Mulholland Falls

Director: Lee Tamahori.
Screenplay: Pete Dexter.
Starring: Nick Nolte, Chazz Palminteri, Michael Madsen, Chris Penn, Jennifer Connelly, Melanie Griffith, John Malkovich, Treat Williams, Kyle Chandler, Andrew McCarthy, Bruce Dern, Louise Fletcher, Daniel Baldwin, Ed Lauter, Titus Welliver, Richard Sylbert, Virginia Madsen, William Petersen, Rob Lowe.

“This is L.A. This is my town. Out here you’re a trespasser. Out here I can pick you up, burn your house, fuck your wife, and kill your dog. And the only thing that’ll protect you is if I can’t find you. And I already found you”.

Released in 1996, Lee Tamahori’s Mulholland Falls has largely been overshadowed by the Oscar winning L.A. Confidential – which followed a year later. Although I often find fault with the Academy, on this occasion, I’m not going to split hairs with them and argue that Tamahori’s film is as good, because it’s not. But that’s no shame in Tamahori’s efforts as, for me, L.A. Confidential is one of the best films over the last 20 years. Mulholland Falls is a very admirable attempt that doesn’t deserve to have become a forgotten addition to L.A. themed noir. 

Plot: Post WWII, Los Angeles sees the LAPD set up a special crime unit known as “The Hat Squad”. It comprises of four no-nonsense Lieutenants: Max Hoover (Nolte), Ellery Coolidge (Palminteri), Eddie Hall (Madsen) and Arthur Relyea (Penn). They are tasked with controlling organised crime within the city – even if it means breaking the law themselves. But when they find the crushed body of a young woman, it opens up some personal demons for Hoover. Her death also implicates the involvement of the U.S. Army and attracts the attention of the F.B.I.
Over decades, L.A. noir has become a sub-genre all to itself. For many, Chinatown is the epitome but my preference is the aforementioned L.A. Confidential. I think Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland done a fantastic job in developing a coherent script from a very difficult James Ellroy novel. All that aside, L.A. noir isn’t always an easy endeavour. There are some that promise so much but fail to deliver – Ruben Fleischer’s star-studded Gangster Squad being a recent example of how it can go wrong. In order for stories of this type to be effective, there are many things that need to come together; the cast, the script, the cinematography and the music are all important to setting the mood and, for the most part, Mulholland Falls manages to capture all of these.
First of all, Tamahori assembles a very impressive line-up of performers which lends the film an epic feel and the script by Pete Dexter captures the requisite mystery and intrigue to hold your attention. Haskell Wexler’s cinematography precisely captures the time and Dave Grusin provides an evocative and dramatic score. The production design by Richard Sylbert is also flawless and you should have no problem feeling like you’re back in 1950’s Los Angeles.

Everything fits here, but it’s only as the film comes to the denouement that it starts to falter and if any fingers must be pointed, they’d have to be pointed to Pete Dexter’s script. Things make less sense as the film draws to a conclusion. The tempo is accelerated to the point that you feel like Tamahori may have been under studio pressure to finish within a certain running time. This is such a shame, as the film is genuinely entertaining and very particularly paced up until that point. It’s the exclusion of Chris Penn and Michael Madsen in the final third that lead to some questions over the film being butchered in the editing suite. And this comes just around the time of the film’s reveal. The reveal itself is acceptable but it would have been more effective had the delivery not been fumbled. That said, the only reason this stands out is because the earlier part of the film is so measured and involving.
Benefitting greatly from its attention to mood and atmosphere, there’s much to admire here. It’s a reminder of how strong a presence Nolte can be and he’s supported by an impressive ensemble. Mulholland Falls is a damn good slice of noir that enthusiasts will take plenty of enjoyment from.

Mark Walker

Trivia: Jack Nicholson was offered the role of Chief Bill Parker. He declined, but he did recommend Bruce Dern for the part.

28 Responses to “Mulholland Falls”

  1. Nice review Mark. I’m a sucker for neo-LA noir, so this sounds right up my alley.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If you dig L.A. noir then this might be for you, man. I’m also a sucker for this kinda thing and I really liked this flick. Many critics were very harsh on it but aside from a few flaws here and there, I can’t understand the backlash its received.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. aaronpkahle Says:

    This really doesn’t get the credit it deserves. There’s a cool background note here: Ridley Scott considered directing this at first but did White Squall instead. I also liked seeing a rather young Kyle Chandler in the film, among others. Great review and glad you’ve put this underrated neo-noir flick on your site.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey! Thanks, man. It’s great to hear from another fan. This film sits at a very low rating among critics. And I’m astonished at how low it rates. It’s completely unfair.

      There’s plenty going on here that warrants praise. The cast, the cinematography, the score.

      I can understand Ridley Scott wanting a piece of the action. It’s a visual spectacle that he could have worked very well with. As it stands, it’s a solid flick and should be seen by more. It’s shameful that it’s been overlooked.

      Thanks for dropping by with some supportive words, man! Appreciated. ! 🙂


  3. I dig when you find underrated movies and present them to us, Mark. Half of the time, a lot of movies that fly under the radar are actually pretty great.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “This is L.A. This is my town. Out here you’re a trespasser. Out here I can pick you up, burn your house, fuck your wife, and kill your dog.”

    Let’s hope it is in that order. I’m not down with movies that sensationalize people fucking animals. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I remember when this came out that it got a decent amount of buzz, not least for the performances of Nolte and Penn. Man, Penn was a great screen presence.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, it’s a wonder that this has fallen into obscurity, Mark. It’s odd how that happens to some films where a new generation of film lovers haven’t even heard of it. I liked it way back in the 90’s and I still like. It was great to revisit it again and the whole cast are great.


  6. My memory of it was that it was a bit of a disappointment. That might have to do with how excited I was about it given the pedrigree. Might be time for a rewatch. I’ll tell you one thng. Jennifer Connelly was gorgeous in it.

    Liked by 1 person

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