L.A. Confidential: well-made with convoluted plot about deception and illusion

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.

Alien 3 (dir. David Fincher): potentially interesting psych horror / slasher flick in space is a mess

David Fincher, “Alien 3” (1992)

At least in this third episode in the Alien series, people finally figured out a new original way of killing the monster other than just flushing it out through a space-ship’s airlock into deep space where eventually the thing would join similarly executed critters in the Great Alien Skeleton Garbage Patch circling a distant planetary system. Beyond that, the options for the sequel to two very different movies were limited: the first having been a space horror movie, the second being an action adventure movie, where can the third go? It goes into a film noir / slasher flick scenario set in space in which an emergency forces an escape pod containing Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and her surviving companions from “Aliens” to separate from the spacecraft Sulaco and crash-land onto a remote planet where the only human beings live in a maximum security prison. Ripley is the only survivor of that crash-landing and almost immediately has to contend with a group of condemned men, hostile and uncertain as to how to treat this “alien” in their midst, while they wait for a rescue craft to pick her up. As Ripley tries to negotiate her way through the surly all-male prison society, unusual and violent deaths begin to occur and Ripley realises that an alien of the type she’s only too familiar with must have stowed away on the Sulaco and then on her escape craft. Chaos erupts and everyone starts to panic as the alien picks off the medic and the prison supervisor and as usual Ripley has to take charge and devise a plan to get rid of the creature before the rescue craft arrives.

The only really original element is the concept of an isolated factory prison where not only are all the inmates men with violent criminal pasts, they also are followers of an apocalyptic religious cult. This means the action takes place in a claustrophobic environment of industrial machinery, huge underground tunnels, galley ways, steel catwalks and long chains: dark, moody, full of foreboding. Viewers should feel dread and abandonment throughout this film. The religious flavour adds a superficial Gothic feel with close-up shots of lit candles; nearly all the cast are skinhead monks in drab dark colours and even Ripley falls in line with the hair and clothing fashions. Unfortunately constant studio interference in the making of “Alien 3” has made for a muddled mess in which the potential offered by a prison scenario of mad misogynist monks is never properly realised and the film retreats into a re-run of “Alien” in which people scurry around the labyrinths of the prison alternately flushing out the alien so it can be destroyed and trying to avoid being killed by it. The plot starts to stretch and drag halfway through when an early attempt to trap and kill the creature ends in disaster and everyone collapses in despair and self-doubt before slowly and painfully resuming the job.

Whatever character development exists in Ripley in “Alien 3” is limited to a black sense of humour and wry one-liners: “This is a maximum security prison and it has no weapons?!” or words to that effect. The prisoners she has to deal with, played by Ralph Brown, Charles Dance, Charles S Dutton, Brian Glover, Paul McGann, Pete Postlethwaite and Danny Webb among others, are one-dimensional characters or character stereotypes who get very limited screen time: Dance and Glover’s characters exit early and Webb, playing Morse, doesn’t even become prominent until near the end of the film. The one character who shows signs of being more than a one-note role is Dillon (Dutton), the hard man who enforces discipline and leads prayer, and who in his own way has a soft spot for Ripley and sacrifices himself to give her time to kill the alien.

The theme of how institutional religion and a bureaucrat mind-set can restrict people’s viewpoints and limit their capacity for action, especially in a context where they have to deal with an unforeseen and unpredictable threat to their security and existence, and a parallel theme of how people in despair learn to cope and deal with an extreme enemy, using the few resources they have, are strong but help create a plot that can be slow for audiences used to the fast and convoluted pace of “Aliens” and who expect sci-fi movies to fit the kinetic action adventure mould.

Had Fox Studio allowed director David Fincher more freedom to make “Alien 3”, the film most likely would have developed in a way similar to Fincher’s later movies like “Se7en” in which protagonists negotiate their way through a situation, the rules of which aren’t clear, and battle their own character limitations and flaws as much as they fight through their dilemma. In Ripley’s case, she not only must learn the rules of prison society as they apply to her, she must fight against her fears about the alien and her own body which now harbours an alien embryo. (How this happened and how Ripley knows the embryo is a “queen” embryo aren’t clear in the movie.) This might have made “Alien 3” an interesting noirish psychological study of characters in crisis but it wouldn’t have resulted in the kind of box office success the studio expected.

Chinatown: film noir addresses serious issues of political and moral corruption

Roman Polanski, “Chinatown” (1974)

Chinatown” was Roman Polanski’s foray into the private eye / film noir genre and his last major film for Hollywood. A few years after making this movie, Polanski was arrested and charged with having unlawful sex with an underage teenage girl; though what he did cannot be condoned, his situation was complicated by the excessive media attention at the time which put pressure on the presiding judge, anxious for his reputation as a “hanging”-type judge, to ignore the recommendations of both Polanski’s legal defence team and his victim’s lawyers that Polanski serve a short time in jail, submit to a psychiatric test and evaluation (both conditions which he fulfilled) and then do a year’s worth of community service. The judge determined to put Polanski away for a long time which would have wrecked the film-maker’s career and tarnished the reputation of the law in California where the offence took place – in short, the judge would have acted corruptly. No wonder then, at the first opportunity, Polanski fled back to Europe where he continued to direct movies but always with his reputation under a cloud.

No small irony then that “Chinatown” deals with political corruption: in particular, with the selfish monied interests of a wealthy elite versus the public interest over the allocation of a necessary resource (water) and how politicians and public servants can be bought by rich individuals while honest hard-working poor people and communities (farmers in a valley north-west of Los Angeles where the movie is set) face the loss of livelihood and an uncertain economic future. Though “Chinatown” takes place during the Depression years of the 1930’s, its central message about political corruption and the misallocation and mismanagement of land, water and other resources is still relevant to us, especially in an age where in many countries water and electricity are being privatised and their control is no longer subject to public scrutiny, and in which cities continue to grow, putting pressure on their surrounding hinterlands and the communities there to share or supply more water from diminishing sources.

Initially the plot is straightforward and spare: private detective J J Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by a woman (Diane Ladd) claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray to spy on Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), an engineer working in the Los Angeles city water department, and ascertain if he is having an affair. Gittes quickly discovers that Mulwray is indeed seeing a teenage girl and that he is opposed to the construction of a new dam. Gittes follows Mulwray and finds that Mulwray has unearthed a scam which involves the dumping of fresh water into the ocean even though Los Angeles is suffering drought conditions. After Mulwray’s “infidelity” is exposed in the newspapers, the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) brings a lawsuit against Gittes and Gittes realises he has been set up. He convinces Mrs Mulwray that he is an innocent party and she reveals that her husband and her father Noah Cross (John Huston) were former business partners who privately owned the city’s water department.

Hollis is later found murdered and Evelyn Mulwray hires Gittes to investigate her husband’s death. He does so and finds it connected to a land grab attempt by the LA city water department to force farmers to sell their land cheaply to the investors who bought land bonds. The “investors” are revealed to be residents of a nursing home who know nothing of what was done in their name – by none other than Noah Cross who owns the home through his Albacore Club. Gittes’s continuing investigations bring him into conflict with Cross who wants him to find Hollis Mulwray’s supposed teenage lover, put his life and career at risk, and culminate in a tragic climax in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles.

The narrow focus of the screenplay on Gittes’s investigations and Polanski’s smooth and sure direction give Nicholson plenty of space and freedom (and there is a lot of space in the movie, in the homes of the wealthy and their playgrounds, in the countryside, along the roads and the coasts of southern California) to develop his character as a louche and likeable private eye who, beneath the rakish and sometimes violent exterior, is actually a thorough, dedicated and morally principled man who observes the spirit of the law and justice if not their letter and who fights on the side of the weak against the powerful. Viewers quickly appreciate how Gittes has come to work for himself rather than continue working for the police. His relationship with Evelyn Mulwray becomes personal and complicated and partly because of this, by the end of the film he becomes a broken man. Nicholson’s performance as the multi-faceted Gittes is brilliant and convincing, flavoured with the actor’s own slightly raffish style. The rest of the cast provides excellent support, in particular Dunaway as the rich and sophisticated yet vulnerable wife hiding a terrible family secret, and Huston as her father, jovial and gracious, sinister and greedy. Polanski himself, perhaps in homage to the English director Alfred Hitchcock who sometimes played small cameo roles in his movies, plays a small role as a vicious thug who disfigures Gittes’s face.

The film might not look very film noir – it has a slightly soft yet clear look, there is plenty of blue sky and the surroundings look beautiful and clean (even the Chinatown district looks bright and not at all seedy in spite of rubbish in its streets) – but its surface appearance hides a rotten core and the film adheres to a number of noir genre conventions and subverts them as well. The hero is a disillusioned outsider with moral flaws often working on the wrong side of the law which is corrupt and which he comes into conflict with; he tries to save a victim, usually a beautiful woman who is both innocent and morally compromised somehow; and in pursuing justice, he gets roughed up by representatives of evil and corruption so that his further investigations become a test of his moral character and principles. His work may uncover yet more corruption. The world he moves in is morally dark and unsavoury. The hero might not succeed in beating back the forces of darkness, and so it is with “Chinatown”: the forces of corruption win and the hero realises his efforts were all for nothing. The victim turns out to be the teenage “mistress” of Hollis Mulwray and Gittes fails to save her from Noah Cross’s clutches. Cross is an interesting if repulsive character whose sexual abuse of his daughter Evelyn and what we can presume he’ll do to the young girl symbolise his utter disregard for what we might call “natural law” in pursuit of self-interest and immediate gratification, and parallels his greed for land and money and disregard of human-made laws.

The use of film noir and its conventions to address and investigate an issue of continuing contemporary political and social importance as well as Polanski’s other concerns about social justice and the place of outsiders in society, makes “Chinatown” a very powerful film that still packs a lot of punch. The surprising thing is that the plot is easy to follow, with no sub-plots, and includes a soap opera element. Polanski is faithful to historical detail in people’s dress, the cars and technology they use, the architecture and interiors of buildings, homes and offices, and the social and ethnic segregation almost to a fault; even his small role recalls the fact that many people in the underworld at the time were Eastern European Jewish migrants. His direction is plain, almost blank, and forces viewers to judge for themselves what the film’s events say about the world they live in. Some viewers may be unhappy that, by film’s end, nothing has been done to expose the water supply scam and that it’s a sideshow to the Cross family soap opera but Gittes’s failure is in keeping with the film noir genre and the film’s own logic. If an experienced and knowledgeable expert like Hollis Mulwray knew what was happening but was powerless to stop it and ended up being killed for his trouble, how could an outsider private eye with few resources other than his own intelligence and investigative skills succeed?

Alphaville: Lemme caution you, it’s a sci-fi flick like no other

Jean-Luc Godard, “Alphaville”, Athos Films (1965)

On the surface “Alphaville” is just one of many episodes in the career of stereotypical hard-boiled trenchcoat-suited detective Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine). Caution’s immediate mission is to search for another agent, Dickson, in the city of Alphaville. Inititally the film plays ball in a straightforward film noir manner with stark backgrounds that take advantage of the black-and-white film, with a choppy cartoon musical motif, just what you’d expect of this kind of film. However, listen closely to the early dialogue and you’ll find Caution’s in a city like no other: on arriving at his hotel, a young woman leads him to his room, informing him all the while that she is his specially assigned state prostitute; he contrives to get rid of her and her hidden pimp-enforcer, only to have another young woman, Natasha (Anna Karina), assigned to him. It becomes apparent that Alphaville is a city organised along purely scientific-technocratic principles formulated by the brilliant scientist Von Braun and carried out by his supercomputer Alpha 60.

The citizens of Alphaville live and behave strictly in accordance with these principles which admit no expression or indication of emotion or reasoning that goes against the city’s rigid logic. Much of  the movie’s first half is exposition as Natasha takes Caution on a tour around the city; among other things, he sees law-breakers being punished for being emotional or irrational. Caution progressively drops his nom de plum and his purported reason for visiting Alphaville, and  reveals his real mission: to find and kill Von Braun and destroy Alpha 60; in order to do so, he must understand the nature of the city and how it oppresses its inhabitants and Natasha, and ultimately himself

Quickly the viewer becomes accustomed to director Godard’s deliberate use of modernist concrete and glass buildings and interiors, and the bleak highways and neon signage of Paris of the mid-1960’s, both as the cityscape of Alphaville and as a metaphor for the direction Western society is heading in. The speed with which the viewer accepts Godard’s conceit itself may say mountains about we readily accept authority and authoritarian guidelines even when they contradict human nature and impulses. Raoul Coutard’s camerawork enhances the futuristic aspect of the contemporary Paris landscapes: there are long tracking shots of passages that go on and on and on, suggesting the illogicality of a place ruled by pure logic; there is effective use of Paris nightscapes to suggest an all-seeing mechanised Big Brother; and scenes inside buildings are shot in high contrast to emphasise the alien quality of Alphaville.

The most unnerving aspect of the movie though is the voice of Alpha 60 itself: deep, gravelly and just how you’d expect an obese toad grown to elephant height to talk if such a being could talk, with a clicky machine quality as it draws breath. When Caution finally confronts Alpha 60 in a booth, microphones glide around his head move in stiff but sure movements: the movements of a detached, automated order that grinds down its followers. This is a chilling yet comic scene as Caution defeats Alpha 60 quoting lines of poetry – quite strange for a man of his occupational background

Small details in the movie reference recent European history and literary and film sources: Caution discovers Natasha carries a serial number on her neck; the scientist who created Alphaville is surnamed Von Braun after the German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun who switched his allegiances from Nazi Germany to the United States in order to realise his dream of manned space flight; the hotel used in the movie is one that was occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War; scenes of long passages recall Franz Kafka works like “The Trial” and “The Castle”. The computer voice of Alpha 60 (voiced by a man with an artificial larynx that replaced his cancer-ravaged one) is an influence from a 1930s film. I understand there are several references to Jean Cocteau’s works, none of which I’m familiar with, and one of these is the flight of Caution and Natasha from the oppressive city which is inspired by the Cocteau film “Orphee”, a retelling of the Greek myth about Orpheus and Eurydice set in 1950s Paris. (Thanks, Wikipedia

I’ve heard “Alphaville” itself was a major influence on Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” and I can see many parallels between the two: “Blade Runner” combines film noir and sci-fi elements in having a hardboiled detective in a future society who, like Caution, submits to a computer test and meets an innocent young woman who, like Natasha, is forced by the detective to confront her “robot” reality and transcend it by learning how to love. Like Caution and Natasha, these two characters flee for their lives once the detective’s mission is completed but the “love conquers all” theme is missing and the mood is tinged with the detective’s knowledge that the woman faces an early death which he is helpless to prevent

Admittedly “Alphaville” isn’t immediately enjoyable – it can induce sleepiness in its first half – and it does look dated due to its settings and its depiction of the technology then current. But some of its themes and ideas are perhaps more relevant to our day than in 1965. This may say something about what Godard had in mind while making the movie; evidently he detected certain trends in Western society which he takes to their logical and sometimes comedic, sometimes horrific extremes in “Alphaville” and some of these trends are well on the way to being realised in our times: they may look sharper, glossier, not so clunky but nevertheless they’re on the march. As long as we have corporate fascism masquerading as capitalism to enforce its “logic” across nations and continents, these tendencies such as dehumanisation of people in a technological society and rule by ideology against human nature will continue. For this reason “Alphaville” continues to have historic didactic value and most folks should see it at least once.  Some may end up watching it again and again whenever the opportunity arises