← Back to Reviews
\

L.A. Confidential


mirror
mirror


Year of release
1997

Directed by
Curtis Hanson

Written by
Curtis Hanson
Brian Helgeland
James Ellroy (novel)

Starring
Kevin Spacey
Guy Pierce
Russell Crowe
James Cromwell
Kim Basinger

L.A. Confidential

-

Plot – Los Angeles, 1951. Three policeman find themselves becoming unlikely allies when they get caught up in a web of corruption that threatens their lives. Straight-laced Edmund Exley (Pearce), brutal Bud White (Crowe) and sleazy bribe merchant Jack Vincennes don't have a hell of a lot in common. Indeed more than once these men clash over their attitudes and their actions when it comes to police work. But when the story behind a multiple killing at a diner gets deeper and more convoluted they discover that it winds all the way to their very own police department. Now, these men must join forces and put their differing methods to good use to uncover the truth.

When it came to Mark there wasn't one particular film he has suggested like the others. He's recommended a few over time, but none that I have access to at the current moment. So I decided just to go with one of his absolute favourites. So I went to his top 100 list and had a quick glance through and this one jumped out at me over a number of others. It was at #47 on the list. Considering Mark has seen over 30,000 films, that in itself is quite an endorsement. And it's a very classy, grown up piece of film-making.

The most intriguing aspect of the film was the ability to compare the three central cops (all well realised, realistic feeling characters) at the heart of the story, and the completely different characters they are and different approaches they take to their work. There's the straight-laced and by the book cop, Edmund Exley. Trying to live up to the legacy of his father he finds that his morality not only struggles to find a place in the department, but is actively encouraged to be forgotten. Initially resembling a snivelling account more than a cop, he eventually rises as a courageous man with a capacity for violence. There's the brutal young cop with an old school mentality, Bud White. As a result of his father's treatment of his mother he despises men who abuse women, and will not hesitate to hand out his own brand of justice. He becomes the right hand man for Captain Smith, a tool of violence and intimidation. And then in a confrontation with Basinger's character he becomes what he despises most. And lastly there's the slimy, corrupt Jack Vincennes. Seduced by the fame of Hollywood Vincennes mixes with celebrities, dresses sharp and is always on the look out for the opportunity to make a little extra cash. They are complete opposites and yet eventually they are all revealed to be 'good cops' to an extent, and eventually form an uneasy alliance when they realise that's the only chance they have of coming away from this with the truth, and indeed their lives.

I found the film was constantly questioning me as to where my sympathies and loyalties lay in terms of the main trio of cops. And whenever I had just about settled on a position the film would move the goalposts on me. Characters I had placed my faith in would do something untoward. And characters I had written off would step up and do something heroic. And then just to complicate things further the film takes the moral line in the sand and moves it. All of a sudden some of the things White or Vincennes had done earlier in the film don't seem so bad compared to the true dark nature that is running through the L.A.P.D. So you assaulted a wife beater? Big Deal! You take bribes to work with a newspaper publisher – who cares?!

Film trivia - The idea of Pierce Patchett's celebrity look-alike prostitute business is actually based upon the long talked of rumour that there really was a whorehouse in Hollywood that specialised in dressing and making up women to resemble the most famous movie stars of the day. In his splendidly titled memoir, “Hollywood: Stars and Starlets, Tycoons and Flesh-Peddlers, Moviemakers and Moneymakers, Frauds and Geniuses, Hopefuls and Has-Beens, Great Lovers and Sex Symbols", screenwriter Garson Davis talks of visiting a place called Mae's where the madam was dressed as Mae West and presided over a group of ladies who replicated stars such as Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Carole Lombard, Marlene Dietrich and Ginger Rogers amongst others.
The performances from the all-star cast are astonishing; surely one of the great ensemble efforts in film history. I'll move onto some of the other performances in a moment but there's one I have to talk about first. In a film with so many impressive showings from critically acclaimed actors and actresses, it's going to take something pretty special to stand out. And in Guy Pearce, this film has something pretty special. He is extraordinary in the role of Edmund Exley. He creates a very complex character. Indeed it took me a long while to actually get a read on him. Is he merely a stickler for the rules who believes he's just doing what is right, or does he 'sell out' his fellow officers with the ulterior motive of his own advancement. It's a fantastic performance as Pearce floats between snivelling politician in the making, and heroic defender of justice. For a while I thought it was going to be Spacey stealing the limelight; the fact that he is gifted the most charismatic and charming character certainly helping. His Vincennes is just so slick and smarmy, but with a shade of sadness and self-loathing in there. Crowe is likewise very strong, even if I felt he was a little over-shadowed by his cast mates. His aggressive, macho image and personality are put to good use as the short-tempered White; a character whose anger is constantly simmering just under the surface, capable of exploding at any moment. Also very effective is James Cromwell as Captain Dudley Smith. With his dead eyes and stone cold heart, can this really be the guy that I associate with Babe, a film he made just two years previously.

While there are a lot of great performances as I've just outlined, perhaps the best piece of actual casting is Danny DeVito as Hush-Hush publisher Sid Hudgens. While he seems like a really nice guy anytime I've seen him interviewed, and I am a big fan of his, he undoubtedly has a skeezy, slimy quality about him both in terms of his appearance and his voice. A quality he has put to good use over his career; whether it be as scumbag Louis De Palma in Taxi, his horrible husband in Ruthless People or as The Penguin in Batman Returns, or any other number of similar roles. So placing him in the role of the sleazy, muck-raking Hudgens is just about perfect. And DeVito has such a distinctive, characterful voice that he is a great choice as the film's occasional narrator as he reads aloud the articles he is writing.

It's certainly a film where you have to keep your mind sharp and alert at all time. The film lays out a complex and labyrinth story for us to try and navigate our way through. Helgeland and Hanson's script feeds us a series of seemingly disparate plot strands before eventually tying them together into one sprawling, twisting mystery. In fact there were a few occasions where I found myself wondering why exactly we were being shown something, thinking 'how exactly is this relevant?' And after mentioning about how you really have to stay sharp, I have to admit that I initially missed the relevance of Rolo Tomassi. And what a fool I was because it's a beautiful piece of scripting which so perfectly ties things together.

The film is beautiful to look at, with some marvellous cinematography on show from Dante Spinotti. It creates a vintage 50s sheen to the aesthetic, while obviously taking advantage of modern technology to give the whole things a lovely gloss. Some of the period detail is a delight as well, with the costume design a particular highlight. Together, along with the murkiness of the story itself they help to create a thick and brooding atmosphere.

Film trivia – In addition to making it on to the big screen, L.A. Confidential has twice been pitched to television studios. Producer David L. Wolper initially wanted to produce the project as a mini-series, and then HBO actually had a weekly series in development. A pilot movie starring Kiefer Sutherland was produced, but the series was not picked up.
The film takes a lot of issues and throws them into the big melting plot that is Hollywood. As with just about any film that deals with Hollywood and chooses not to gloss over it's darker side we have the issue of crushed dreams. For every success story there are countless other dreams that crash and burn, leaving the dreamers in a dark place. And in this film that takes on the form of prostitution; celebrity look-alike prostitution to be exact. The film also address a number of issues that have plagued the L.A.P.D. for a great deal of its history – racism, corruption and police brutality. Indeed the Bloody Christmas incident is actually a fictionalised version of something that really happened and went by the same name. In Los Angeles in 1951, a group of drunken police officers brutally assaulted seven men (two white men and seven Latinos) that were suspected of beating up two police officers. The men were left with broken bones and ruptured organs.

Despite it's twisting story and intelligent script this is not merely a cerebral exercise. There's enough action and confrontation to make this a thrilling experience. Throw in a few shocking twists from the script to keep you on your toes and it all makes for an exciting ride. In terms of action there are a few impressive shootouts, none more so than that which comes toward the film's conclusion. Unlikely allies, Exley and White find themselves trapped in a cabin surrounded by a group of men out for their blood. After building the tension the scene explodes in a hail of bullets. And for the next few minutes I'm not sure if I allowed myself a breath. It's a stunning and enthralling piece of action, made all the more so by the fact I had no idea what was going to happen. I was at the point where nothing would have surprised me anymore.

I know this film is compared very often to the 70s noir Chinatown. I have to admit that Chinatown didn't particularly do it for me, though admittedly a large part of that was likely down to Jack Nicholson's involvement. I just found L.A. Confidential to a much more emotional, engaging and captivating experience. It's just a shame that when it came to the Academy Awards the film ran into the juggernaut that was Titanic. As a result the film brought home just two awards from nine nominations – Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Basinger, and Best Adapted Screenplay. I think it's a sin that Titanic took home the Best Picture trophy over this.

Conclusion – Impeccably acted. Terrifically scripted. And handsomely lensed by Hanson. This is a great piece of film-making, and certainly deserving of its reputation as one of the finest films the 90s had to offer. Also deserving of its reputation as a film that you really should see.