In the spirit of sleazy old “true confessions” magazines, here’s my confession: I am a life-long easterner, raised in Kentucky, schooled in Florida, happily living the rest of my life in New York City. All three locations are awash in hardboiled, noirish, and/or Southern Gothic credibility. And while I have no intention of leaving New York, and even less intention of moving to the West Coast, I never the less have a strange fascination with Los Angeles. Granted, this fascination is built entirely on assumptions I know to be wholly inaccurate — that L.A. is or ever was the L.A. of Philip Marlowe, seedy detective magazines, and faded Hollywood glory. Residents of Los Angeles, feel free to do the same with New York. I would love to, but I deal with the city on a daily basis so my image of Gotham as Gotham, full of Prohibition-era suits and Weegee crime scenes is too often undercut by the reality of pleated Dockers and people wearing sweatpants. In my misconception of L.A., there is no room for what Los Angeles actually is. And since there is an entire country between it and me, I am going to ignorantly cling to my illusion of a city designed entirely by Raymond Chandler and David Lynch, safe in the knowledge that it makes no difference to me what L.A. “is really like.”
The makers of L.A. Confidential, based on a novel by James Ellroy, seem to have a similar desire to portray the city as a construct of detective magazines, a seedy and seductive blend of big money glitz, violent crime, and twisted perversion — then expose the entire noir/pulp construct to be a lie. Their desire was to “set a movie at a point in time when the whole dream of Los Angeles, from that apparently golden era of the ’20s and ’30s, was being bulldozed.” I’ve never read the novel (though I am cracking it open this week), and the movie came out when I was trying unsuccessfully to settle into my new home in Charlotte, North Carolina (a move that did not take, and lasted less than a year), so I missed it entirely. It wasn’t until 2012 that I finally got myself in gear and watched a movie that seems to have been tailor-made to appeal to my tastes. Sometimes, such tailoring doesn’t work out for me, like the time I took a pair of trousers in to a suspect shop to have the width of the leg narrowed and the guy just tapered them dramatically, starting right around the lower calf, which turned them into something more akin to dressy Hammer Pants. Novelist James Ellroy, director Curtis Hanson, and screenwriter Brian Helgeland proved much more adept tailors with L.A. Confidential.
Although possessed of a complicated tangle of plots and characters (as befits any solid hardboiled fiction), the movie is basically about three LAPD detectives: thuggish Bud White (Russell Crowe), quirky by-the-books Ed Exley (Guy Pierce), and flashy Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey). White has anger issues and a tendency to beat the crap out of suspects. Exley lives in the shadow of his hero-cop father, and his nerdish appearance and uptight demeanor have him relegated to a desk job when he wants to work Homicide. Narcotics detective Vincennes’ side-job as a consultant for a silly detective show and frequent headline grabber in a sleazy detective magazine has made him a popular guy but something of a joke who wants to prove that he really is a good detective. When White and his partner indulge in a sporting bit of suspect abuse, Exley uses the opportunity to testify against his fellow cops, Costing Bud’s partner a job, winning himself no friends in the detective bureau but getting a promotion out of it. A seemingly routine robbery-turned-deadly case at an all-night diner soon has the three detectives chasing separate strands of what turns out to be a fabulously complicated web of intrigue that includes murder, racism, prostitution, police corruption, and blackmail.
Going into much detail about the plot of L.A. Confidential is to disappear down a hopeless rabbit hole. In the tradition of Raymond Chandler, things get really complicated and increasingly weird, but never so complicated or weird that it becomes indecipherable. Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson wrangle a complex tale, making it possible to follow but never simplifying or dumbing things down. When working on the screenplay adapted from the book by James Ellroy, they decided to get rid of most everything that didn’t directly involve the three main detectives. Even with that limitation, there are a lot of details to juggle, but rather than collapsing under its own weight, L.A. Confidential becomes a rich viewing experience ripe for revisits without ever getting stale or predictable. It looks like a classic film noir (albeit in color) but never feels like it’s imitating, rehashing, or paying homage to. And the meta aspect — that this is basically a pulp detective film noir partially about the impact of film noir and pulp detective fiction’s effect on the real world and the manufacture of the pulp detective myth (?!?) — never sinks to the level of self-reference or overly obvious winks. The writing also never calls attention to its own cleverness, even though it’s very clever. It would have been easy for the film to become gimmicky, but it avoids that pitfall as well. A fantastic script all the way around.
It is inhabited by exactly the actors it needed to bring its characters to life. There are no big stars in the movie. There are people who wold become big stars, but at the time these people — Guy Pearce and Russel Crowe — were basically unknowns. Kevin Spacey had enjoyed considerable acclaim for his role in The Usual Suspects, but that had not translated into leading man status. The closest thing L.A. Confidential had to a big name was Kim Basinger, but at the time she was known pretty much just for her sex appeal, with no real respect being given to her acting ability (which is sort of fair, honestly, as she hadn’t done much that was good before this). It was a fight to populate the movie with such a relative low-key cast, but in retrospect it’s hard to imagine anyone else in these roles. Pearce and Crowe were unknown enough that you don’t feel like you are watching Pearce and Crowe; you are watching Bud and Exley. Guy Pearce had (and still sometimes exhibits) an uncomfortable quality that makes Exley a difficult character to like, but one about whom you care about.
Thirty Odd Foot of Grunts is similarly perfectly cast as Bud White, a violent man who is often driven to violence in reaction to his hatred of violence against women. Bud is sort of a dumb guy who is almost smart, trying to figure out a situation that is hopelessly complicated even for a sharp cookie like Exley. Crowe (who I don’t mean to infer is himself dumb) communicates this flawlessly, and like Exley, his Bud White is a character you can’t really like but still care about. Similar to that movie where the legless kungfu master meets the armless kungfu master, the crime with which they are confronted only becomes solvable when they force themselves to work together. Morally flawed characters with whom we are asked to sympathize are common. The moral flaw, however, is usually something relatively easy to overlook — alcoholism, for example. It’s rare to find a movie that asks us to sympathize with characters whose moral flaws are, at least to a lefty like me, so morally repugnant — Bud’s horrific abuse of suspects, Exley’s willingness to fuck people over if it gets him ahead. What’s more, not only does the film give its characters with flaws we actually have to grapple with intellectually, it is successful in convincing us we should care about these guys despite these flaws.
Then there’s Kevin Spacey in his yellow checked blazers, oozing across the screen with a fantastic blend of sleaze and charisma. He’s actually probably the most likable of the three detectives, partially because he tends to treat most of his personal setbacks with good-natured grace. Where as Exley is driven largely by ambition and White by the need to find some meaningful outlet for his own hostility, Spacey’s Detective Vincennes is the one with something closest to resembling a conscience. When his involvement with the scummy true crime tabloid Hush Hush results in the death of an innocent, Vincennes’ guilt is genuine, and his crusade is motivated by as much of a sense of compassion as this seedy, dark underbelly of a city can afford a man. Spacey’s ability to play genially scummy, or likably oily, knows no limits. It’s actually quite nice that rather than using his slick charm to get away with being a total scumbag, he uses it to actually be more or less a decent guy.
Rounding out the main cast is Kim Basinger as the star of a company of prostitutes who are made to look like famous film stars. No one really thought much of Basinger as an actress, and she hadn’t done much to make them think much of her. It turns out that perhaps this was just because she was being given terrible roles. Amazing the number of actresses who “are terrible” until they get their first well-written part, and then it turns out maybe the actress wasn’t the problem after all. Appearance-wise, Basinger was tailor-made to play an old-style femme fatale, but since L.A. Confidential is as much an examination of what’s below film noir archetypes as it is a perfect example of the genre, there is much more to Basinger’s Lynn Bracken than a sassy hooker or symbol of redemption for White and Exley. Firstly, there’s very little fatale about her. If she pulls a gun on someone, it’s only because they are threatening. And it’s not her fault White and Exley are such flawed human beings. Even in many movies I like, when a man has some sort of mortal weakness that is brought out (either intentionally or unintentionally) by a woman, it seems the dame is always to blame. Not so here. Lynn Bracken is no innocent, but no one is in this town and she’s just as vulnerable and confused as everyone else. It was nice to see Basinger tear into a meatier role than is usually offered her, even if it does fulfill the problematic chestnut that a pretty actress can’t be taken seriously until she plays a prostitute or a drug addict.
The supporting cast is a solid ensemble of dependable character actors anchored by Danny DeVito as the sleazy publisher of the tabloid Hush Hush and James Cromwell as Captain Dudley Smith, a smiling police captain who has decided that Bud White’s fists and temper are the perfect tool for his new project: beating the crap out of would-be criminal kingpins of Los Angeles who are coming to town to try to fill the void left by the imprisonment of mob boss Mickey Cohen (a real life mob boss, and a character in 2012’s Gangster Squad, a movie that storywise could serve as a prequel to L.A. Confidential but quality-wise should probably just be kept separate). Cromwell is a master at playing a smarmy, oddly threatening authority figure. And DeVito — it’s a shame he’s so often been used cheaply for comedy (even if he’s good at that), because he has substantial talent as an actor. He’s not outside the realm of what is expected of Danny DeVito here, but there’s more depth to him and more range to his performance than he usually gets to show. His relationship with Kevin Spacey’s hobnobbing detective adds another layer to the film and tangles the plot and the overall theme — the notion that L.A. Confidential owes more to the dark fantasy of L.A. than to the actual city — with Hollywood, movie making, and the California fame machine.
In 1958, when James Ellroy was only ten years old, his mother was murdered. The murder was never solved, and the impact defined Ellroy’s life and his eventual output as a writer. He became obsessed with the Black Dahlia case, the sensational and thoroughly depressing story of Elizabeth Short, a young woman who was brutally butchered and subsequently turned into a streetwalking harlot with a trail of destroyed men in her wake — none of which was true. Her story, and that of the tabloid press that turned her vicious murder into the very template for the “true detective” sort of story, is best saved for another time. Suffice it to say here that young James Ellroy’s obsession with the murder was a direct reflection of his mother’s case, one considerably less publicized than was the Black Dahlia murder and likely colored his sometimes problematic relationship with women, both in life and in his writing. Unable to recover emotionally, young Ellroy led a life that included petty criminality, alcohol and drug abuse, vagrancy, and golf caddying.
It was while working in the sordid world of country club caddying that James Ellroy began writing. Sustainability did not happen immediately. THis first several published novels were written in his off time while he still worked as a caddy. With the publication of what became known as the “Lloyd Hopkins Trilogy” — Blood on the Moon and Because the Night, both 1984, and Suicide Hill in 1985, Ellroy’s books began to cross over from cult to mainstream popularity. His next loose series of books, dubbed “The L.A. Quartet” and starting appropriately enough with 1987’s The Black Dahlia, pushed the hermetic, idiosyncratic author into the limelight. The 1980s flirted for several years with 1950s nostalgia (the same way this decade flirts with 1980s nostalgia), and part of that was a revival of noirish writing and film making, albeit with the aesthetic of the 1980s infusing it. The movement is known sometimes as “neo-noir” but seems more appropriately referred to by its other moniker, “neon noir” since so many of the movies played with neon light the same way black and white noir films had played with shadows. James Ellroy’s writing was perfectly suited for this noir revival. It’s surprising that it wasn’t until 1997 that one of his stories was adapted into a film — and even more surprising that it wasn’t until 2006 that Brian DePalma adapted an Ellroy book into a movie.
I mentioned the neon noir of the 1980s, the decade during which James Ellroy wrote most of his best-known books. But the 1990s had their own variation on the noir theme, thanks in large part to the success of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and, even more so, Pulp Fiction. You can argue the merits or lack there of for Tarantino’s movies, but it would be folly to deny the incredible impact they had on crime and heist films. Dozens of Tarantino-esque cash-ins of varying quality were rushed into theaters — True Romance, Killing Zoe, Romeo is Bleeding — and many more films there were not really Tarantino-esuqe but likely got a helping hand thanks to the popularity of such films — Heat, The Usual Suspects, Leaving Las Vegas, maybe even Seven (I will not spell it with a “7” in place of the “v”).
I’m pretty certain L.A. Confidential was helped into production by this third incarnation of the noir trend (with “noir” being an increasingly nebulously defined term with every iteration and generation of critics abusing it, myself included). It’s even less like a Tarantino film than the others mentioned, but I still feel like a lot of what Tarantino popularized helped et this movie made, especially when it comes to the complicated plot and a cast without any big stars. Writer-director Curtis Hanson really had to push for this cast. It was lucky that the project came around at a time in American film making when weird, independent (even if the “independence” was manufactured by a marketing department), story- and character-driven genre film was in favor. Neon noir was often about taking the classic tropes of film noir and updating them via the nostalgic lens through which the 1980s observed the 1940s and 1950s. L.A. Confidential may not look or sound like a Tarantino style crime movie, but it shares a same — and I know people hate to use this term these days — meta quality about its chosen genre, or a tendency toward deconstruction. If Tarantino was all about fannishly celebrating the grindhouse films he loved, then L.A. Confidential is about exploring the layers of confusion, myth, and fiction that formed the basic assumptions about its genre and about a period of American history.
L.A. Confidential also finds its peers among the gangster films of the French New Wave. It was among the directors that would come to define that loose category that American genre film found its first real, vocal defendants insisting that even the cheap and tawdry — perhaps especially the cheap and tawdry — is as important a piece of film history as the so-called important films. They expressed their appreciation of disgraceful old American genres both in print, via the magazine Cahiers du Cinemart, and by making their own movies populated by would-be and wannabe criminals whose role models are not real criminals and whose experiences come not from real lives of crime. Instead, they look to old American gangster movies as the textbook for how gangsters act and crimes are committed. This rarely works out well for them, but it makes the point that much of what we assume about all sorts of things — gangsters, pirates, cowboys, knights — comes not from sources with any historical basis. It comes from film. L.A. Confidential is not a movie about men emulating movie archetypes, but it is a movie that begins in a very typical film noir environment only to unravel that setting as the film progresses. Hardboiled detective fiction often deals with the fact that nothing is what it seems. The official solution to the case is never the actual solution. The innocent are never innocent, and the guilty — while they may still be guilty — are not guilty of the crime for which they are blamed.
And I love that it does all this against a bright, sunny, colorful background. Had this movie been made a couple years later, all this seediness would have been shot in a washed-out brown or blue tinting that so plagues art direction in the 21st century. And that sort of visual shorthand for “everything is dirty and rotten” would have completely failed the point of the film. Instead, we got a movie about very damaged people moving through a very distasteful world that is full of blue skies and green lawns. The old “beneath the veneer of American civility lies a rotten underbelly” is a point well explored in film and literature, but I think in L.A. Confidential it takes on additional meaning about the lies we tell ourselves as well as the lies we beg others to tell us, about our desire to live in the fairytale movie world even though we know deep down that world is just as corrupt and vicious as the one from which we want to escape. It’s much more effective to see that in a movie where the sets, camera angles, and colors all look like they do in the real world rather than it being in some color-manipulated, post-produced, desaturated land of brown and yellow.
L.A. Confidential is the sort of movie that I could probably ramble on about for hours, eventually no doubt contradicting assertions I made about its meaning and intent. That’s just another part of what makes it such a joy to watch. You can glide along its surface and have yourself a great time watching a really good crime drama. And if you so desire, you can dive deep into its Chandler-esque lower depths and lose yourself in contemplation, debate, and consideration. It’s the rare film that has been heavily lauded and actually lives up to and surpasses the hype. It’s the sort of movie I really want to have other people watch just so we can stay up all night talking about it. Like I said at the start, it seemed at first glance to be a movie made to appeal to my interests and sensibilities. And it is — but it also forces me to challenge those sensibilities and question what they mean. I dream of a fake Los Angeles built on detective novels and sun-drenched images of glamorous people wearing wonderful clothes or lounging poolside or walking down grand stairways in sparkling white art deco nightclubs. L.A. Confidential gives me that world, seems to love it as much as I do, then tears it to pieces.