L.A. Confidential (1997)    3 Stars

“Off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush…”


L. A. Confidential (1997)

Director: Curtis Hanson

Cast: Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce

Synopsis: As corruption grows in 1950s LA, three policemen – one strait-laced, one brutal, and one sleazy – investigate a series of murders with their own brand of justice.




No term has been coined to describe the darkness of the novels of James Ellroy: so bleak and nihilistic is Ellroy’s perspective on the world he recreates and the people with which he populates it that Noir doesn’t even begin to cover its darkness. Black isn’t dark enough. While L. A. Confidential, Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of Ellroy’s novel of the same name, does a phenomenal job of capturing the air of dissolution and decadence that enveloped the less savoury aspects of Hollywood in the 1950s, it’s impossible for him to recreate the darkness within Ellroy’s characters. Their motivations seem more clear-cut, less complex and deliberately confusing. But then, had he somehow been able to capture Ellroy’s perspective the film would probably have been too dark to gain an audience.

The story revolves around three Los Angeles Police Detectives, Bud White (Russell Crowe), Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) and Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey). White is police muscle, used by Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) to dissuade visiting gangsters from trying to set up stakes in LA by beating them senseless. But there’s a noble side to White’s brutishness, as we see when he arrests a man in violation of his parole for beating his wife when his colleague, Stensland (Graham Beckel) would rather not bother. Exley is an ambitious young cop, the son of a police hero, who strives to emulate his father’s achievements without adopting the department’s brutal and corrupt methods, and while negotiating the political pitfalls that could impede his rise through the ranks. Vincennes is a celebrity cop, an advisor on a popular TV cop show. He’s slick and charming, and has lost sight of what it means to be a cop. Many of his arrests come courtesy of Sid Hudgens (Danny De Vito), a sleazy reporter working on the scurrilous Hush-Hush celebrity scandal magazine. Hudgens tips Vincennes the wink about drugs parties involving TV and movie celebrities in return for the exclusive opportunity to photograph Vincennes making the arrests.

One Christmas Eve, while Exley is on duty as watch commander, Stensland, White and Vincennes become involved in a bloody fistfight with some Mexican prisoners suspected of beating a couple of cops. The story makes the newspapers, tarnishing further the Department’s already dubious reputation. Stensland is fired, while Exley is promoted to Homicide for his aid in helping his superiors figure out a way to deal with the incident that will give the impression that the Department is serious about cleaning its own house, earning the enmity of White and Vincennes in the process.

On his first night on Homicide, Exley attends a massacre at the Nite Owl coffee shop in which seven people have been gunned down. One of the victims was Stensland, which prompts a concerted effort by the police to find the killers. The investigation is emotive, and complicated by the sheer numbers of police officers involved, including White and Exley, who clash violently. Eventually, it is Exley who guns down all three of the men suspected of the murders after they escape from custody, and earns the respect of his colleagues for catching the men who murdered Stensland. However, it’s not long before White, Exley and Vincennes each individually begin to suspect that the dead men weren’t responsible for the massacre, and that a massive cover-up lies behind the Department’s presumption of their guilt.

To say L. A. Confidential is densely plotted is an understatement of monstrous proportions. The summary above probably covers less than half of what happens on screen. There’s a whole major sub-plot about a high-class prostitution racket run by Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn), a suave but debauched millionaire who has hookers operated on to make them look like movie stars. Amongst his stable is Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), a Veronica Lake lookalike with whom Bud White begins a tentative affair, and who provides another point of contention between him and Exley. Basinger’s an interesting piece of casting here. In Hollywood terms she was past her prime at 44. Although she still looks pretty good, the years are there in her face, and she kind of symbolises the tawdriness of the fake glamour of the world in which these characters operate, the shabbiness behind the illusion.

But a labyrinthine plot, and intertwining strands that are sometimes difficult to follow, are a strength here where, in other movies, they could be the kiss of death. This is because there’s no extraneous detail in L. A. Confidential, no scene that could be removed without damaging the entire movie as a result. A revelation in the final act of the movie will interlock neatly with a seemingly inconsequential (but critical) plot detail from one hour before. Much of what is shown on-screen is based on true events, and it’s fairly dispiriting to think such wholesale debauchery and corruption appeared to be part of everyday life for so many people back then. And while the movie ties up its loose ends (as it should), its dark view of the world leaves you feeling a just a little despondent.

(Reviewed 23rd June 2012)