Curtis Hanson, “L.A. Confidential” (1997)
Based on the novel by James Ellroy and named after an actual 1950’s magazine which focussed on celebrity scandal, “L.A. Confidential” is a well-made retro noir movie set in early 1950’s Los Angeles about three police officers investigating a horrific mass murder shooting at the Nite Owl coffee shop which draws them into a bigger scandal of police and political corruption, drug-trafficking, pornography and prostitution, racial prejudice and chequebook journalism. The three officers who are the focus of the movie deal with the case in particular ways that reflect their personalities and values, and which bring them into conflict with one another and then with their real enemy with tragic consequences. The plot is convoluted and layered, and viewed from different angles can say different things about the world these men live and work in.
Sergeant Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is an ambitious stickler for rules who is conscious of his father’s legacy as a police officer and is determined to prove that he is better. The other officers in the force dislike him for having testified in a case of police brutality against a group of Mexican prisoners and forcing the dismissal of officer Stensland as a result. Stensland was the partner of Bud White (Russell Crowe), a hard-man plainclothes officer with a penchant for violence against wife-beaters, who vows revenge against Exley. White accepts a job from the police head Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) to intimidate criminals wanting to set up shop in Los Angeles. Sergeant Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is an easy-going detective who gives technical advice to a TV crime show and feeds information to the editor Sid Hudgens (Danny de Vito) of Hush-Hush magazine. The magazine gives kickbacks to Vincennes for staging arrests of famous people caught with drugs or in flagrante delicto. All three men are drawn into the Nite Owl coffee shop incident in different ways: Exley is the first to receive the call of the shooting and goes out to investigate; White discovers the murder victims include his old partner Stensland and a woman, Susan Lefferts, whom he has met before; and Vincennes investigates a pornography racket linked to the Fleur-de-Lis prostitution service that supplies girls altered by plastic surgery to resemble famous Hollywood movie stars. The officers’ independent investigations bring them in contact with call-girl Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger) and her employer Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn) who runs Fleur-de-Lis. Eventually Exley and White realise their investigations have brought them together in a set-up manipulated by powerful forces to get Exley out of the way and in spite of their differences the two officers agree to co-operate to rid the police department and city government of the true corruption they realise exists.
The film recreates and captures the colourful glamour of Los Angeles and Hollywood during their Golden Age, enhanced by the smoky jazz music soundtrack and Hudgens’s voice-over narration which presents the city as a paradise where little crime occurs and the police are always clean. The exotic atmosphere fades about halfway through the movie as the plot becomes more complicated with the officers often doubling up on one another’s investigations to the exasperation of some suspects and the body count begins to pile up quickly. Hudgens dies so there is no more voice-over and the music starts sounding like generic soundtrack music. Los Angeles is not such an unspoiled, gleaming “Garden of Eden” after all where people can reinvent themselves and start with a clean slate.
What character development exists is restricted to the three officers Exley, White and Vincennes. The fact that viewers see them changing their views about one another and the world around them is testament to the actors’ abilities as well as the screenplay. Crowe is believable as a thug with a soft spot in his heart for vulnerable women threatened by violence and it’s possible that the character of White is close to the actor’s own personality. Exley undergoes the biggest transformation of all three characters, starting as a rookie detective who sees the world in black and white, prepared to play politics and disdainful of White’s violence but later realising that surface appearances don’t necessarily reflect the true nature of people and events. He comes to appreciate White as a loyal friend who responds in like manner. Pearce pulls off a career-defining performance going from bookish and cold to a warmer, more fully rounded character. Spacey has limited time on screen as Vincennes who undergoes a mini-transformation from corrupt cop to determined crusader after a minor character dies; he pays the price for his change of conscience when he comes too close too quickly to the real centre of corruption. Of the support cast, Basinger stands out for playing a stock stereotype blonde babe of blemished background who needs saving; Basinger invests a basically passive character with more emotional substance than it needs.
There’s perhaps too much plot for audiences to digest in one sitting and repeated viewings are needed though Exley does provide a quick potted explanation of events starting with the Nite Owl cafe shoot-out all the way to the bullet-ballet climax at a deserted motel near the end. It’s clear that deception and illusion are at the heart of the plot of “L.A. Confidential”: the city as paradise where dreams come true; the police as always moral, clean and fair; Bud White as thuggish and thick; Jack Vincennes as easy to buy off and corrupt but coming round to fulfilling his duty as police officer. Black people and organised crime gangs are implicated in the Nite Owl massacre case but the three investigating officers discover their findings lead to their own force. Exley, White and Vincennes learn something about themselves and one another and rise beyond their differences, dislike of one another and their separate police jurisdictions to combat the real evil.
The ending is Hollywood-style happy which is a major let-down in an otherwise credible noir film: some of the city’s corruption has been cleaned up but nowhere near enough. The city officials’ reaction to the death of a crooked police officer is to portray him as a hero in his newspaper obituary. The final scene could be changed slightly to two characters fleeing Los Angeles forever (in the manner of the science fiction movie “Blade Runner”) instead of going on a holiday. Even so, “L.A. Confidential” is a good film in the style of retro noir.