Sunday, August 2, 2015

Mulholland Falls (1996) LA/Desert/Western "B" style Neo Noir

(Originally from SLWB, September 24, 2014

Title sequence newsreel/stag film
Director: Lee Tamahori, Stars: Nick Nolte, Melanie Griffith, Jennifer Connelly, Chazz Palminteri, Michael Madsen, Chris Penn, Treat Williams, Daniel Baldwin, John Malkovich, Andrew McCarthy, Louise Fletcher, Rob Lowe and Bruce Dern.

The Wild West circa 1950s....

This film reminds you not only of all the "B" LA/Desert based crime Noir films but it also channels a very strong updated Western vibe with its quasi legal vigilante justice story line. Endorsed by the "chief" a nice cameo by Dern, the un-officially sanctioned Hat Squad, Hoover (Nolte), Coolidge (Palminteri), Hall (Madsen), and Relyea (Penn) are like modern day Earp Brothers riding around the boulevards of broken dreams in the ultimate Western "boom" town, The City of Angels, "tinsel town", LA.

'49 Buick Roadmaster

The Hat Squad,  Hall (Madsen), Coolidge (Palminteri), Hoover (Nolte), and Relyea (Penn)

Their mission is to keep the vice rackets under local control and their territory/turf runs from the desert ranges of the Cal/Nev border country to the Pacific rim. Their targets are any organized crime mobsters from the Mid West or East Coast who they sort of run out of town by sundown by escorting them to the "airport" they call Mulholland Falls, sort of like Niagara Falls without the water, for their "flight" out of town.

Mafioso (Petersen)
Hood (Lowe)

Hat Squad in action

Taking the Mafioso for a "ride"
Mafioso: You can't do this this is America.
Hoover: This ain't America, this is LA...

Arriving at the "airport"
Hoover makes you think of Dashiell Hammett's Continental OP, a big imposing stocky cross between Noir icons Sterling Hayden and Raymond Burr. He wields justice with a sap, again reminiscent of the way Wyatt Earp would coldcock outlaws with his Buntline special, and re-enforcing the films Wild West vibe. His partner Coolidge, who reminds you of Joseph Calleia's character in Touch of Evil, is a slightly neurotic transplanted Easterner, the squads methods of vigilante justice are affecting his life to the point to where he is seeing a female psychiatrist. The attempts by Coolidge to deal with old school Hoover's wild mood swings and his admonitions to the squad about how they agreed that they weren't going do this or that again are quite humorous. Hall and Relyea are both more laconic, though Hall is the cockier of the two.

The catalyst to the decent into Noirsville is when the squad is sent to investigate the body of a woman who is embedded face down into the ground at a housing development in the hills above LA. She looks like she was run over by a steamroller, and when she is pried out and turned over her identity is known to Hoover who is visibly shaken.

His reaction is noticed by his squad mates. An autopsy indicates that she fell from a great height, like a cliff, but there are no cliffs at the site. An X-Ray has a curious blank section caused by a radioactive piece of glass. Back at headquarters a film canister arrives addressed to Hoover and a screening reveals a stag film spliced with shots of a desert resort, a military instillation, a hospital ward and soldiers at a tactical atomic bomb test.

Stag film

Nuke Test audience

General Timms (Malkovich)

A tactical nuke

Allison Pond (Connelly)

The stag film shows the films equivalent to the femme fatale, Allison Ponds (Connelly) a '56 Caddy love goddess, fatal in one way or another to all the men she touches. Connelly is like a brunette Marilyn Monroe and she displays her assets in all their glory. Allison in the film is screwing an unknown man, Hoover's reaction to the film spurs Coolidge to confront him about the girl's identity, and Hoover confesses to having a six month affair with Allison, a high priced prostitute.

Allison defending an underage girl from the pimp who was about to shoot her up with horse.

In flashback we see Hoover, during a raid on an after hours club, walk in on Allison bitch slapping a pimp who was about to shoot the teen aged girl laying on a bed behind her with junk. Hoover overdoses the pimp dead with his own needle.

Allison's best friend and neighbor is Jimmy Fields (McCarthy), a gay photographer, he sent the film footage to Hoover as both evidence of a government cover-up (the reason he thinks that Allison was killed) and for protection from her killers. He confesses to the existence of other films indicating that he also has a film of Hoover with Allison.

Hoover and Jimmy Fields (McCarthy)


The two-way mirror LAPD interrogation room
The radioactive glass and the film sends the squad like a posse, riding across the desert to a Nevada test site in a 49 Buick Roadmaster. This beautifully filmed sequence strongly enforces the contemporary modern setting with the classic Hollywood Western replacing horses with automobiles, while at the same time evoking classic era Western US Noirs, Detour, Highway Dragnet, Bad Day At Black Rock, Inferno, High Sierra, I Died A Thousand Times, Hitch-Hike, Raw Deal, Touch of Evil.

The posse in their trusty steed a '49 Roadmaster

Melanie Griffith playing against her usual type is convincing as Hoover's wife, the woman he done wrong. It nice to see her stretch her talent to vulnerable characters.

Griffith happy to tragic
The other players are all spot on Dern as mentioned previously, Baldwin as an FBI agent, Malkovich as General Timms, Williams as the rogue soldier and Louise Fletcher as Ester a police woman.


Pacific Coast

Sedan Crater

Chief Of  Police (Dern)

Colonel Nathan Fitzgerald (Williams)

Classic Noir locations used are the Los Angels City Hall, the Pacific Coast, Desert Hot Springs, and Mulholland Drive. The film adds to that list a neat googie style converted motel apartments with pool and what has to be a unique instantly iconic neo noir location, the Sedan Crater in Nevada, a spooky nuclear bomb test site. The nuclear test angle of the story is a nod to Kiss Me Deadly but I've read that the films original ending was for Hoover and Coolidge, after surviving an emergency landing too near a test site, were to be incinerated by a nuclear blast.  Now how utterly noir would that have been?

Coolidge & Hoover right before the rumored vaporizing original ending.
In the above shot the very next frame brightens considerably into what would have probably been a cut to a nuclear fireball.

I say I like it better than LA Confidential, and more every time I watch it. The Cinematography by Haskell Wexler (In The Heat Of The Night) is gorgeous.

It got the hats right, it has a nice rendition of "Harbour Lights" by Aaron Neville, you gotta love that Buick Roadmaster convertible tooling across the gorgeous desert landscapes and also Jennifer Connelly's bOObs. I guess you gotta find out these things for yourself rather than go by critics, it's the reason I never checked it out. WTF were they thinking? Is it because almost nobody wears fedoras anymore or drive dinosaur gas guzzlers?, or was it because the cast was all adults and smoking is frowned upon, who knows. It reminds you of all the LA based crime Noirs. The only small fault is Nolte's mumbling, it's hard to understand him at times. Nice enough score by Dave Grusin 9/10


  1. Does anyone know where Malkovich's cool desert house was filmed at?

  2. PS & Desert Hot springs don't have the same rock and bolder formations. I've had property there.
    That location of that house was amazing!
    I'm looking for similar property, which is why I was curious.