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The Los Angeles crime saga classic of the 1990s is hands-down L.A. Confidential. James Ellroy's sprawling tale of corruption in our dear City of the Angels is the one that'll be remembered fifty years from now. Just the year before in 1996, the somewhat similar Mulholland Falls dropped dead as a doornail on release. It remains a beautifully cast and mounted production in search of a decent script, but viewers looking for a nostalgic return to a Chinatown experience were sorely disappointed.
The shocking thing is that the cast is so good. It's highly enjoyable just to watch underachievers like Melanie Griffith, Jennifer Connelly and Michael Madsen give terrific performances. Critics faulted the choice of director, the Kiwi wunderkind Lee Tamahori, but it needs 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 for sex killings is neither interesting nor resonant. Kiss Me Deadly linked detectives and atomic crime to make a social statement that in 1955 was both profound and visionary, this movie doesn't begin to connect the dots.
LAPD Detectives Max Hoover, Elleroy Coolidge, Eddie Hall and Arthur Relyea (Nick Nolte, Chazz Palmintieri, Michael Madsen & Chris Penn) are the 'Hat Squad,' an unofficial detail that uses intimidation and flagrant mayhem to keep the city free of organized crime. Max's life blows up when he discovers that Allison (Jennifer Connelly), a woman he'd been sleeping with, has been murdered under extremely odd circumstances, and that secret movies exist of her lovemaking with the famous general Thomas Timms (John Malkovich), the head of the Atomic Energy Commission. It's only a matter of time before another film surfaces showing Allison having sex with Max, and Max dreads the impact it will have on his loving wife Katherine (Melanie Griffith). Meanwhile, material witnesses end up murdered in suspiciously military ways, the FBI warns the Hat Squad off the case, and all roads lead out to an atom testing base in Nevada.
Robert Towne's script for Chinatown floored us when a petty land-grab conspiracy in the early '30s suddenly bloomed into a story of Original California 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, the future we live in today, where everything of value around us was spoken for by dirty deals made long before we were born.
With Richard Sylbert's slick colors and '50s designs Mulholland Falls has the look and the location feel of 1954 L.A. down pat. But it has no resonance. The characters don't seem to be living in any particular place or living credible lives. The movie rushes in a big hurry to get to the next plot point, the next sex scene or violent tangle. Characters drift through but only the few leads stick. William L. Petersen, Bruce Dern and Louise Fletcher have only one scene or a couple shots each. It's like they aren't being allowed to take up space, as if the picture won't relax long enough to tell it's own story.
As is the common with detective movies, we're introduced to a series of characters that have "next victim" written all over them, and our expert cop heroes never seem to catch on. They also don't act in an assertive manner, but instead only react to events. We assemble the clues faster than they do. 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. Yet he never imagines that the unscrupulous bad guys might do something like send it anonymously to his wife.
Mulholland Falls also falls short as history. The self-appointed violence unit called the Hat Squad purportedly kept L.A .out of the hands of the mob in this early part of the 1950s, but decades earlier it was established that their real role was to keep the town's vice rackets secure for a few entrenched mobsters. Nolte and his Hat Squad are really thugs and goons, but the movie doesn't really question their illegal procedures. The script has no problem showing them using mayhem to 'influence' aspiring criminals, their persuader of choice being tossing hoods over Mulholland Falls, a steep, rough cliff in the Hollywood Hills. The most we get is Chazz Palminteri's likeable character saying, "I thought we weren't doing that any more". 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: the cop and the call girl realize they were made for each other while standing over a fresh corpse. It's difficult to invest completely in a character who 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 L.A. types out to the desert, where they seem even more out of place. Nolte and company are 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 to explain why our four thug-heroes think what they're doing is no big deal. 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. The show has the Hat Squad pushing around gangsters and even FBI men, murdering a few outright and putting many more into the hospital, with no negative repercussions. At the fade-out we have no explanation for why Nolte's top cop is still at liberty... one would think that J. Edgar Hoover, Hap Arnold and Edward Teller would all want his hide nailed to the wall. I suppose the real problem is that the movie's images of L.A. crime and government misdeeds don't really intersect. It also asserts that the LAPD wasn't really in cahoots with the local mobsters, which doesn't wash.
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, considering that all they do is strut around looking cool and beat up on the local hoods. Michael Madsen is given little to do through the whole picture but pose and light cigarettes, but he always looks good. Nolte shines throughout, and his buddy relationship with Chazz Palminteri's character has great potential. We'd have been ready for a sequel with these guys if the film hadn't knocked off a key character. Melanie Griffiths seems to be made up to look older than she was. Her scenes with Nolte are some of her best work. Jennifer Connelly is a curvaceous dream girl right from the 'headlight'- obsessed year that saw the introduction of Playboy. John Malkovich is an addled bomb builder and genuine Atomic Playboy who has discovered hot sex as his winter passion. Of course, being a scientist he's also an aloof sociopath who discounts the value of human life. His speech about atoms and all matter being mostly empty doesn't go anywhere interesting.
Fine actor Treat Williams rarely found a worthwhile film role. He's saddled playing a one-note Army bad guy far too petty (and too obvious) to be the source of all the mystery.
Savant has seen a transferred earlier cut of Mulholland Falls in work print form that's about fourteen minutes longer than the final film. It is not finished and is not an alternate version that includes a lot of minor connective tissue. It enhances the day-to-day reality of the cops' lives, but also enforces a slower pace in a story that already lacks forward momentum. The sex scenes are longer 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 rough cut begins like the finished film, showing Andrew McCarthy's 16mm footage of happy Las Vegas tourists witnessing an atom explosion.But it also includes several unfinished bluescreen shots of the guests watching the mushroom cloud as if it were going off only a few miles away. I believe that in reality the testing grounds were about 150 miles distant from Vegas, and that in daytime the most the gawkers could see was a bright light in the the sky.
Note that at the end of the movie we hear dialogue about another bomb test that's only one hour away. The last scene in the desert, with Nolte hugging Palminteri on the ground, continues for a few seconds longer 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 that the film already had too much business with atom bombs, and maybe the final effect wasn't convincing. Also, by that time the plane had been in the air so long that the atom test site would have had to be a hundred miles away. 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 of the dead were "resolved," as James Mason once put it, "from a great height" and the pilot was shot in the head.
The rough cut expanded the relationship of the Nolte and Griffith characters. I think it also explained that the reason an LAPD detective not on the take could live in such a nice house, is that Griffith's Katherine came from a wealthy family. The finish included more dialogue that suggested that a separated couple would eventually get back together. That would have made the movie only a double-downer instead of a triple-downer. As it is, I'm afraid that the major reason for the film's continued popularity goes back to the plentiful nude scenes with Ms. Connelly -- the film is imbued with the spirit of Bunny Yeager and Russ Meyer.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Mulholland Falls is a beautiful transfer of this handsomely shot thriller. Close-ups look great, and those desert vistas open the film up nicely ... and relate to Palminteri's dialogue about loving cowboy pictures as a kid. The movie also has an impressive plane crash -- if it weren't for the existence of CGI to remove objects in the frame, I'd swear that that DC-3 actually did a belly landing. The restaurant with the canopied driveway that the Hat Squad roughs up stood abandoned for years in the Mid-Wilshire district, at about Wilshire and Norton. I got to Los Angeles in 1970, long after all the '40s and '50s hot spots faded from the scene.
The Blu-ray has a 5.1 audio track and English subs, but the only extra is a trailer.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Mulholland Falls Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.