They say timing is everything and this certainly applies to the release and reception of movies. Case in point: Mulholland Falls (1996). Released a year before the very similar L.A. Confidential (1997), it was also a retro-neo-noir set in 1950s Los Angeles and featured a murder mystery leading to a vast conspiracy. However, Falls was promptly blasted by the critics and quickly disappeared from theaters while Confidential became the toast of critics and received awards from all over the world. So, what went wrong? Falls featured an impressive cast of solid character actors (it had more name actors than Confidential) and a critically acclaimed director with Once Were Warriors’ Lee Tamahori as opposed to Confidential’s Curtis Hanson who had only done adequate B-movies like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992) and The River Wild (1994). Now that a few years have passed, Mulholland Falls has aged surprisingly well.
Set in 1953, the first image is one of a mushroom cloud from an atomic bomb explosion. It is one of the enduring images from that era and one that hangs like a shadow over the characters and events in the film. Max Hoover (Nick Nolte) leads a group of four cops known as The Hat Squad who do things their own way, like bullying out-of-town gangsters and dropping them off one of the deserted stretches of Mulholland Drive (aka “Mulholland Falls”) as a deterrent for setting up shop in L.A. One day, Max and his crew – Coolidge (Chazz Palminteri), Eddie (Michael Madsen) and Relyea (Chris Penn) – go out to a construction site to investigate the murder of a beautiful woman (Jennifer Connelly) who has been literally pressed into the ground. There is a shock of recognition on Max’s world-weary face. His connection to the dead girl and his subsequent investigation into her murder leads to a dangerous conspiracy involving the United States government and a mysterious General Timms (John Malkovich), head of the Atomic Energy Commission.
After the success of Once Were Warriors, Tamahori was offered many projects before finally choosing Mulholland Falls. Michael Mann was originally attached to the film but left at some point. One of the first things that is so striking about this film is the gorgeous attention to detail with vintage cars, suits and music from the period. This is enhanced by the gorgeous cinematography of the legendary Haskell Wexler who evokes classic film noir in every frame of Mulholland Falls. Tamahori assembled an impressive crew including the likes of production designer Richard Sylbert, who worked on Chinatown (1974) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and Wexler, who won an Academy Award for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and worked One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and In the Heat of the Night (1967) amongst others.
Tamahori says that people within the industry were surprised that he hired veterans like Sylbert and Wexler and realized that Hollywood was being run by young executives: “It’s a kind of youth-oriented thing, and—blast, blam, blam, blam, make the action for the under-25-year-old crowd. Do this, do that, you’ve got to be on top, you have to be fast. They see age as being old and boring.” Mulholland Falls consciously eschews this approach for a slower paced, more thoughtful vibe that harkens back to films made before music videos and their kinetic editing changed the way films were made in Hollywood.
With his gravelly voice and weathered good looks, Nick Nolte is well cast as the conflicted tough guy, Max Hoover. If there is one significant problem with the film it is the lack of screen time given to the excellent members his crew. They are given little time to develop their characters with only Chazz Palminteri edging out the others. Palminteri plays Nolte’s best friend and second-in-command. He’s the most sensitive of the bunch (although, that’s not saying much) because he’s seeing a female psychiatrist and this makes him the voice of reason, often curbing Max’s more self-destructive impulses. Tamahori met Burt Reynolds and Tom Arnold for the role of Coolidge but felt that Reynolds was a little old for the role.
Little time is devoted to developing the chemistry between them. The filmmakers should have used The Untouchables (1987) as inspiration – although, the crucial difference is that in Brian De Palma’s film we see how Eliot Ness and his crew come together while in Mulholland Falls, Max and his group have been together for some time. Pete Dexter’s screenplay doesn’t do a good enough job making us believe that they are a tight-knit crew. That being said, the chemistry between Nolte and Palminteri begins to kick in towards the end of the film but it is too little, too late.
The casting of actresses Jennifer Connelly and Melanie Griffith is right on the money as they both have the voluptuous body type common to that era, especially Connelly who has curves in all the right places and that were also used to great effect in The Rocketeer (1991). Sadly, Connelly and Griffith aren’t given too much screen time but this does give Connelly’s character something of an ethereal, mysterious quality that is quite haunting and works well in the film.
John Malkovich essays yet another one of his cultured bad guy roles as General Timms. The first meeting between him and Nolte is good as we watch two different acting styles bounce off each other. Timms tries to dazzle Hoover with philosophical double speak while the cop plays dumb but subtly applies pressure on the scientist. What is so interesting about this scene is what is not being said. Watching this film again, I was struck by the eclectic cast featuring the likes of Treat Williams, Andrew McCarthy, Bruce Dern, Daniel Baldwin, William Petersen, and Rob Lowe.
There is somber tone that hangs over Mulholland Falls and the ending is refreshingly downbeat (unlike the very classic Hollywood ending of L.A. Confidential) evoking Chinatown of which it was most often compared to. Like any good noir protagonist, Max’s shattered life stays shattered. The murder has been solved but at a terrible cost to his own life. While Falls is a flawed film and certainly not as strong as Confidential, it is not an awful effort by any means and actually has a lot of merits. It is definitely worth another look if you haven’t seen it since it debuted or if you’ve never seen it before.