Monday, November 2, 2009

1997: L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson)

Released: September 19, 1997

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.

Rating: 10/10

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!).


  1. Aha, I got at least one right. I got a chance to watch LA Confidential only in parts. Will have to catch up with the whole movie one day.

    There are some films in 1997 that fall flat for me too - Happy Together and Live Flesh being two of them

    My Favorites:

    As Good As It Gets (Brooks)
    Titanic (Cameron)
    Deconstructing Harry (Allen)
    Seven Years In Tibet (Annaud)
    Amistad (Spielberg)
    Face/Off (Woo)
    Contact (Zemeckis)
    The King Of Masks (Tianming)
    Life Is Beautiful (Benigni)
    Little Dieter Needs to Fly (Herzog)
    The Mirror (Panahi)
    Children Of Heaven (Majidi)
    Mother And Son (Sokurov)
    Level Five (Marker)
    A Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami)

  2. Hope you are starting to feel better from your sinus infection, Dave - sounds nasty. You've managed a great review nonetheless, and this time I've actually seen the movie! It's one I admire a lot and I agree with you that it proves the noir style can still work in brilliant colour. I like your description of Los Angeles in this movie as looking "both alluring and treacherous" - a description which would also work for some of the characters.

    My personal favourite from 1997, though, is a British latter-day noir, Croupier (Hodges), which has to be one of Clive Owen's best performances. I just love the heavy use of voiceover in this, and the dark moody colours.

    I also like:
    Mrs Brown (Madden)
    As Good As It Gets (Brooks)
    Deconstructing Harry (Allen)
    Donnie Brasco (Newell)
    The Wings of the Dove (Softley)


  3. Dave, you have made a masterful selection here, as L.A. CONFIDENTIAL is surely one of teh greatets films of its kind, and one I have ceaselessly promoted since my first viewing of it. You rightly note the many elements that converge here: the storytelling, the "look" and the performances. Excellent lists there from Judy and Just Another Film Buff! My own #1 film is actual my top film of teh entire decade, while my #2 is inmy Top 4 ofr the decade. But Hanson's film, which you give a superlative review to here is certainly a masterpiece of American cinema.

    My Own #1 Film of 1997:

    Gattaca (Niccol; USA)


    The Sweet Hereafter (Egoyan; Canada)
    A Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami; Iran)
    L.A. Confidential (Hanson; USA)
    Boogie Nights (Anderson; USA)
    The Ice Storm (Lee; USA)
    Mother and Son (Sokurov; Russia)
    The Cure (Kobayashi; Japan)
    The Apple (Makhmalbaf; Iran)
    Wings of the Dove (Softley; UK)
    Mrs. Brown (Madden; UK)
    The Apostle (Duvall; USA)
    Croupier (Hodges; UK)
    The Kingdom (Von Trier; Denmark)
    Good Will Hunting (Van Sant; USA)
    Lost Highway (Lynch; USA)
    Princess Mononoke (Miyazaki; Japan)
    Amistad (Spielberg; USA)
    Children of Heaven (Majidi; Iran)
    Live Flesh (Almodovar; Spain)
    The King of Masks (Tiaming; China)
    Open Your Eyes (Amenobar; Spain)
    In the Company of Men (La Bute; USA)
    Men With Guns (Sayles; USA)
    Funny Games (Haneke; Germany)
    Deconstructing Harry (Allen; USA)
    The Mirror (Panahi; USA)

  4. One film I somehow forgot to add, but I have gone to include, is Mike van Diem's KARAKTER... a great Dutch film that looks amazing.

    Just another film buff - You'll like this one, I guarantee... maybe not as much as I do, but it's one that's hard to completely dislike.

    Judy - CROUPIER is one that has been stuck in my Netflix queue for some time. Hopefully I'll get to it eventually.

    Sam - GATTACA I struggle with. I'm not a huge science fiction fan in general, which means I'm asking questions like: if the society is so advanced and obsessed with genetics, why can't they just fix the guy's legs? Things like that pop up for me throughout the film. Plus, I continue to have problems with anything Ethan Hawke is in... I suppose I'm in the minority on that opinion, but it is what it is.

  5. Dave – “L.A. Confidential” is certainly one of the premier neo-noirs and your piece does the film justice.
    In selecting a #1 film for the year it came down to this great film and “The Sweet Hereafter”, a tragic and bitterly sad movie yet so excellently told.

    # 1 The Sweet Hereafter

    Best of the rest

    L.A. Confidential
    Good Will Hunting
    Wings of the Dove
    Mrs Brown
    Donnie Brasco
    Eve’s Bayou
    As Good as it Gets
    Deconstructing Harry
    Boogie Nights

  6. As you are a major noir and crime film afficianado, I should not be surprised by this choice. I liked it but, and perhaps it was the aftereffects of the hype, saw it as a good movie rather than a great one - not really in the same class as the classic noirs or Chinatown. But I haven't seen it for a while.

    My own pick would be Lost Highway, and I'm glad you admired it enough to give it runner-up status. Happy you mentioned Donnie Brasco too.

  7. Dave, 1997 is a tough year. There are a lot of films I like but it's hard to put one ahead of the rest; nothing particularly towers over the field. I confess to resisting L.A. Confidential from the beginning because it seemed at the time like the latest attempt to force Russell Crowe on an unwilling public. I resisted him for quite a while -- until Master and Commander, in fact, -- but the film is good if still overrated in my view.

    Let's do this, then:

    1. Jackie Brown -- I put this on top mainly to remind people of the road ultimately not taken by Quentin Tarantino and what he's capable of doing as a director of actors like Pam Grier and Robert Forster.
    2. Boogie Nights
    3. Hana-bi (Takeshi Kitano)
    4. Lost Highway
    5. The Butcher Boy (Neil Jordan)
    6. The Sweet Hereafter
    7. Princess Mononoke
    8. Amistad
    9. L.A. Confidential
    10.The Apostle

    We're clearly in the period when the Iranians are taking the initiative in global cinema, but I'm working my way backwards in my appreciation of their work, so you'll see more of them turn up on my lists for subsequent years.

  8. MovieMan - As I said, depending on the day, I'm just as likely to choose Lost Highway as my favorite for the year. It will definitely be in my Top 10 in my 90s list at WitD.

    Samuel - I actually have always been underwhelmed by Master and Commander... funny that we have the opposite reactions of the two Crowe movies.

  9. John - Like I said, I haven't seen The Sweet Hereafter, but you give it a ringing endorsement here... just so many movies to get to, so little time.

  10. Dave, I don't want to go overboard in praise of Master and Commander, but at least it was the first time I could stand Crowe on screen. And let me join John, though not quite as strongly, in recommending Sweet Hereafter. Ian Holm arguably deserved the Oscar for that film.

  11. Just saw Kundun. A few false notes here and there. But Scorsese carries it through single-handedly, against the wishes of the actors, the script and Philip Glass.

  12. Kundun is the only Scorsese film that I haven't seen... don't know why that is, actually, but for it's another that seems to continually slip through the cracks in my viewing.

  13. A very good year.My list:As good as it gets,L.A confidential,Jackie Brown,Character,The sweet hereafter,The full monty,Boogie nights,Lost highway,Valkanizater(GR)and the Ice storm.

  14. Jackie Brown was absolutely the best film of that year, but close behind and still watchable at any time -- Gattaca, As Good As It Gets,and Good Will Hunting. Gattaca goes so far beyond being a "Sci Fi" film in the way that Blade Runner or 2001 does, or how Red River or The Searchers go beyond being "Westerns". People complained about Jackie Brown because it wasn't Pulp Fiction. It wasn't as flashy as Pulp Fiction, and to be fair, Tarrantino had already widened our shores with Dogs and Pulp Fiction, so we were ready for Jackie Brown..... I think JB has a lot more heart and soul than PF, and I probably watch JB 3 times for every 1 time I watch PF. Call me crazy....

    A film that everyone seems to overlook from that year is City of Industry with Harvey Keitel, a tough-as-nails caper-gone-bad film that deeply explores the meaning of revenge and redemption..... It's a lot grittier and more enthralling than LA Confidential as a sample of latter-day noir, in my opinion. For years I considered LA Confidential as a very precious, slick "faux noir", trying so hard and so consciously to be like a real film noir. Another film that explores the same era and just kicks LA Confidential's butt is Mulholland Falls as far as being consumed with its story and not with trying to be cool... As the years have gone by, I like LA Confidential more, and I don't carp at it so much. It's an enjoyable movie with a sprawling story and a great cast. I love the anecdote about "Rollo Tamassi" and the need to get the guys who deserve to be gotten....
    Boogie Nights is a great film, but I always feel its length -- no pun intended. Harvey Canter Tarzana CA