Come to Los Angeles! The sun shines bright, the beaches are wide and inviting, and the orange groves stretch as far as the eye can see. There are jobs aplenty, and land is cheap. Every working man can have his own house, and inside every house, a happy, all-American family. You can have all this, and who knows… you could even be discovered, become a movie star… or at least see one. Life is good in Los Angeles… it’s paradise on Earth.
Heh heh heh. That’s what they tell you, anyway.
“Even though the entire construction of crime movies and crime literature is preposterous, it has to be realistic. and when its done right, it gives you the whole of society.” - James Ellroy
American crime fiction novelist James Ellroy released “L.A. Confidential” in 1990. It was the third of four novels in his “L.A. Quartet” series (“The Black Dahlia” (1987), “The Big Nowhere” (1998), “L.A. Confidential” (1990), “White Jazz” (1992)), each of which was set in Los Angeles during the 1940s and ’50s.
It featured a number of actual events, helping to give it a gritty sense of realism. The “Bloody Christmas” scene where drunken police officers brutally prisoners was an actual incident. Eight cops were indicted for assault. Mickey Cohen’s arrest did touch off a gang war for control of the rackets. There was an LAPD “Goon Squad” which would beat and threaten out-of-town gangsters. There actually was a relationship between Lana Turner and gangster Johnny Stompanato.
It was this authenticity that drew director Curtis Hanson to the novel. Hanson grew up in Los Angeles, and always wanted to do an L.A. Period piece. He worked in his uncle’s clothing store when he was young, and saw numerous famous female movie stars there, so he had a closeness to the glamorous Hollywood of that time. Yet he also knew that the city had a darker side, that there was an undercurrent of crime. He wanted to try to capture all of that on film, and so, when he read “L.A. Confidential”, he knew he had found the perfect story.
Warner Brothers purchased the rights, but they wound up having reservations along the way. Firstly, it was a period piece, which always served to drive up costs, and ran the risk of not connecting with a modern audience. It was also a noir film, and studios were well aware that noirs typically don’t perform well commercially. Finally, it featured three “main” characters. Hanson was pressured to eliminate two of the three, and focus on just one, in order to cast a star.
Thankfully, Hanson was able to find a believer in Arnon Milchan at New Regency (which had a relationship with WB). With his help, they were able to get the greenlight from Warners… but they had a modest budget to work with.
Having a limited budget was a blessing in disguise, however, as it allowed for a greater degree of freedom in casting. Without casting “big stars” in the leads, they were free to seek out actors that they liked. Hanson had seen Russell Crowe in “Romper Stomper”, a movie in which Crowe plays the leader of a gang of neo-Nazi skinheads. He was an unknown, and an Australian. Further… the novel describes Bud White as the biggest man on the L.A. police force, and Crowe didn’t fit that description.
Guy Pearce was also unknown and also Australian. Casting two unknown Australians in two prominent roles was a cause for concern for the studio. However, Hanson was able to exploit that unease into scheduling six weeks of rehearsal time, which worked to the movie’s benefit as well.
Other members of the cast were better known. Kim Basinger was cast for her classical Hollywood looks. Danny DeVito was perfect for the smarmy Sid Hudgens. Hanson had actually tried to work with Kevin Spacey previously, but studios had always raised objections. Now that he had been nominated for an Academy Award (he was up for Best Supporting Actor for “The Usual Suspects” at the time, an award he would eventually win), Hanson knew they would no longer object.
The movie is the story of three cops: Bud White (Russell Crowe), Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), and Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey). When a multiple homicide (with an ex-cop as one of the victims) causes them all to cross paths, they begin uncovering an explosive secret that goes all the way to the top. Yet each of them also their own journey to take.
Jack Vincennes is a narcissistic self promoter who’s more interested in his advisory work on a television show than being a cop. He’s also collecting bribes on a regular basis from a scandal mag for tip offs. Vincennes begins to question what he’s doing, and eventually is in a position to act like a cop. When he does, he goes at it full on, hoping to atone for the wreckage that his ways have caused.
Exley is ambitious to a fault, but begins the film squeaky clean. When questioned by his Captain early on in the film, he swears he would never bend the rules in order to get a conviction. In fact, after the “Bloody Christmas” incident, he’s quick to rat out his fellow officers. Of course, by the end of the film, his black and white worldview develops shades of grey. Always sharp and self-interested, by the end of the film, he also learns exactly what it means to get his hands dirty.
White is burly and brutish. He’s ill-tempered, especially around those that are abusive to women. His Captain personally selects him for the goon squad, using him to beat on mobsters who are trying to encroach on the territory. When he falls for a prostitute who makes her living as a movie star lookalike, she softens him up, and he reveals his own motivations. But he also has to confront the anger within himself… is he as dangerous as the men he despises so much?
The subplot of prostitutes getting plastic surgery to look like movie stars plays thematically into the glamorous appearance of the city belying a seedy underside. But Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), as the Veronica Lake wannabe, also adds a touching romantic element to the film as well. The relationship she has with Bud White showcases two damaged people taking off their armor and exposing their vulnerabilities to each other. It winds up being very poignant and powerful, in spite of only being given a subplot’s allotment of time.
Corruption, false veneers, self-interest, the allure of fame… This is an L.A. story. Punctuated with narration in 1950s slang by Danny DeVito’s magazine writer Sid Hudgens, the movie propels the audience along both with its style and noir sensibilities, and also the engrossing mystery it features. When it all unravels, there are shocking twists and unexpected casualties. The end of the movie features one of the greatest shootouts ever as two of the three cops are holed up in a motel room, trying to blast their way out. It’s an electric, intense scene, reminiscent of Butch and Sundance pinned down in Bolivia. And yet, as explosive as the shootout is, the aftermath is equally as incendiary.
“L.A. Confidential” was nominated for nine Academy Awards in 1997: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Dramatic Score and Best Sound. It won two of them: Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress for Kim Basinger. Many of the other awards were lost to “Titanic”.
It did, however, sweep the “Big Four” critics awards. The National Society of Film Critics, The New York Film Critics, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Board of Review all ranked it as the Best Film of the Year. Curtis Hanson was also voted Best Director by The National Society of Film Critics and The New York Film Critics.
“L.A. Confidential” is a harsh mystery thriller. Graft, greed and corruption are on full display. The Golden Age of Hollywood is shown to be tarnished and tawdry. It’s also a fantastic character piece, though, and full of super sharp dialogue. It’s a tautly paced neo-noir with one of the most phenomenal third acts ever.
It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See“.