‘Some men get the world. Others get ex-hookers and a trip to Arizona.’
L.A. Confidential is my favourite film of all time. That quote is one of the reasons. It begins with all the hallmarks of a cliché, then takes one huge swerve into the unexpected.
That doesn’t quite sum up the film, but it’s fair to say in the wrong hands this adaptation of a wonderful piece of literature by James Ellroy could have ended up as bland and lifeless (See 2006’s The Black Dahlia, another in Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet).
Instead it ended up with an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, as well as a Supporting Actress win for Kim Basinger as the aforementioned ex-hooker.
Its razor-sharp dialogue is only partly the reason why it is the defining modern noir, however.
Set in 1940s Los Angeles, the premise is straightforward enough – three very different detectives investigate cases that all revolve around the grizzly ‘Nite Owl murders’, in which a former cop is one of four people brutally killed in a late-night café shooting.
What seems like a robbery gone wrong is obviously more than it seems, and like any good noir, each of the detectives’ cases are gradually revealed to be linked leading to clashes and collaboration between characters who are like oil and water to each other.
Our three protagonists are rising star Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce), a straight-laced but ambitious officer who is happy to sell out anyone if it helps him get to the top; Bud White (Russell Crowe), a short-tempered ‘thug’ with a hero complex who is initially regarded as little more than useful muscle and Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), the veteran detective who is more interested in a burgeoning Hollywood career than doing real police work.
Again, it all sounds fairly clichéd. So it is a testament to the actors and the writing that they bring nuance to the roles.
They each have compelling motives – guilt, glory, redemption – and Spacey has so much fun with the suave-yet-jaded Vincennes it is no wonder he ended up winning an Oscar for a similarly world-weary character in American Beauty two years later.
It plays up to plenty of noir tropes – subtle interrogations, glamorous femme fatales, shootouts – but my particular favourite is how everything seems to have been wrapped up in a neat little package halfway through, only for one throwaway comment from a rape victim to turn up that loose end that causes it all to unravel.
L.A. Confidential also carries one particularly fantastic twist about two-thirds of the way through that remains one of the best surprises in film history, and brings a methodical movie to a fast-paced conclusion.
The Oscar success was no surprise – it’s set in the Hollywood Golden Age period after all – but rather than shine a spotlight on it like Academy voters love, it exposed its seedy underbelly and created a world of fascinating characters, not a single one of whom can be trusted by the audience – without ever descending into confusion or chaos.
Often adapted screenplays fall foul of their source materials’ fans – not including enough of a book for example (the Harry Potter series or those who still complain about Tom Bombadil not being in The Fellowship of the Ring).
L.A. Confidential’s major triumph is that Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland’s screenplay it not just omits source material, it pretty much guts the book, stripping away several sub-plots to great effect, creating a focused and streamlined story that could easily have become bogged down by too many characters and too much story.
And in ‘Rolo Tomassi’, it actually ADDS a completely new plot strand that turns out to be one of the most interesting and well-received parts of the film – how often does that actually happen?
The ensemble cast is strong, and nowadays would be described as ‘star power’, but in 1997 Crowe and Pearce were relative unknowns whose hiring was met with much criticism.
Spacey and Basinger were the household names among the leads, but even the latter had dropped out of the spotlight since her turn as the love interest in Batman.
But their performances were all stellar, and they were ably supported by the rest of the cast – notably Danny DeVito sleazing it up as a slimy tabloid journalist.
Character actors David Strathairn and James Cromwell also bring a touch of class to proceedings, particularly the latter as the very morally ambiguous police captain Dudley Smith. His ability to create a sense of unease with the simplest of interactions is a tribute to his talent and pays off in a big way.
And those who enjoy a repeat viewing will be rewarded – just look out for the sheer amount of call forwards in the early exchanges.
What could have been a by-the-numbers affair became officially the best story of 1997 and a must-watch for any fans of the crime and period genres.
The violence is brutal, the mysteries are intriguing and the shocks are genuine. What more can you ask for?