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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

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton 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.
9
Chinatown

And for us, that's rather what held the script back. It's an enjoyable read, to be sure, but far from the great lost film that many have made it out to be -- it felt too pastiche-y, too self-conscious, too empty to stand among the noir classics that it emulates. The idea of a film in the genre really getting to the heart of the darkness that Hollywood is a terrific one, but for all its movie trivia and references, for all its private dicks and femme fatales, what Logan wrote is less film noir and more police procedural, a sort of "Law & Order: Sunset Boulevard." Which is a little disappointing for someone who riffed so heavily on "Chinatown" with his "Rango" script.

Despite a last-minute speech by Mayer talking about a "river of money," there's not much of a link between the main mystery plot and the setting. If the script could be said to be about anything, thematically, it's the transience of stardom, making it a sort of genre-tinged comparison piece to "The Artist" -- there's no real sense of a city with a rotten core that devours people up as in the great L.A. noirs, just one that turns actresses out on their ear once they hit a certain age. And like Logan's "Hugo" script, the structure feels off: it rarely feels that much is at stake, or that there's any particular urgency to the events, particularly in a languid middle section once the two leads become romantically entwined.

All that said, if his past works have made anything clear, it's that Logan knows how to create memorable characters. The fading starlet with a dark past isn't a new character, but Ruth is nicely drawn -- it could have provided a nice demonstration of range for someone like Reese Witherspoon, and while Anne Hathaway would have been too young back in '07, she would do a good job these days. Louis B. Mayer is an enormously fun part, the wisecracking, cynical voice of wisdom, while obese queen of vice Bess is a memorable adversary, although has only a few brief scenes. Bugsy Siegel (previously played on screen by Warren Beatty in "Bugsy") practically steals the show, even if he's essentially extraneous to the plot.

Hugh Jackman

But he highlights one of the major problems with the script: he's infinitely more interesting than Slidell, who's a disappointingly bland lead for a film of this type, a fairly rote ex-cop-turned-P.I. who's charming, but doesn't have much internal life. When he beats a man half to death late in the script, it's meant to be shocking, but we don't really know enough about him to know whether this is atypical or not. DiCaprio wouldn't have been a great choice, either: the actor's not known for displaying suavity or a sense of humor, and a more effortlessly charming actor, a Hugh Jackman or (these days) a Ryan Gosling might have been a better fit.

Somehow, it feels like an atypical choice for Mann: it would have been lighter than anything he's done, and a more commercial picture. And with that, it's important to note that this was, after all, just a draft, and Logan might have developed the film further with Mann (although it's worth noting that the film was being sold as a package, and was in the run up to the 2007 writers' strike, so time would probably have been limited). But on the basis of what we read, it's an intriguing prospect and a fun read, but not necessarily a film to mourn the absence of too greatly.

This article is related to: We Read It, Michael Mann, John Logan, Leonardo DiCaprio


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