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.”
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.
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.