Adventures of Superman
The Complete First Season (1952) on DVD
with George Reeves, Phyllis Coates and Noel Neill
In the best tradition of Philip Marlowe and with the allure of looking into the lives of the rich and famous, the case of George Reeve's questionable gunshot death turns into a private eye yarn attempting to shed light on its true cause. Was it suicide or was it murder?
George Reeves (Ben Affleck), a rising actor (Brent Tarleton in "Gone With the Wind") was also a muscle man who could be seen in the workout gyms of the late 40's. In 1950, with no better assignment in sight, he accepted the title role in a low-budget, 1-hour movie, "Superman and the Mole-Men". It's success led Reeves to a part the next year in "From Here To Eternity," his last major motion picture. But real fame came to him when he accepted a multi-year contract as the title chacter in the TV series, "Adventures of Superman."
By the time the series began airing, Reeves meets and falls in love with Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), a beautiful former Ziegfeld follies showgirl who happens to be married to former New Jersey gangster and current general manager of MGM, Eddie Mannix. No risks were taken in this liaison since the Mannixes had what was called an "open marriage." While Eddie had an Asian mistress, he supported Toni in anything that made her happy and if that was by spending his money on her new eight-years-younger boy toy George, financing his home in Benedict Canyon and the lifestyle to go with it, that was fine with Eddie.
The film suggests she had something to do with his landing the TV version of the Superman series. By the late 50's, after years of syndication and reruns, George is so defined in the public mind with his caped screen character that other parts are out of reach. In 1958, possibly in reaction to his scorn over his career developments, he leaves Toni for a younger woman, taking up with would-be starlet Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney).
Toni is devastated. This makes mobster/fixer Eddie very mad and possibly dangerous to George. Possibly lethal. When George is found dead from a bullet to the head, with no fingerprints on the gun and two other shots fired into the floor, the initial assumption of suicide by career despondency is challenged in the press.
It's also a conclusion that's highly questioned by private eye Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) who would like nothing more than to expose his doubts about the official assumptions of suicide and the possibility of a coverup. Has there been some political payoffs? In the culture of the day, a studio wishing to hide the misfortunes of their stars was a given, and Eddie Mannix, head of Publicity, is exactly the man with the job description to do it. Taking care of embarrassing situations (for the studio and its stars) is what he gets the big money for.
Simo, who sports a seamy private life of his own while earning a buck as a P.I., needs a client to pay the bills for his investigation. He contacts George's mother and, in his convincing private-eye way, sells her on the need to find out the truth and hire him. Involved also in a domestic case brought by a madly paranoid husband, Simo is nothing if not intent, sticking his nose and neck into places that bring him confusion and pain.
This is a story in two timelines but with judicious editing and separate casts to immediately identify which one we're in, there's no confusion and the intercutting illuminates the present day investigation, shedding light into the mystery, with its mistakes, misjudgements and unproven murder.
What with exemplary production design and a superb cast, a nearly great Hollywood whodunit yarn awaits a wide and wondering audience, with a style that seems suited to its resurrection for this latter day consideration. Most outstanding as your Marlowesque tough-guy gumshoe, Brody turns in his best, most nuanced and confident performance to date, "The Pianist" notwithstanding. He's very naturalistically engaged in a role that, in itself, embodies atmosphere and directness. I say, best actor nominee! That good.
There may be many good actresses from the mature age belt of early 40's to convey beauty and style... but a juicy and tasty appearance by Diane Lane shines with the glamor of a diamond and simply shouldn't be missed. At last a part for her that doesn't call for suspension of disbelief ("Under the Tuscan Sun," "Must Love Dogs") but one that, rather, dolls her up in a productive setting with a chance for some subtleties of power and a little emotion. This devoted fan wishes that this role is a career-enhancing one that channels her into the more prominent placements she deserves. A "Being Julia" for Ms. Lane?
Another casting achievement here is the canny choice of Ben Affleck who has never turned in a better performance or one so ideally suited to him, a man struggling to assert that he has more than he's being credited for. Even his detractors should find his Reeves portrayal a rare matchup that obviates any need for stretching beyond his limits.
Bob Hoskins contains his usual outsize personality into a gleamingly vicious and amoral old-school mobster with power and the trappings of legitimacy. He calmly erects a portrait of a fearsome man whose lordly front of charm and style covers up a butcher's approach to problem solving and the power to do whatever he wants.
In all, the exploitation of a Hollywood mystery from past times earns its keep with stylish taste and proportion. It goes wrong -- way wrong -- only in its length, which dissipates the power of originality and accomplishment it has going for it. At 90 minutes director Allen Coulter ("The Sopranos") might have been considered a master, and writer Paul Bernbaum ("Family Plan") mighty. At 126 those bets are off.
~~ Jules Brenner Cinema Signals