Director: Curtis Hanson; Screenplay: Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by James Ellroy; Cinematography: Dante Spinotti; Studio: Warner Brothers; Producers: Curtis Hanson, Arnon Milchan, and Michael G. Nathanson
Cast: Russell Crowe (Officer Bud White), Kevin Spacey (Det. Sgt. Jack Vincennes), Guy Pearce (Det. Lt. Edmund “Ed” Exley), Kim Basinger (Lynn Bracken), James Cromwell (Capt. Dudley Liam Smith), Danny DeVito (Sid Hudgens), David Strathairn (Pierce Patchett), Ron Rifkin (DA Ellis Loew), Graham Beckel (Det. Dick Stensland)
- “Rollo Tomasi…”
In a general sense, I don’t think of myself as a purist or one that adheres to precise definitions in regard to art. There is nothing more annoying the prototypical “jazz nut,” as my trumpet playing friend calls them, who consider anything that does not fit a strict definition of what is jazz to be complete garbage. Similar such restrictions can be placed on movies, such as those that shun certain movies just because they are popular. Such sticklers can be unbearable. Although I have to admit that when it comes to film noir, I sometimes come close to such obnoxiousness. I like my noir dark, gritty, looking like it was made on the cheap. And most importantly, I like them shot in black and white. But the thing that redeems me from being like those that thumb their nose at anything with the name “Spielberg” or other such famous directors attached to it, is my love of a film like L.A. Confidential. It’s shot in bright vibrant colors that leap off the screen. It flaunts a major budget production and revels in it stylishness. Yet it maintains the grittiness necessary for any great crime drama, which allows me to consider it to be at the same level as any noirs of past eras. In the strictest sense, I suppose the proper label is neo-noir, but I think that’s too limiting for a movie this good. It deserves recognition alongside similar classics like Out of the Past, Double Indemnity and The Killers.
It seems that the success of L.A. Confidential was never a foregone conclusion. For years most of Hollywood was of the opinion that movies aspiring to mimic the noir style had limited box office appeal. Numerous retreads of Chinatown were released to prove this adage correct. The man at the helm, director Curtis Hanson, was another mystery. Here was someone who had been a Hollywood regular for over two decades, but had never released anything of great distinction. The main thing the project had going for it from the start was being based on a novel by James Ellroy, a man who had risen to prominence for writing gritty modern works in the tradition of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. And a great story it is, with memorable characters galore and enough twists and turns to keep even a disinterested viewer intrigued the whole way through.
There is a large cast of characters that inhabit this dark, seedy setting of 1950s Los Angeles. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a ruthless officer who does not hesitate to get violent on the job. He views himself as a protector of women and goes out of his way to hunt down abusive husbands and dispense justice on his own. He is under the control of Capt. Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), who uses Bud for the dirtier jobs in the department. White’s partner Dick Stensland (Graham Beckel) is a drunk, racist man on the beat who instigates a riot at police headquarters on Christmas Eve. Det. Sgt. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) has made a name for himself by leading drug busts of celebrities and making sure that Hush Hush magazine and its sleazy editor Sid Hodgens (Danny DeVito) is there to capture proof. Lt. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is an ambitious upstart who is not liked by his coworkers because they see him as a fink and a stooge of higher-ups in the department.
The arc of the story takes shape after Dick Stensland is fired for his part in creating the Christmas riot at the jail. The night that he is fired, his body is found among the murder victims at the Nite Owl, a local diner. The investigation then becomes personal for all involved, as they are seeking the killer of one of their own. Along the way they begin to uncover a bewildering tangle of corruption, involving cops, a mild-manner head of a prostitution ring named Pierce Patchett (David Straitharn), and various prostitutes working for him. One of the girls, Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), who has had plastic surgery in order to look like Veronica Lake, begins an affair with Bud White that further messes with the already fragile psyche of the officer.
I know that most everyone is likely to have seen the movie, but going further with the story would reveal too much of a wild ride for those that haven’t. As most everyone knows, this is one thing I never want to do. There are a number of twists and turns, which some people actually consider a negative when used too often. But in L.A. Confidential, I like the way that the twists are set up. A number of seeds are planted through the course of the story, creating a number of potential twists that the movie could take. Each of the potential courses seems probable, leaving the viewer with many ways to try and guess how the mystery is going to be solved.
Every time that I watch this I am also fascinated by how my feelings toward particular characters change over the course of the film. The measured performance by Guy Pearce is wonderful and his character of Ed Exley is the one who elicits the biggest change of mind. Early in the film, I felt similar to the cops who worked with him – Exley was nothing but a brownnoser who would step over the bodies of his coworkers if necessary to advance in the department. As the story progresses, Exley begins to emerge as possibly the only man with any honor. Similarly, my feelings toward Bud White would rise and fall. He starts as the prototypical cop with a chip on his shoulder, but slowly emerges as something of a pitiful hero. That’s the main appeal of the characterizations throughout the film – everyone has good qualities and bad. Jack Vincennes, Ed Exley, Bud White, all of them have at least some admirable attribute, while at the same time hiding some dark tendencies or ambitions. All of the performances are outstanding, with Spacey and Pearce in particular shining. Danny DeVito is also a perfect fit as Sid Hudgens, the lovably slimy reporter who will do anything for a sensational story.
Although the storytelling is the true strength of the film, the overall look is also a strong point. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti appears for the second time in three years, but his work here exceeds anything that he did in Heat. For a movie that has a story as gloomy as L.A. Confidential, it moves freely between dark, brooding scenes to great splashes of 1950s color sets. In this regard, the entire design team deserves recognition. The city of L.A. looks spectacular, fully justifying the Academy Award nomination for set decorator Jay Hart. And while I’m not normally in the habit of singling out costumer designers, the work of Ruth Myers deserves the recognition. All of the elements come together to create a Los Angeles that manages to look both alluring and treacherous.
Other Contenders for 1997: As much as I love L.A. Confidential, it had serious competition to maintain the top spot. This is because I personally think that David Lynch’s Lost Highway is a masterpiece and a truly chilling film. Many consider it to be minor Lynch, but I think that he has only made one other film that tops it. I went back and forth on which one I would name as #1, but this is one that could have switched if I had made my decision on a different day. The other truly standout film in this year for me is the Dutch film Karakter from director Mike van Diem. A great, atmospheric mystery. Others from 1997 that I really like: Donnie Brasco (Mike Newell) with its great Pacino performance, Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino), Good Will Hunting (Gus Van Sant), and Deconstructing Harry (Woody Allen).
I have to admit to not having seen The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan), which I know is highly regarded. And I also have to point out that Paul Thomas Anderson’s acclaimed Boogie Nights is one that I have always seen as just an average movie. There are some interesting Scorsese-themed technical things taking place, but story-wise it does little for me (which is actually my complaint with most PTA!).