EVERYTHING IS SUSPECT… EVERYONE IS FOR SALE… AND NOTHING IS WHAT IT SEEMS.
In the case of L.A. Confidential, success was far from guaranteed. Director Curtis Hanson had made a few formulaic thrillers, screenwriter Brian Helgeland was not an established name in Hollywood and the two stars, Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, were mostly known for Australian soap operas. In the end, all of them gathered to create the Untouchables of the 1990s. Once the studio agreed to take a chance with Crowe and Pearce, Hanson found the courage to approach stars like Danny DeVito, Kim Basinger and Kevin Spacey for key supporting roles. The game was on for a journey back to 1954.
A real-life Bloody Christmas scandal
It’s pretty clear that James Ellroy’s story portrays a Los Angeles Police Department in dire need of morale. Both the novel and the film include the real-life Bloody Christmas scandal where police officers beat up several Latinos on Christmas Day 1951. A lot of things are indeed rotten in this story. We are primarily introduced to two very different cops, Bud White (Crowe) who doesn’t mind cracking a few skulls and bending rules in order to achieve results, and Ed Exley (Pearce), the son of a renowned L.A. cop who wants to be everything his father wasn’t – an honest police officer. His by-the-books attitude quickly makes him a laughing stock among his peers.
When White’s partner is found dead alongside several other people in a diner, Exley is the first detective on the scene, but Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) takes charge. The initial suspects are three Black men, but the case turns out to run much deeper…
A long gone Los Angeles
There are several other interesting characters that lend this exciting thriller depth, all of them related to the idea of a Los Angeles that is long gone, although they all probably have successors in modern-day L.A.. There’s Jack Vincennes (Spacey), the sunny detective who knows that the real clue to success in his trade is positive PR, which is why he’s also serving as an adviser on a popular TV show about cops and never refuses a bribe if it serves the right purpose. There’s also a high-end prostitute called Lynn Bracken (Basinger) who looks like Veronica Lake and constantly becomes involved with both powerful and dangerous men; and Sid Hudgens (DeVito), the shameless editor of a gossip rag called “Hush-Hush” who knows every secret there is in Hollywood.
When Hanson read Ellroy’s novel, he became primarily interested in the characters, and it shows; the actors are given ample opportunity to shine. The veterans are great, including Basinger in a performance that likely will define her career, and the new guys, Crowe and Pearce, are not afraid to stand tall. The story is absolutely mesmerizing, well told by Helgeland and Hanson, first introducing us to the characters in effective ways and then throwing us into a massacre that seems to go away after a violent conclusion… until it resurfaces like a floater, with shocking consequences that finally make White, Exley and Vincennes reluctantly team up. The deeper we get into the conspiracy, the tougher it gets, with one major plot twist that is brilliantly revealed and a final shoot-out that will have you at the edge of your seat.
Hanson didn’t want the period details to dominate everything, but they are nevertheless irresistible, and Jerry Goldsmith’s music score fits the movie well, in spite of certain modern touches. All in all it’s a highly atmospheric vision of the city that pays tribute to 1940s film noir and hard-boiled 1950s dramas.
In the end, L.A. Confidential became one of the best reviewed films of 1997, and a box-office hit. Sometimes it pays off for the powers that be in the city of dreams to take a chance with lesser-known talents.
L.A. Confidential 1997-U.S. 136 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Arnon Milchan, Curtis Hanson, Michael Nathanson. Directed by Curtis Hanson. Screenplay: Brian Helgeland, Curtis Hanson. Novel: James Ellroy. Cinematography: Dante Spinotti. Music: Jerry Goldsmith. Editing: Peter Honess. Cast: Kevin Spacey (Jack Vincennes), Russell Crowe (Bud White), Guy Pearce (Ed Exley), James Cromwell, David Strathairn, Kim Basinger… Danny DeVito, Simon Baker.
Trivia: Originally meant to be a TV series starring Kiefer Sutherland.
Oscars: Best Supporting Actress (Basinger), Adapted Screenplay. BAFTA: Best Editing, Sound. Golden Globe: Best Supporting Actress (Basinger).
Trivia: “I had always wanted to tell a story that was set in Los Angeles in the ’50s, because that’s where I grew up, and it was the city of my childhood memories. I wanted to deal with that, and also pursue this theme that interested me, which is the difference between illusion and reality, the way people and things appear to be versus how they really are. And Hollywood, of course, is the city of illusion. So that was near and dear to me, and extremely personal. In terms of talking with my collaborators as they came onboard – Jeannine Oppewall, our production designer, Dante Spinotti, our cinematographer, and so forth – I said to them, ‘Let’s pretend that this is a place like Honolulu. Let’s ignore the fact that all these other movies have been made here for decades and try to come at it with a fresh eye, as if it were an exotic city that people aren’t that familiar with. And let’s present our own view of it, create a world that’s unique to this movie’.” (Hanson, The A.V. Club)