By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist March 21, 2012 at 1:56PM
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."