Movies That Everyone Should See: “L.A. Confidential”

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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.

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“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

20121216-144914.jpgAmerican 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.

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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.

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20121216-153914.jpgHaving 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.

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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.

Kevin_Spacey_Jack_Vincennes_LA_ConfidentialJack 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.

Guy_Pearce_Ed_Exsley_LA_ConfidentialExley 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.

Russell_Crowe_Bud_White_LA_ConfidentialWhite 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?

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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.

Danny_DeVito_Sid_Hudgens_LA_ConfidentialCorruption, 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.

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“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“.

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52 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “L.A. Confidential”

  1. Aaah! Fogs. Fogs. Fogs… Music to my ears sir. You have went and included another of my personal top ten. Im loving this feature more and more. Great write-up of a great, great film. Absolutely robbed at the oscars and undoubtedly a modern classic. Well done sir! :-D

    • Yeah, it was a tough year to be released… nothing was stopping the Titanic train. :( In retrospect, I definitely think LA Confidential is a better movie (Hell, I’m on record on my podcast saying that 3 of the other 4 that year were better than Titanic, the other two being Good Will Hunting and As Good as it Gets)

      But this has earned a nice spot for itself in pop culture. People definitely still cherish it, so I think in the end, it’s still a winner.

      Thanks for the props, buddy. Making up for Anchorman, huh? LOL

  2. Yes! Great movie! My one gripe has always been there was no way Russel Crowe’s character would have survived all that. But otherwise, this is one of my favorites.

  3. A great post Fogs on one of my favorite movies of all-time. And that’s NOT off the record, on the QT, or very hush hush.

    The shoot-out at the end is so good. The cast is awesome. The way I describe it to friends is an R rated Dragnet.

    Man, gonna have to watch it now!

    • I agree it should have. It WAS the best picture. But I understand why it didn’t. Titanic was an unstoppable force at that point in time. I think the Academy would have been villified if they didnt crown it. :(

  4. L.a. Confidential and Chinatown are the “creme de la creme” of modern Noir. A lot of LA stills looks like this. Makes me wonder why Hollywood hasn’t capitalized on that? I know what you’re gonna say. They have but the movies stunk!
    You’ve hit another homer with this MTESS. Should try a curveball once in a while!

    • Nah, nevermind the curveball, Ricky, give ‘em the heater!

      We’re getting our genres mixed now. LOL.

      LA does seem to draw more of its share of period pieces. There seems to be a fascination with this era and that town. There was almost a glut of them right around the time this came out if I remember correctly. There’s another one coming right around the corner, too with Gangster Squad. Not that that looks any good. :(

  5. Definitely threw a slew of surprises at me that I liked but altogether, I didn’t really love it like so many others. Out of the whole cast, I think Guy Pearce takes the cake with this one and it’s a shame that the guy doesn’t get any more quality, American-roles like this one here. Oh well, solid review brotha!

    • Awww man, that’s too bad, Dan. This one is a classic!

      I think that Crowe was the standout here, but I hear what you’re saying about Guy Pearce. I mean, at one point he was doing this and Memento, and then the next thing you know he’s relegated to pix like “Lockout” :(

      Its a raw deal. Definitely.

  6. Fogs, L.A. Confidential is such a great movie and one of my favorites. I’ve read all four books, and it’s remarkable how well they convey the atmosphere of LA that James Ellroy created in those novels. Compared to a mess like the adaptation of The Black Dahlia, this is in another stratosphere. Of course, it helps that this is the best of the four books.

    What’s amazing is just how complex the book is. It focuses on the three characters but spans multiple decades. They wisely pared it down to a few major events like The Nite Owl killing to make it more streamlined. All three main actors nail down their characters, particularly Russell Crowe in the trickiest part. Bud White isn’t a likable guy (especially in the books), but we always understand his motivations. He’s actually the most genuine guy of the group when we reach the end.

    Great post and nice job presenting the history of the movie!

    • Thanks Dan, appreciate that!

      I heard quite a bit about the novel from the special features. Apparently they had a hell of a time paring it down… supposedly its pretty epic. Tons of subplot and side characters, that sort of thing. From what I heard, they took out any scene not focusing on one of the three main characters and worked their way out from there in order to find a story that would work. Sounded like quite a difficult adaptation… made me want to check out the book, and I’m not exactly a big reader. :D

  7. Fogs shoots, Fogs scores!

    Definitely agree, and I’d go so far as to say this is the best crime film of at least the last 20 years. You think there’s any chance “Gangster Squad” will approach the quality of this?

    • Sniggkkktttt…. LOL. Nice one, man. that’s funnnnnnnnny. :D LOL

      Shit… you got me laughing over here with that one bro. :D

      Meanwhile, thanks. Glad you approve. This is a classic in every way as far as I’m concerned.

  8. I have been meaning to see this one for awhile…. but I haven’t got around to it yet (for shame!). It’s gonna happen eventually!
    I was also disappointed with the trailers for gangster squad. That’s something (like this I hope) that I would normally love but it’s looks so…. eh I don’t even know how to describe it. Overdone, maybe? Like “look at us making this epic movie with all these famous people!” But with little else that seems new and/or interesting. And like the Great Gatsby, they used not period music in the trailer which makes me wary…. eh….

    • Well…. those are both very different movies from this one Hunter. So regardless, you should see this. This is a sharp, sharp movie. Its really classic. Cant recommend it enough.

      Meanwhile, I anticipate Gangster Squad will suck, but I have high hopes for Gatsby. There’s some decent talent on board, and the visuals look imaginative at least… :D

  9. “…safe passage for ruthless men in love.” – this is a quote from the book which is amazing and far rougher than the movie. The book is far less heroic in the end but still good. The movie is by far one of my all time favorites! Its bloody awesome! Thanks for giving it such a good review! I love how Bud White has to realise he is what he hates. In fact, as you pointed out, they all have to go through great character changes to win in the end! Brillent!

  10. Nice write up Fogs. Lots of great details in there I was unaware of. I loved this film when I first saw it, but haven’t given it the repeated viewings of some other similar favorites, like Usual Suspects or even Get Shorty. I’ll have to dig this off the shelf and give it another go.

    It occurred to me on my recent trip to L.A. that it’s ironic that L.A., the sunniest, brightest city around, hosts all the best noir, a word which literally means ‘dark’ or ‘black’. I’d suggest that a more precise label for film noir might be ‘high contrast’ (although noir is certainly more poetic), since, as you point out in your review, its really all about the collision of light and dark, and how the crime and grime lives along side the lights and glamour.

    Anyway, L.A. confidential is a great noir piece and a worthy MTESS.

    • I totally whiffed on a couple of these, apparently.

      You make an excellent point about Noir and LA. That’s very true, it definitely does seem like more than their share are set there. And that’s a damn good reason why too. Very astute. Setting that darkness against the sunny, shiny persona that LA is supposed to have gives it an extra tinge of irony. :)

      Plus, a lot of fil writers live out there, so… ;)

  11. This is a fine piece of cinema. The story motors through L.A.’s glam and grime with slick dialogue that encapsulates the time period style while conveying exactly what’s occurring onscreen through clever characters. This was the first I’d seen of Crowe or Pearce in American film as leads; both are excellent here which FMR highlights. I really dig this film; solid post for an MTESS.

    Captain Dudley Smith: Go back to Jersey, sonny. This is the City of the Angels, and you haven’t got any wings.
    -LA Confidentail(’97), James Cromwell as Captn Smith

    • Ha. You sounded a little like a crime writer yourself for a minute there S. :)

      Me too, man, first I had seen of either of them as well. Both of them were freaking awesome though. Knew right away theyd both be big. :)

      Thanks for the support on this one! :D And I think Dudley had all the best lines in the film… well, he or Sid Hudgens :D

  12. Hi, Fogs and company:

    ‘L.A. Confidential’ is a great period piece with a superb cast worthy of its gritty, superior writing. Lush, inviting and neon lit on the outside. Scuzzier and slimier than Hell on the inside!

    Love the attention to detail. All the way down to Jack Vincennes’ Studebaker Lark and L.A.P.D. Plainclothes cops’ use of blackjacks and saps. In a film full of great scenes. Many of which are stolen by Jame Cromwell’s Dudley Smith and his dry wit.

    • You think so Boy-O? :D

      Yeah, great period authenticity here, from the clothes right down to the film studio and the pulp magazine. I thought it was great… very immersive. :D

      It’s an awesome flick. “Lush, inviting and neon lit on the outside. Scuzzier and slimier than Hell on the inside” is a good tagline… :D

      • “Don’t start tryin’ to do the right thing, boy-o. You haven’t the practice.”

        “I doubt you’ve ever taken a stupid breath. Don’t start now.”

        It’s nice to see how Cromwell as matured and developed from the first time I saw him as a harried technician on ABC’s “Barney Miller” back in the mid 1970s.

        That is a rather nice tagline… :D

      • That “Dont start trying to do the right thing” quote almost became my blog tagline this week (I change ‘em each week to match the MTESS). It lost out cause I was able to referrence “Readers”, which… you know, fits a blog. LOL. Love that quote though! :D

  13. The Frolic room is still there on Hollywood Blvd next to the Pantages, The Formosa was there a couple of years ago, I don’t remember hearing anything about it being taken down,. The neighborhoods where the kidnappers are taken looked just like that when I lived in East L.A. as a kid, and they still look like that today, only the Gang Graffiti seems to change. From the early forties all thru to today, L.A. has been a focus of crime stories. One of the reasons is the Hollywood Connection, but I also think the fact that Organized Crime never took a deep root out here like it did in Eastern cities. We have plenty of Organized Crime, but it is home grown. That means the crime stories can follow a lot more different paths, that is why I think so many noir films end up being based in the L.A. basin.The LAPD was notorious for not tolerating the gangster elements, and that part of the story is also featured in a film called “Mulholland Falls”, with Nick Nolte. It is interesting that he played the Josh Brolin role from Gangster Squad in that, and in Gangster Squad he looks like he is going to play the Chief Parker Role. I was watching this movie this morning, only got to see twenty minutes or so, but the three main guys tear it up. Crowe looks like a steel tool ready to be wielded by some one higher up. Pearce is one of the great under-rated actors of our time and his hypocritical self righteous act plays perfect political foil to Dudley’s infernal machine like brain. Kevin Spacey’s Jack dressed like my Dad in the 1950s, flashy sports coats, black shirts or white with florid ties. The attention to detail and set decoration and lighting is just fantastic in this picture.

    • You should write “A Guide to LA Noir Spots” Rich. :D

      I’ve seen Mulholland Falls, Malkovich and Jen Connelly were in that too. I dont think Gangster Squad will live up to either of them… thats my early impression. Seems like it has a collection of names and not much to go on aside from them playing dress up. That’s where I’m at with it at this moment, of course Ive been known to be wrong.

      Your Dad was a sharp dresser, then huh? I had some genuine tie envy at times during that film. I was like “Oh. Sharp.” LOL :D

      It is a model of how period pieces should be done, there’s no doubt about it!

  14. Awesome piece, man. I didn’t see this until last year, and it was the easy choice for my favorite film in the 50 movies project. Completely blew me away. Might have been good timing on my part, too, since I had just finished the video game LA Noire and wanted to dig even deeper into that era. Can’t wait to revisit it once again.

    • Nice!

      I’m a much bigger fan of this movie than I was of that video game, but its easy to see how the two went hand in hand. LOL. The Aesthetic was the best part about “Noire”, I thought. Here, you get that PLUS a brilliant crime drama! :D

      Glad to hear you’re on board Big E.

  15. Great film, it’s so well done that it almost feels like it was made in the 60s. And look at that cast, no one knew about Guy Pearce or Russell Crowe back in those days!

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