December 5, 2022

L.A. Confidential (1997, dir. Curtis Hanson)

One aspect of this 1997 neo-noir classic that drew much attention was its style—especially its period sense (it is set in the early 1950s)—and deservedly so. From the upholstery on a diner’s banquettes to the bands on men’s hats, from the snout-nosed Ford coupes on the streets to Kay Starr crooning on the airwaves, the production design by Jeannine Oppwall and costumes by Ruth Myers are seamlessly accurate. The idiom of the dialogue, refashioned from James Ellroy’s thriller by Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland, snaps with the breezy bebop slang of the ’50s, punctuated here and there by monosyllabic tough-guyisms still in post-WW II favor. (The script won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay.)

Hanson, who also directs, and cinematographer Dante Spinotti unfurl the movie with a fine sense of texture and pace—equal parts seedy film noir and brassy “Show of Shows”—that catches the very instant when America, most emblematically Hollywood, was poised between the school of hard knocks (the Depression and WWII) and a jarring array of social revolutions (the ’60s and beyond). If the 1950s may be described as a period for self-satisfaction—a time simply to keep up with the Joneses and contemplate our blessings— then certainly no one aided and abetted our strictly enforced sentimentality more avidly than did Hollywood. The conformist morality of its product was never more sanctioning—or hypocritical. The world of Written on the Wind and Magnificent Obsession did not invite an introspective splitting of the fine hairs of conscience; it was a broad-brush canvas, a midnight-or-noon world of fraught but tight-lipped consensus. L.A. Confidential is not merely appropriately named, it is so steeped in its sense of place that it is impossible the story could come to life anywhere else. Its themes, however—appearance vs. reality, corruption, heroism, and love’s redemption—are universal. And the fact that these forces are at war for the soul of an urban police department seems broadly applicable: after decades of serial television and investigative news stories, the institution has become one of our most visible moral battlegrounds, a microcosm of society’s fault lines.

Los Angeles transcends its function of background to become of the primary characters. Not one of the film’s intricately woven plot lines could breathe anywhere but in the hot house atmosphere of La La Land; none of the story’s central characters would confront their demons or their dreams as they do here, interacting with the schizophrenic entity that had become the church and state of illusory values. L.A. Confidential brings us face to face with the city, home to human expatriates in exile from themselves, city of angels rising and descending, improbable earth mother, waterless, tawdry, glamorous. This unique city is as inescapable in a consideration of this film’s impact as it was in such memorably L.A.-centric works as Sunset Boulevard, In a Lonely Place, The Bad and the Beautiful, Day of the Locust, Chinatown, and The Player—not to mention that Jacobean soap opera, the O.J. Simpson case.

At the heart of L.A. Confidential is the relationship between Bud White (Russell Crowe), a tough, sad-eyed, loyal young cop who wants to do the right thing but is painfully suspended in a state of suppressed fury by department superiors who use his brawn for their back-room intimidation sessions, and Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), a rule-book model officer whose ambition and unyielding standards do not make him popular with the rank and file. There’s plenty not to like about both. One of the beauties of the film is that it never rushes our sympathies; it gives us just enough about each man to interest us as the film’s convoluted plot lines slowly come together for a full gallop to the finish. Only in the final scenes of the film do we experience—all the more powerfully for it being something of a surprise—a depth of feeling and of respect for them both.

One of their colleagues is Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), a guy who’s gotten so smooth he can’t stop himself from outrageous displays of verbal smarminess—even though we can see there’s an acrid taste of self-loathing, or at least self-fatigue, when he does it. Vincennes is adviser to the TV cop show “Badge of Honor” and something of a minor celebrity. He takes small pay-offs and we sense that his inner barometer about what’s too small to bother with or too vile to touch is less reliable than it used to be. He turns his head so often it’s in a perpetual swivel. Spacey is extraordinarily adroit at making Vincennes, at once, faintly disgusting and touchingly sympathetic. When he tries to turn what we know could be a big corner in his life, we root for him; and it hurts when he answers Exley’s question about why he became a cop. It’s Spacey’s most galvanizing moment. There’s an attempt at the usual glibness, followed by a wide-eyed, wordless, straining at truth, followed by the actual, crushing truth: “I don’t remember.” Vincennes is the perfect cop for a world founded on duplicity; he’s acting, and he’s been acting for so long that he’s forgotten to remember where all the bodies are buried. Too late he realizes that among them is his own.

Danny DeVito is exuberantly trashy as Sid Hudgens, verminish reporter for Hush-Hush magazine. He and Vincennes occasionally trade favors—Jack’ll set up the vice bust of a starlet and tip Sid to be there with his cameras. The always reliable James Cromwell plays Lieutenant Dudley Smith as a benign Irish patriarch and does so without resorting to cliche. It’s a cunningly crafted performance and dispelled the notion held in some quarters that Cromwell’s Oscar nomination three years previously for his role as the farmer in Babe was a fluke. As Pierce Patchett, an elegantly tailored Brentwood gentleman who runs a high-class string of hookers—whom he sends to hairdressers or even plastic surgeons to heighten their resemblance to stars of the day—David Straitharn adds another gem to his string of low-key but vividly eccentric performances mesmerizing in their variety.

It’s hard to imagine any two actors being more suited, more innately right, than Crowe and Pearce for the two leads—which is precisely the point. Neither Crowe nor Pearce was yet widely known, and in one of the smarter moves made on any major film in 1997, Hanson wisely avoided using better-known stars and managed to talk the producers into it. The payoff for the audience is enormous: undistracted with projecting expectations onto the personas on the screen we are allowed to experience fully our seduction by the film’s suspense, its sensuousness, its ideas. There’s nothing to get in the way of the good work here, and it’s very good, indeed; the characterizations are finely drawn. Even the physical opposition of the actors’ good looks have room to work—Crowe’s heaviness of experience sits uneasily on his brow, Pearce’s chiseled righteousness is matched by his cheekbones.

In another instance  it’s what the audiences did know about an actor’s historical baggage that may have helpfully framed a performance. The face that was most familiar among the cast of L.A. Confidential—that had been most in the news of the ‘90s—belongs to Kim Basinger. Her performance as Lynn Bracken, a Veronica Lake lookalike from Patchett’s agency, accrues its emotional heft precisely because moviegoers had watched her migration in recent years from blonde sexpot, to would-be dramatic and comedic actor, to owner of a small town in Georgia, to bankruptcy and box-office poison after being sued for conduct deemed unbecoming by a major studio, to marriage to Alec Baldwin, motherhood, and a measured, modest come-back. It’s all there. And it makes her love for Officer White nearly unbearable in its wounded tough-cookie need. (Basinger won both the Oscar and Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actress  for the performance.)

Hanson and Helgeland handle the neat convolutions of Ellroy’s crime thriller with cinematic finesse, and Hanson’s sense of pace and stylistic integrity is sinuous and sophisticated. Even more, the real fuel here, as in the noir classics of the ’40s and early ’50s, is emotion. Around the time of the film’s opening, Martin Scorsese—speaking at the fifth Film Institute Preservation Festival –said of those films: “They were about descending into a labyrinth where anything can happen, including the death of the protagonist.”

For 135 minutes, L.A. Confidential takes us with it on such a descent, and not one frame of this remarkable film tips its hand as to whether we’ll go to hell or, if we do, whether we’ll come back. We end up on the edge of our seat, yearning for two protagonists, both anti-heroes—one of whom, not long before, we’d taken to be a psychotic thug and the other a reptilian prig—to battle their way to a compromised moral victory, to make us believe again in at least the possibility of better choices. Odd that for many who see this movie, in which the city of movies looms so large, its white hot light streaked with the shadows of palm trees and ghosted with celluloid shadows, it may not in the end be other movies about L.A. or the movies that come first to mind. It might well be a film made in 1952—High Noon—another exploration of the American Dream, violent evil, and our constantly reforming need to find a face, however unlikely, we can trust.

– Hadley Hury


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