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We Read It: Michael Mann & John Logan's Unmade 1930s Noir A Nasty Look At Old Hollywood That Doesn't Quite Work

Features
by Oliver Lyttelton
March 21, 2012 1:56 PM
9 Comments
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Of all the unmade, potentially great projects of the last few years, one of the most talked about is the untitled 1930s noir thriller penned by Oscar nominee John Logan ("The Aviator," "Hugo") with the intention that Michael Mann would direct and Leonardo DiCaprio would star. The project started doing the rounds back in 2007, but despite interest from New Line, the film, with an estimated budget of $120 million, proved too expensive and too risky to get made.

But a piece last month in Slate has brought the project back into the spotlight, even if details on the script remain at this point a little vague. As such, we thought it warranted a little more investigation, so we managed to obtain a copy of the script to take a closer look at what could have been: the plot, the characters, the influences and the references.

It begins in 1938 in a Beverly Hills home with the discovery of a body, described by Logan with the beautifully hard-boiled opening lines: "Peter Nielsen was once handsome. Not anymore. He's dead." His mansion is full of executives from MGM, standing over the body, awaiting the arrival of Harry Slidell (the role DiCaprio would have played), a private investigator with his own company, Sunset Investigations. Slidell, an ex-homicide cop, is the go-to man when the studios need to protect their stars, cover up their indiscretions, and whatever other dirty little jobs that need doing, and he's got a whole team and nearly infinite resources to help him do so.

Nielsen is, it turns out, an Oscar-winning producer whose much younger wife, Ruth Ettis, is one of the studio's biggest stars, one half of a Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire-style double act. Slidell suspects it's her, but covers up the murder, feigning a suicide note at the scene, and bribing the maid who found the body to keep quiet. Studio boss Louis B. Mayer (one of the most fun roles in the script) is adamant that Ettis couldn't be the killer, and tasks Slidell with finding the real murderer for a handsome sum.

He soon finds that Nielsen beat his wife, giving her the perfect motive, but after meeting Ettis, he doesn't make her for the crime. And following the dead producer's morphine supply also leads to Bess Francis, a monstrously obese madam and vice queen who services half of Hollywood. Is she the one responsible? Could soon-to-be-legendary gangster Bugsy Siegel, who's trying to make his mark on L.A., be somehow involved? Or is the mysterious figure blackmailing the starlet (who Slidell's rapidly falling for) over her less-than-vanilla past, the man pulling the strings?

The script is pretty heavenly for movie lovers: we get tons of movie gossip (including this line regarding Mickey Rooney: "That pervert doesn't have another. He's banging Lana Turner now."), cameos from the likes of Clark Gable and Judy Garland (the latter of whom Slidell has helped out in the past, and who later becomes romantically involved with Siegel), and crucial scenes taking place on the sets of "The Wizard Of Oz" and "Gone with the Wind." And furthermore, there's obvious, if subtextual, reference points for what Logan's aiming for: the whole film noir canon ranging from "Sunset Boulevard" to "Chinatown" and even "L.A. Confidential."

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9 Comments

  • Forward Pass | March 22, 2012 1:57 PMReply

    This is stealing. As the screenplay you have stolen from says on the title page, "THIS MATERIAL IS THE PROPERTY OF FORWARD PASS, INC. AND IS INTENDED AND RESTRICTED SOLELY FOR THE PRODUCTION COMPANY'S USE BY PRODUCTION COMPANY PERSONNEL. DISTRIBUTION OR DISCLOSURE OF THE MATERIAL TO UNAUTHORIZED PERSONS IS PROHIBITED. THE SALE, COPYING OR REPRODUCTION OF THIS MATERIAL IN ANY FORM IS ALSO PROHIBITED."

  • Ken Waters | March 22, 2012 11:00 PM

    Sorry to hear about the theft. Sounds like a slam dunk if you decide to pursue that road. Or you can handle it the east coast way. Dark alley. Lead pipe. Maybe a chain. Just joking. I am east coast.

    Derp -- it is a theft if the content was used without permission. Derp. Trying spending the amount of time it takes to pen a screenplay then have someone steel your work. It stings. A lot. I'm positive you wouldn't be too happy about it.

  • DERP | March 22, 2012 3:40 PM

    Shut up, Dingus. There is nothing illegal about posting a review.

  • cbh | March 21, 2012 6:07 PMReply

    I know you will call me old fashioned, but I really think it's harmful and inapropriate to review unmade scripts that still have the chance to get made (and that have been leaked to you by shady connections). This is not journalism, certainly not criticism, but chatter and shallow speculation with other people's hard work. What do you want? The power to greenlight films? Who the fuck cares for a Playlist-approved script? Stick to the films, please.

  • Carson Wells | March 21, 2012 11:37 PM

    I tend to agree. If a script is deliberately released by a studio or author, intended for public consumption, then a review is fair enough. If it is dubiously leaked a review should be avoided. Films should be judged on the final product.

  • Mass | March 21, 2012 9:31 PM

    What's wrong with reviewing it before it's put on screen? People review play's before they begin production.

    I like these "We read it" things, because they fill us in on some of the plot details, and speculate on what actors will play which roles. If anything, this article brings more awareness and excitement to the project. At least for me it does.

  • Ken Waters | March 21, 2012 8:27 PM

    @ CBH -- We really don't know where they got the script from but have to say I immediately thought the same thing about the article but did it not just protect the storyline as belonging to them. At least no one can steal it now cause that never happens in Hollywood. I have to agree, tad to many spoilers but then my next thought was, good platform to bring up and pitch one of my scripts and let's face it. If it was easy to get a big budget film produced, everyone would be doing it. If you've never written a screenplay. It doesn't happen over night, takes months and months to pen and polish before you can shop it around. Then be prepared to spend months on the rewrites they may ask for. Like CBH addressed, be kind to other people's hard work.

  • Ken Waters | March 21, 2012 3:54 PMReply

    You should try and get Mann to revisit Runaway Weekend AKA Angels Never Die, content also about an LA P.I. -- this one is based on and inspired by a true story. I've had some major production companies showing interest -- now they want their top level director and A-list talent attached. Still working on that. The aforementioned content would be a great fit for Mark Wahlberg and I don't think he's worked with Mann yet.

  • Christian | March 21, 2012 2:30 PMReply

    I'd still like to see the film happen someday. Thanks, Playlist!

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