Mulholland Falls (1996)

Film noir may be best defined by its moral ambiguity. The audience is typically aligned with the lesser of two evils, sometimes finding themselves rooting for villains. The men of noir are identified by their self-centeredness, played off as toughness. Goals and aspirations are singular (rob the bank or catch the crook), achieved at the expense of loved ones or “normal” lives.

While the genre is usually described as having a particular moment (Maltese Falcon [1941] to Touch of Evil [1958]), its occasional resurrections have been notable, including 1974’s Chinatown and 1997’s L.A. Confidential. Released one year before the latter, Mulholland Falls was also promoted as a Los Angeles-based noir. However, Lee Tamahori’s film is curiously moralistic, only going through noir motions.

Max Hoover (Nick Nolte) is a brass-knuckles kind of cop who heads up his own squad of elite officers, including Elleroy Coolidge (Chazz Palminteri), Eddie Hall (Michael Madsen), and Arthur Relyea (Chris Penn). The opening finds the boys roughing up a Chicago gangster, then asking him to leave town. However, its the body of Allison Pond (Jennifer Connelly), found smashed into the ground on the property of a housing development, that will test their mettle. The usually unflappable Hoover is shaken, and the only evidence is a mysterious, erotic film that turns up at police headquarters, seemingly pointing to a military connection. When another tape shows up at Hoover’s home, showing him with Pond in less than flattering circumstances, the case now threatens his marriage to Katherine (Melanie Griffith).

The screenplay by Pete Dexter (Rush) is little more than a procedural, and on screen it resembles an episode of Law & Order with funny hats. Of the secondary characters, only the key suspect General Thomas Tims stands out (because John Malkovich is much better than his material). While it’s clear he’s involved in Allison’s death, the reasons appear to be more political than personal. As for Allison, it’s hard to sympathize with her, as she only appears, in flashbacks, with primary emphasis on her great hair and big bust.

The moral uncertainty that marks protagonists in the finest films noirs is sorely missing here. From the moment we meet Hoover, he is presented as a straight shooter; he uses a little more force than necessary, but doesn’t stray too far from police handbook. Unlike gumshoes who don’t have time for women, Hoover clearly needs Katherine, who serves as a welcome respite from the thugs he deals with on the job. We see his thinking clearly from the moment he comes on screen.

Mulholland Falls does offer a passable mystery. That the film wraps up the ethical threads with a cold finality is truly disappointing. Perhaps it says something of the current (and longstanding) Hollywood system, where personal failings must be punished, and any potential haziness thoroughly explained. Mulholland Falls is finally undone by its arid and sunny atmosphere.