There are films from late in the great directors' careers which inspire passionate devotion among the more avid fans, films for which excuses have to be made, and films which inspire pained embarrassment. For me, the late films of Blake Edwards sometimes fall into all three camps, but then some of his earlier films do too: Mickey Rooney's enthusiastic personation of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's must surely cause pangs of discomfort to even the most devoted admirers of Audrey Hepburn.
Sunset (1988) perhaps has the edge on some the films immediately before and after, because it's clearly inspired by real love, not so much of movies or movie people, but what Alan Rudolph has called "movie-ness." Let's unpick that.
The loose and unsatisfying plot involves the 1929 murder of a Hollywood madam at a brothel where the prostitutes are styled to resemble movie stars (cue truly cringe-worthy don't-look-alikes and anachronistic appearances by clones whose originals hadn't made movies yet, like Mae West). Screenwriter Garson Kanin documented such an establishment in his unreliable memoir Hollywood, and James Ellroy later riffed on the theme in L.A. Confidential.
Investigating the crime are legendary lawman Wyatt Earp (James Garner, reprising his role from Hour of the Gun), officially in town to advise on a movie of the OK Corral gunfight, and western star Tom Mix (Bruce Willis, fresh from Edwards' Blind Date, and producing the film through his company, Hudson Hawk Pictures). Mixed up in the case are unusual suspects such as a sadistic studio boss called Alfie Alperin, played by Malcolm McDowell with a wildly wandering accent. The surname may suggest an 'omage to the 'elmer of White Zombie, Victor Halperin, but the character is a former comedian famous for playing a tramp, so the true reference is something closer to Edwards' own career in slapstick. I can't see why Edwards should want to portray Chaplin quite so nastily as he does here, but I'm assuming it has something to do with his own deep ambivalence about his Pink Panther output.
If you've experienced (suffered through?) the remarkably foul and acerbic S.O.B., you know that Edwards had plenty of bile stored up about the film industry, but aside from the portrayal of the Chaplinesque rotter, it's largely absent here. Sunset is, as the title suggests, nostalgic and fuzzy about the early days of the business (the setting allows the first Academy Awards to be used as a backdrop for a shoot-out, but no vicious satire is created by the juxtaposition).
Edwards seems to miss a trick by eschewing the possibilities of conflict between real-deal gunslinger Earp and Hollywood phony Mix, allowing his characters to immediately settle into laid-back friendliness. Earp gets involved in the case to help an old girlfriend, and Mix tags along for no good reason save a desire to be a real hero, maybe.
Edwards cross-cuts between a reconstruction of the OK Corral massacre and Earp's memories of it, and the surprise is that the "real" version is more stylized, abstract and movie-ized than the fake, all Peckinpah slomo and blood capsules.
The design of the 20s sets and costumes goes for glossy verisimilitude but the script willfully jettisons historicity and doesn't even try to throw in smart references for the buffs. It's as if they're afraid of mentioning anybody some of the 1980s audience might not be familiar with. A shame.
Garner is pretty wonderful, anchoring everything with his cowboy aura of decency backed with menace. Willis is pretty interesting, pushing the smirking arrogance side of his persona about as far as it can go without popping through the screen into our laps, even though this isn't tied to anything in the script, which doesn't really give Mix much character at all. He also seems to really enjoy wearing the "candy-ass" costumes of a matinee idol cowboy, and gets two striking visual sequences that show Edwards' hasn't lost his touch as far as inventive gags and elegant mise en scène are concerned.
The other thing Willis seems to be enjoying is his co-stars. For all his preening, he has a disarming appreciation for what everybody else is doing, and this makes him likable: his own biggest fan, certainly, but a big fan of his co-stars too. He also seems quite happy entering into the spirit of camp which suffuses the film, with its ass-grabs and crotch-grabs and Mariel Hemingway in a tuxedo. All of this is heavily alibied in a manner reminiscent of the days of the Production Code, so that the only real gay character is a fiendish lesbian (played by Edwards' daughter Jennifer) and all the camp comes with plausible deniability. It's very much there, though.
Where the particular love of "movie-ness" comes into play is not the reconstruction of old-time filmmaking (the film begins with a gigantic western stagecoach chase which turns about to be a movie scene somehow filmed by a single locked-off camera a mile from the action) but in the evocation of the naive spirit of that filmmaking, down to the obvious doubling of Willis's horseback stunts. Sunset is one of those films aiming to be one of those films they don't make them like anymore, only now it belongs to a historic school of nostalgia, along with Bogdanovich's Nickelodeon: it's become one of those films they don't make them like anymore.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.