Curtis Hanson’s neo-noir thriller one of the most intelligent and ambitious thrillers of the past 25 years
The sardonic opening lines of director Curtis Hanson’s 1997 neo-noir thriller L.A. Confidential must surely be amongst the most acidic in mainstream US cinema. “Come to Los Angeles,” smirks an unseen narrator, his voice rich with mockery: “The sun shines bright, the beaches are wide and inviting, and the orange groves stretch as far as the eye can see.”
The narration starts within the first few seconds of the credits, barely giving the audience time to settle into their seats – a sign of the relentless pace to come. A sharply chosen montage of authentic 1950s vintage footage plays beneath the titles, gradually intertwining with scenes shot for the film itself, a deliberate blending of fact and fiction. The sarcastic voice-over gleefully punctures the glamourous, polished images onscreen, cackling as the wholesome images of happy families and smiling movie stars give way to pictures of corpses and criminals. Accompanied by Johnny Mercer’s ‘Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive’ (the first of several extremely pointed period-music choices), the sequence establishes a critical, self-aware tone for the film, emphasising the gap between the slick sales pitch and scabrous reality of life in the City of Angels in the 1950s.
Eventually, our omniscient narrator is revealed to be scandal-sheet journalist Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), a man making his living wallowing in the vice and venality around him, particularly the chaos unleashed by the recent arrest of local crime lord Mickey Cohen. His magazine ‘Hush-Hush’ is modelled after the infamous real-life tabloid ‘Confidential’ (1952-1978), a publication also recalled by the film’s title. The reference serves to notify the audience that the plot will be concerned with corruption, particularly the ways in which the marriage of crime, money, power, and celebrity cut a cancerous path to the very heart of the American Dream. Further, the exposé will be delivered with nostalgic style to spare, a spoonful of arsenic dropped into the heart of an old-fashioned box of chocolates.
In less than three minutes, the brilliantly audacious opening credits successfully establish the key themes and tone of the film, and sets the basic mechanics of the plot in motion. The sequence imparts a mountain of exposition, but does so with astonishing ease and grace – a perfect example of the beautifully crafted and sculpted standard maintained throughout the film. Without pausing for breath, L.A. Confidential introduces its three main protagonists, deftly sketched in a series of short, sharp scenes densely packed with information. Officer Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a brooding, macho brute, a taciturn man who thinks with his fists. He appears entirely comfortable with the darkest sides of police work, happy to dish out an extremely violent version of justice in which he is judge, jury, and executioner. We are introduced to him beating a domestic abuser while threatening to frame him as a child molester, and we will later see White murder an unarmed suspect, placing a gun in the dead man’s hand to claim self-defence. He is loyal to his older partner Dick Stensland (Graham Beckel), although the man is an unfit, drunken, bullying oaf; he cleaves to an unspoken professional code of silence, believing that he and his fellow cops are above the law. Yet despite his completely unethical behaviour, something else seems to drive him, setting him apart from the likes of his partner. Behind his troubled eyes there are flickers of thought, as though he were trying to awake from his mindlessly brutal slumber.
Sergeant Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is the polar opposite of Bud White: dapper, suave, and all about image. He is advisor to the film’s fictional Dragnet-style TV show Badge of Honour, and wears his celebrity like a medal. We meet him at the show’s Christmas party, using his slightly smarmy charm on an attractive actress. “Is it true you’re the one who arrested Bob Mitchum?” she asks, starstruck, a reference to Mitchum’s notorious real-life bust for drug possession, and another deliberate blurring of the line between fiction and fact within the film. Less salubriously, Vincennes supplements his wholesome TV work by participating in sleazy celebrity stings orchestrated by the film’s erstwhile narrator Sid Hudgens. The journalist swiftly lures him away from the party to stage a narcotics raid on a struggling young actor; tellingly, Vincennes ensures that the resulting photo opportunity also captures the Hollywood premiere happening at the other end of the street.
It’s Christmas Eve in the City of Angels and while decent citizens sleep the sleep of the righteous, hopheads prowl for marijuana, not knowing that a man is coming to stop them! Celebrity crimestopper Jack Vincennes, scourge of grasshoppers and dope fiends everywhere!’ Ya like it, Jackie boy?Sid Hudgens
The mismatched central trio is completed by Sergeant Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce), a fiercely ambitious, self-righteous man, determined to live up to the reputation of his late, legendary policeman father. Exley’s fearsome drive and political cunning are however undermined by his priggish manner and inexperience. Despite his upstanding intentions, he entirely fails to control his drunken colleagues and prevent them from attacking prisoners in an outrage nicknamed ‘Bloody Christmas’ (based on a genuine assault at L.A.’s Hall of Justice in 1951). Although he was the only man to try and stop the illegal beatings (with even Vincennes participating, the bloodstains on his neat cream jacket mirroring the damage the incident does to his precious image), Exley’s moral superiority simply serves to exacerbate his isolation. Willing to testify against his fellow cops in return for a promotion, his wily actions and new authority only increase his unpopularity amongst the other men. His superiors repeatedly tell him to “lose the glasses” he wears, partly because they do not suit the rugged image of the department (marking him out as an educated “college boy”), but more symbolically, because clear uncompromised vision has no place in the institutionally corrupt world of the LAPD.
Despite their separate introductions, White, Vincennes, and Exley are slowly drawn together by the film’s fiendishly complex plot, the tensions between them ebbing and flowing as a murderous web of conspiracy winds around them. Despite the labyrinthine twists and turns of the screenplay, co-writers Hanson and Brian Helgeland actually radically simplify the original plot of James Ellroy’s source novel. Ellroy’s book contains enough material for at least three films, all told in hellishly bleak staccato prose. To make adapting the work even more challenging, L.A. Confidential is actually the third part of his ‘L.A. Quartet’ (the other titles being The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, and White Jazz). While each could plausibly be read as a stand-alone novel, they share characters and incidents that only really make sense when read as a series.
It apparently took Hanson and Helgeland two years to carve out a workable script. Their adaptation is a model of necessarily ruthless concision and streamlining; entire storylines are disregarded, with no place in the film for the novel’s gratuitous serial killer or the Disney-esque Dieterling dynasty, and significant changes to the pitch-black backstories of the three leads. Remarkably, despite culling swathes of the source material and toning down its sheer relentless horror, the film manages to retain the essence of its dark, cynical world, eventually earning a well-deserved OSCAR for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1998.
L.A. Confidential’s second OSCAR was won by its best-known star at the time, Kim Basinger. She was lured out of semi-retirement by a determined Hanson, who was convinced she was perfect for the role of high-class call-girl Lynn Bracken. First seen in an elegant, cowled black cloak, Lynn starts the film as the epitome of a cool, mysterious femme fatale. Her involvement with Bud White and in the corruption around her slowly unveils a more sympathetic character beneath the poise, and she ends the film dressed in white, perhaps the closest thing left to an honest character after the scathing plot twists have eviscerated the male protagonists. Basinger does sterling work with an admittedly somewhat under-written part, a flaw inherited from Ellroy’s novel which the otherwise excellent script never quite overcomes, perhaps due to the limitations inherent in a role that is deliberately reminiscent of traditional female noir stereotypes.
Although L.A. Confidential does adopt some of the conventions of film noir in its presentation of Lynn and its deeply flawed leads, it delivers far more than simple stylistic recreation. While it features a brief clip of 1942’s This Gun for Hire, and includes knowing references to several Hollywood stars known for their work in the genre, the film is thematically closer to the bleak pictures at the end of the ‘classic’ noir cycle, which strained against its established conventions. At times, it recalls the slick modernity and knuckle-headed violence of Kiss Me Deadly (1955) or the utterly insidious corruption of Touch of Evil (1958). Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent score recalls his work on the earlier neo-noir Chinatown (1974), but this time its melancholy surface can barely contain a thrashing undercurrent of pulsating fury, as if the public and private corruption buried at the end of the previous film were now erupting from the ground.
Dudley, I know you mean well, but I don’t need to do it the way you did. Or my father.Ed Exley
Dante Spinotti’s superb cinematography never indulges any obvious visual noir references, such as strong chiaroscuro lighting; instead, he takes a thoroughly modern approach, as if simply filming the events of the 1950s with the equipment of the 1990s. The atmospheric production design by Jeannine Oppewall lovingly evokes period through carefully chosen locations and the accumulation of subtle background details, shown but never fetishised. Ruth Myers’ costumes are elegant but always perfectly matched to the characters, with Vincennes clad in natty jackets and slacks, Exley evolving from buttoned-down uniforms into dishevelled disorder, and White permanently on the verge of bursting out of his slightly too tight off-the-peg suits. The clothing and surroundings are generally glamourous but always feel lived-in and used, escaping the sense of mere dressing up that can sometimes undermine period films. These stylistic choices help maintain a sense of immediacy that a less naturalistic view might have lost, and greatly assist in foregrounding the film’s theme of dragging the past into the light, exposing brutal truths behind glossy exteriors.
Alongside his visual choices, Hanson also made some extremely bold selections in his casting. Aside from Basinger, the biggest contemporary star in the film was Danny DeVito who, though excellent, was rarely thought of as a traditional leading man. Although they subsequently became very well-known, his three main actors were all relatively obscure at the time. Spacey had villainous turns in 1995’s Se7en and The Usual Suspects under his belt, but was fairly untested as a mainstream lead. (The subsequent sexual assault allegations against the actor inevitably bring a retrospective taint to his role; whether art can be separated from the artist is a decision for each individual viewer to make, rather than for this essay to decide.) Crowe had attracted attention in the controversial Romper Stomper (1992) but was still some years away from his post-Gladiator stardom, while Pearce was known for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), when not still being recognised as Mike from the late soap Neighbours. Aside from the lack of stars, the film’s complex style and historic setting caused concern among the potential producers – recent period noirs such as Miller’s Crossing (1990) and Mulholland Falls (1996) had struggled at the box office. Further, Hanson was best known for efficient but workmanlike thrillers such as The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1992) and The River Wild (1994), rather than wildly ambitious multi-character crime dramas. Despite owning the rights to Ellroy’s book, Warner Bros. were not convinced to invest directly, leaving Arnon Milchan’s Regency Enterprises to produce, alongside executive Michael Nathanson and Hanson himself. The odds against the film’s success were dauntingly high, making its eventual triumph all the more remarkable.
While L.A. Confidential lacks the racially-subversive viewpoint of its excellent neo-noir contemporary Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), its vision of moral decay, bigotry, and violence remains unflinching and vicious. Exley’s discovery of the Nite Owl massacre could be a scene from a horror movie, with a trail of blood leading to a nightmarish pile of bodies dumped in the bathroom. The aftermath of the crime spirals into even bleaker territory. The beating of the Mexican suspects in the earlier ‘Bloody Christmas’ riot has already established the racism and mindless brutality rife in the LAPD, tacitly condoned by the menacingly avuncular Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). The Nite Owl investigation confirms that the beatings were not a one-off drunken disgrace; the discrimination and abuse of power is endemic and barely challenged, with internal investigations amounting to little more than publicity stunts.
The film’s villain casually frames three black suspects for the massacre, knowing that no questions will be asked if they are “killed resisting arrest.” Trying to track the men down, Vincennes and Exley exploit the innocent Leonard (Robert Barry Fleming) for information, making him promises they will never keep, knowing that his race and class will ensure that he cannot hold them to account for their words. If Exley and Vincennes’ detective work temporarily saves the suspects from their murderous colleagues, the reprieve is inadvertent and their methods unscrupulous, demonstrating that the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cops are only separated by shades of grey. The subsequent interrogation sequence is loaded with casual racism, homophobia, and bullying. The truth is only revealed by accident, and tellingly, it fails to save the suspects’ lives; once the prisoners mysteriously escape from custody, the trigger-happy police are only too happy to see the distinctly shaky case against them ‘resolved’ by their corpses.
It’ll look like justice. That’s what the man got. Justice.Bud White
Inez (Marisol Padilla Sanchez), the real victim of the three men, knows that while they are guilty of her rape, they are innocent of the massacre. However, she withholds her knowledge in order to secure their punishment, explaining: “Would anyone care that they raped a Mexican girl from Boyle Heights if they hadn’t killed those white people at the Nite Owl?” The “swift and merciless” justice promised by the police chief (John Mahon) is shown to be an utter travesty, entirely compromised by corruption and institutionalised bigotry. The film’s cynical conclusion sees the truth supressed once again, with the villain declared a hero, and Exley exploiting his political advantage for personal gain – a deal with the devil that undercuts any notion of meaningful change or a truly happy ending.
The film casts its net wider than a simple exposé of police corruption, however. The entire society of 1950s Los Angeles is indicted by the story’s events. Multiple references are made to the darker side of the city’s allure. Unwitting dreamers longing for stardom are swiftly relieved of their innocence, summed up when the slimy District Attorney (Ron Rifkin) dismisses the murder of a minor Hollywood actor with the words: “Boys, girls, ten of them get off the bus each day.” The Fleur-de-Lis prostitution racket explicitly links the underworld to Hollywood through its use of movie star lookalike call-girls. Lynn is modelled after Veronica Lake, and the unfortunate Susan Lefferts (Amber Smith) resembles Rita Hayworth so strongly that even the morgue attendants are initially dumbfounded by their ‘celebrity’ body. The line is blurred further by actors playing gangster Johnny Stompanato and actress Lana Turner, a real-life couple and contemporary fixture of gossip columns. Such is the confusion that the naïve Exley manages to mistake the real Turner for her call-girl counterpart.
Described by Hudgens as “a powerful behind-the-scenes strange-o,” the unelected, unaccountable, and seemingly respectable Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn) links all of the levels of criminal activity, from the gangsters and the police to the government and the stars. He uses his Fleur-de-Lis ring to blackmail politicians and gain valuable stakes in civic infrastructure projects (echoing the illicit battle for water rights at the heart of Chinatown). The ill-gotten freeway he invests in is advertised with the slogan “Go West, America,” a deeply ironic echo of the 19th century expansionist belief in a manifest destiny for US settlers, as though Patchett’s dubious venture were the natural apotheosis of such values. Yet even Patchett is ultimately no more than a cog in the film’s web of greed and venality. Everything is interconnected by multiple threads of poisonous corruption that nobody seems able to control: the American Dream turned utterly rotten, a snake eating its own tail.
While the heart of L.A. Confidential is fearsomely bleak, the film never becomes a sermon or forgets to excite and entertain. The tension and intrigue never flag, with terrific performances, rich atmosphere, and a satisfyingly convoluted plot that withstands repeat viewings. It manages the neat trick of seeming effortless, despite being densely packed with detail. The film is widely considered to be the strongest screen adaptation of Ellroy’s work to date, with even the infamously curmudgeonly author himself occasionally managing to acknowledge a few of its strengths. More than this, it still holds up not just as one of the finest films of the 1990s, but as arguably one of the most intelligent and ambitious thrillers of the past 25 years.