L.A. Confidential is a movie, probably under-viewed by more modern audiences, which will never age. It simply masters the art of the period picture. Even after many rewatches, there are few, if any, moments that feel either too dated or too modern. This is rarer than it sounds. Yes, it is aided by the fact that it is set during a time that few of its viewers were alive to see. But it would be simple to list many period films that do not manage to avoid these pitfalls. Is it the script, the performances, the impeccable direction from Curtis Hanson? Yes. It is all of these ingredients together that help L.A. Confidential feel at once rooted in a particular time and yet still accessible to contemporary viewers.
Sadly, outside of the limited world of cinephiles, and despite nine Academy Award nominations, L.A. Confidential is not a film that the general public tend to think of when discussing recent classics. If anything, it is widely known for being that other Oscar-nominated movie in 1997 when Titanic was king. In a twist that is somehow morbidly appropriate for this film, it has found a slight bit of new publicity due to the death of Curtis Hanson in the last year. Looking back at his filmography, it is truly shocking that this was not a jumping off point for his career. His decisions regarding not only the look and sound of the film, but also the truly gutsy casting choices show a professional who deserved every opportunity possible.
But let’s talk about the risky nature of this movie. Looking at the casting and the adaptation, there is literally no way that L.A. Confidential should have even been brought to the screen, let alone become a new classic. The book it is based on is infinitely complicated and hence, difficult to adapt to screen. Imagine this: there is a beloved quartet of novels, and a filmmaker decides to make a film only out of the third book in the series. Additionally, the screenwriters, Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson in this case, decide to remove storylines, add important moments, and limit the story in scope. Luckily, the culture of social media was almost a decade away at this point. One can certainly envision a strong backlash from loyal readers of James Ellroy. An entire essay could be written about the master class in adaptation that L.A. Confidential has given us. But the decision to focus on “whores cut to look like movie stars” and give customers “whatever you desire” gives the audience an easy buy-in, as opposed to discussing the history of Los Angeles and its problematic relationships with law enforcement over at least a decade. Regardless of all of the plot changes and compressions, the characters and the world in which they live all ring true to readers and non-readers alike. Despite this, Warner Brothers was not at all enthusiastic as the movie was being released. As a matter of fact, Hanson was forced to dodge studio executives in order to premiere the film at Cannes. Thankfully, great reviews poured in and the rest is movie history.
The adaptation is not the gutsiest part of the making of L.A. Confidential. The characters represented here are quintessentially American and the film fits firmly in to the genre of neo-noir. Frankly, it is difficult to imagine a better example of quality neo-noir filmmaking. Legendary film critic Andrew Sarris likened it to Citizen Kane, stating that everything about neo-noir changed after the premiere of L.A. Confidential. One example of Hanson’s brilliance is the decision to have voice-over from the writer of Hush Hush Magazine, Sid Hudgens, played in a surprising turn from Danny DeVito. This sets the stage not only for the plot but for the audience to step into the world of Los Angeles in the 1950s. Given the triple protagonist nature of the script, there must not be a weak prong. But in this American story, Hanson decided to cast Russell Crowe (from New Zealand) as Bud White, the antihero who lives in the grey area between criminals and law enforcement and Guy Pearce (from Australia) as the perfect cop, Edmund Exley, who sees only in black and white as two of those leading roles. Both of these foreign-born actors were also particularly green by Hollywood standards. If either of these actor’s performances ring false, because of physicality, accent, or comfort with the language, the film falls apart. It is telling of the director’s confidence in these two men that the third prong, played by American actor Kevin Spacey as Jack Vincennes, has a much more limited role than either Pearce or Crowe. This is not to negate Spacey’s performance, which ranks among the best in a tremendous continuing career.
It is difficult to separate any of these three performances and discuss pros and cons. All three of these men exist in the world of L.A. Confidential, and as such, their work becomes intertwined.
Spacey, Pearce, and Crowe all go through drastic change throughout the arc of the film. But L.A. Confidential never falls prey to forcing its protagonists into boxes that don’t quite fit. Bud White
finds himself through his interactions with the other main characters. His relationship with Lynn Bracken, stunningly portrayed by Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Kim Basinger, helps him process his own childhood trauma and eventually find a healthy romantic relationship. His working relationship with Exley leads him to understand people who do their jobs in different ways and believe in his own ability to be more than just hired muscle. Exley, on the other hand, learns the error of his own rigidity in his life through watching Bud White and his certainly not by-the-book methods of interrogation. Vincennes, near his last moments, finds honor and honesty, somehow finding redemption in the midst of an existence spent chasing money, sex, and fame. In a film which is filled with difficult to like protagonists, it is clear that the film’s focus is to show power and money, exemplified by the character of Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn), as the true evil which is faced. His measured performance, particularly in comparison to the barely simmering rage of Bud White, puts us firmly in the corner of our tremendously flawed heroes.
L.A. Confidential may be most remembered for its twist near the end of the film. Given the casting of beloved actor James Cromwell as Captain Dudley Smith, his villainous turn is genuinely shocking, even upon rewatch. Coming off the role of the kindly farmer in Babe, his murder of Jack Vincennes is one of the most stunning, heartless, evil moments in recent film history. This reveal of character, truly representing the festering underbelly of sunny Los Angeles in this time, is a strike to our hearts, in which we realize how corrupt the police force is, even beyond the obvious grey areas shown by the willingness to be excessively violent and full of greed. All of the problematic actions performed by Smith, White, Vincennes, and numerous others, seem to be for the greater good. But this murder is beyond the pale. The death of Vincennes shows us that change is necessary, there is no going back from this traumatic moment. This vicious act is communicated subtly to our other protagonists by the introduction of a subplot featuring the name Rollo Tomasi. Tomasi, we learn, is a name made up by Exley to describe all of the criminals who have never been caught. When Smith admits that Rollo Tomasi were the last words of the fallen Vincennes, Exley and subsequently White realize that he has indicted himself. Many adaptations make the mistake of telling and not showing. Tomasi is the prime example of the genius of L.A. Confidential’s script. This is yet one more moment that is not derived from the source material, but created by screenwriters Helgeland and Hanson.
L.A. Confidential is more than the sum of its parts. One cannot simply discuss its performances, direction, and writing in a vacuum. All of these add up to a film that is a genre film but also stretches itself beyond those petty restrictions. It is a great neo-noir tale of corrupt police officers and the history of Los Angeles. But looking deeper, it is a film that discusses romance, masculinity, violence, camaraderie, class structure, character, change, and redemption. Greatness is a word that gets thrown around a lot lately, probably a bit too much. That being said, L.A. Confidential is truly great and deserves to be watched and rewatched, even 20 years later.
Featured Image: Warner Bros.