From Regency Enterprises
Directed by Curtis Hanson
It had a tag line that read: It is a crime saga that will shock you. It's a mystery that will keep you guessing. It's a thriller that will keep you riveted. Most tag lines are silly little concoctions but this one spoke the truth. I would add that I regard it as the greatest cop-crime drama I have ever seen and I have certainly seen my fair share.
Just when I thought my beloved film noirs had been put to bed forever came this gem. It is a sensational period piece, inter-weaving some true stories or incidents with a tense and exciting tale of police corruption on the wet and dark streets of 1950s Los Angeles. It gloriously blends gritty cop action with Hollywood celebrity. Be still my heart.
Based on James Ellroy's fabulous novel (the third book in his L.A. Quartet) with Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson fashioning an Academy Award-winning, gut-wrenching, edge-of-your-seat screenplay about three cops with different ways of handling their professional lives. Hanson's direction is taut and linear and he allows his actors to really chew up the scenery.
Two of those actors, Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, I had not heard of at the time and could not imagine why two dudes from Australia would star as 1950s L.A. cops. Didn't we have any local talent who could have done the job just as well? After seeing the film, my answer was a very firm no. While I knew a bit more about Kevin Spacey, I wasn't so sure I could see him in a cop role either, but he, too, was beyond criticism. And James Cromwell... migawd, was that Babe's sweet owner? He gave me some serious chills. And Kim Basinger as a tough-minded, street-smart hooker had the best role of her career. Frankly, this entire cast delivered the goods... I could not find a false note among them. Spacey is top-billed but the film belongs to Crowe and Pearce.
L.A. Confidential certainly provided a frightening look into the world of corrupt cops in every way imaginable. It involves corruption with cop head honchos and with other city officials. It involves killing each other, murdering suspects and staging events to make it look like self defense, involvement in drugs, bearing false witness, brutality among the ranks and at crime scenes, lies, half truths. If it sounds more like a B-movie with so many story lines, it isn't at all. It's a decidedly A-movie with so many story lines, all blended together masterfully. Some of the deceased old-time directors were looking down and saying Curtis Hanson delivered a masterpiece.
The brief version of the plot is that a mass murder takes place at a dumpy little cafe and it sets into motion a roller-coaster of a story. Confidential Magazine was the real deal in the 1950s. I've said before in these pages that my mama read it religiously. All Midwestern girls, to name but one group, wanted the Hollywood dish and they wanted it salacious. Confidential gave it to them and when the stars sued (and a number of them did), it was enough to give a girl a serious case of the vapors. Ultimately enough lawsuits closed down the vicious, nasty, horrible rag... which I still miss to this day. Oh but I digress. Confidential is represented here but called Hush Hush Magazine. Perfect. The king of TV cop shows of the time, Dragnet, is here called Badge of Honor. The crime lord of the time, Mickey Cohen, is also represented. (He, by the way, gets big screen treatment of his own called Gangster Squad, coming out soon.) We meet Lana Turner and her thug boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, although the time frame is not right, but oh who cares?
Basinger is part of a group of prostitutes who are groomed (even surgically so) to look like famous movie glamour girls of the time... Turner, Hayworth, Russell, etc. with Basinger a Veronica Lake lookalike. Clever idea. Fun to watch and contemplate.
Spacey's character, Jack Vincennes, the goodtime Charlie of cops, is also the technical advisor on Badge of Honor. He wears the title where all can see; he's a suckass who thinks he's a top Hollywood producer. He's the type who would stand around with his hands in his pressed pants pockets and jiggle his coins or whatever. At crime scenes he pockets the weed he finds. He's a mover and a shaker and one knows to never trust him because he would sell you out in a flash. He does trade cop stories with the TV producers of the cop show and they do the same. It's a study in sleaze. His death scene truly shocked me. I made an audible gasp the first time and I only barely managed to stifle it when watching the film earlier this week.
Russell Crowe's Bud White is a combustible thug-cop. He's textbook bad cop. He takes it all very seriously and he'd rather beat you up than chat with you and is never interested in hearing the other guy's version of things. He never minds being ordered by superiors to do something physically hurtful to someone. He apparently became a cop to avenge a childhood trauma.
Bud's weakness is for Basinger's character. He knows her scene but does his best to look beyond it (something he normally is incapable of doing). He has apprently been taught to revere womanhood. Still, his jealousy (always lurking about in characters like this) gets the best of him and he smacks her as well.
Guy Pearce's Edmund Exley is the hero of the peace. He is the white sheep in a field of black sheep, hated by his cohorts for his enslavement to integrity. He is maddeningly by the book. It would only be natural that he and Bud White would be mortal enemies. Their scenes together are rife with edgy turbulence. Where White lives for a day full of danger on the streets, Exley is a more guarded and political, although he wants to do serious detective work. His boss tells him that he has the eye for human weakness but not the stomach for it. After having a bruising physical fight, the two men finally join forces and this is the first scene they have together:
The final 15 minutes of L.A. Confidential is a fantastical shootout to beat all shootouts, with surprises at every turn. I loved it.
There were nine Oscar nominations and two wins. There were folks who let out a war cry over its loss of best picture. It is without a doubt a masterful piece of film-making. It is the third of four films from 1997 that are on my 50 Favorite Films list. Two of the others have already been posted... Wilde and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The fourth one is coming up shortly, and oddly enough, it is the film that robbed L.A. Confidential of Oscar's top film award. You can look it up or be surprised or do you already know what it is?
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