in the sky. One shot. One *%! blurry object. It's an out-of-focus seagull, for pity's sake.
MGM's DVD of Mulholland Falls shows how highly it is regarded by the studio - it's plainwrap except for a trailer. The track is mixed in 5.1 surround. The flipper disc has a good 1:85 enhanced transfer on one side, and one of those compromised half-aspect ratio TV scans on the other. I think one of the thumbnail images on the back is of Rob Lowe, who the IMDB says plays an uncredited bit.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Mulholland Falls rates: