L.A. Confidential

L.A. Confidential (1997)

1998 Academy Awards: Best Actress – Kim Basinger Best Screenplay – Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland

Remember, dear readers, you heard it here first. Off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush.

So says Sid Hudgeons (Danny DeVito), publisher and writer of the L.A. sleaze magazine, Hush Hush, a weekly rag that rats on the stars, politicians, and other celebrities of 1950s Los Angeles. The montage of photos, film, narration, and music that opens L.A. Confidential is just one device that transports us back in time to this golden era in sunny Southern California. But, as Sid hints to us, all is not perfect in the "city of the future."

When he finished writing L.A. Confidential, James Ellroy thought that he had a novel that no one could turn into a movie. He believed that it was so complex, so layered that it would be the ultimate challenge for any screenwriter/director team to transfer to the medium of film. The video version of L.A. Confidential features a documentary in which he is quite unabashed stating this opinion; still, he is obviously pleased that his book was eventually turned into a movie. It’s also plain, by his tone and facial expressions, that he likes the movie immensely.

As directed by Curtis Hanson, L.A. Confidential is a multi-layered, suspenseful, brutally violent saga of crime in Los Angeles. The story follows the careers of three L.A. policemen as they try to solve several seemingly unconnected murders. It has been well documented that Hanson, and his partner, screenwriter Brian Helgeland, spent countless hours reading and studying Ellroy’s novel in an attempt to streamline it into a film that captures the classic 1950’s film noir style that Ellroy brought to life in his dense prose. Displaying skills that recall Robert Towne’s writing in Chinatown, Helgeland and Hanson have come up with a script that is both consistently intriguing and unnerving, keeping the main focus on the characters – not so easy an accomplishment when you realize that there are at least a half-dozen major characters plus 80 other assorted speaking parts.

We are introduced to the three cops right away. Bud White (Russell Crowe), who prefers a direct approach when dealing with a wife beater, gets the guy’s attention by yanking the plastic reindeer off his roof with a loud crash and then beats the tar out of him. The second officer, Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), is a celebrity. He’s not above taking a payoff for busting a couple of young potheads, since his face will be on television when the story breaks. The third cop, Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), is straight-laced and inexperienced but still smart enough to know when his actions will get him a serious promotion.

Exley’s career moves set the plot in motion when he squeals on fellow officers who brutally beat several prisoners in an incident dubbed "Bloody Christmas." Exley is promoted to lieutenant and is subsequently despised within the force. White, also involved in the altercation, refuses to rat on his partner, Dick Stensland (Graham Beckel). Consequently, White is suspended. Vincennes is also asked to testify and refuses at first, but when his superiors threaten to take away the one thing he truly loves, his advisory job on the cop TV show Badge of Honor, he submits.

The intricate plot involves a bloody multi-victim homicide at a local coffee shop called the Night Owl; Stensland is one of the victims. As our three officers investigate the crime they uncover many other clues suggesting that the initial robbery of the coffee shop was just a cover up: double-dealings, prostitutes made up to look like popular movie stars (including a Veronica Lake clone played by Kim Basinger), extortion of political officials, other murders. An unseen force is plotting to take over the void in organized crime left behind when Mickey Cohen was sent to prison. Exley initially is the lone officer investigating the case. Being the virtuous law officer that he is, he has no compunction about destroying everything that made him famous. He eventually teams up with both Vincennes and White to solve the case.

The script has the type of deft plotting that made films like The Crying Game and The Usual Suspects so popular. The investigation of the crime is as much a mystery to us as it is to the three protagonists. Clues are given to us as they are discovered by Exley, Vincennes and White; we are never allowed to know more than they do. Hanson uses this method of scripting to maintain the suspense level: the scene of Vincennes’ assassination is totally unexpected – until the killer pulls a pistol and fires you won’t have any idea it’s coming.

Equally powerful is the way Hanson presents us with White’s methods of dealing with suspects. In one unnerving scene he grabs the crotch of Cohen’s former bodyguard, Johnny Stompanato, and squeezes. White increases the pressure even further when he suspects him of lying. In the film’s most frightening scene White discovers the corpse of a former cop connected to the Night Owl murders. It’s presented so graphically that you can almost smell the body.

The film looks and sounds right. Production designer, Jeannine Oppewal has packed every frame with a richness of detail to transport us back to the Los Angeles of half a century ago. Dante Spinotti’s expert photography and Peter Honess’ sharp editing give every frame a "still" quality. The film captures the essence of noir themes while, interestingly, it also challenges them. Most key scenes actually take place in daylight. Light pours in through every window and the colors are vibrant, playing off the dark subject matter against the brutal L.A.sunlight. Composer Jerry Goldsmith reprises the style he used on Chinatown, using a lone trumpet to accent his haunting score. Several popular songs of the era are also used, the best example being Johnny Mercer’s Accentuate the Positive which plays over the opening titles.

L.A. Confidential may not be for everyone. The plot is so intricate that viewers may find it confusing to follow. It’s a film that requires several viewings to get a coherent sense of the story and characters, their motivations and loyalties. On the other hand, the pace never lags and the performances, especially those of Spacey and Crowe, are memorable.

Tom Trinchera