There can be such a thing as a fantastic ensemble piece in hindsight. Granted, the idea comes across as a little unorthodox since any film, provide the casting is right and the subsequent careers of the actors flourish, can look like a ‘great ensemble’ piece some years down the road. One such perfect moment in cinema history when the stars aligned even before some of them were actual stars was the much talked about and still fondly remembered 1997 film L.A. Confidential, directed by Curtis Hanson. Names like Danny DeVito, James Cromwell and Kim Basinger were already recognizable, but Kevin Spacey, Guy Pearce and one Russell Crowe much less so. Director Hanson had in fact found it difficult to appropriate fund the picture in part because it lacked sufficient star power, but of course, audiences, critics and the Academy thought very highly of it at the time and still do till this day.
Set in the Los Angeles of the 1950s, L.A. Confidential is an impressively sprawling homage to film noir which, in truth, stands perfectly well on its own two feet. Three members of the L.A. police department stand in as the protagonists: the infuriatingly honest and marvellous tactician Edmund J. Exley (Guy Pearce), the showman-like celebrity detective Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) and the volatile, physically imposing Wendell ‘Bud’ White (Russell Crowe), all working under the wing of the chief, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). The wonderfully cut introduction to the picture has tabloid journalist Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito) narrating his latest article for Hush Hush, in which he sardonically explains how the famous ‘city of angels’ in anything but. Killings for money, killing for drugs, police being naughty rather than nice (‘…the greatest police force in the world!’) are but some of the unsavoury behind the scenes habits. The three aforementioned law enforcers see their paths drawn together despite their misgivings in a case involving, upon first glance, the slaying of a dozen or so innocent customers at downtown diner. The identity of the victims points in some unique directions, such porn film producer Pierce Hatchett (David Strathairn) and one of his celebrity look-a-like performers, Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger). That is but the beginning of an uncomfortably revealing investigation.
Does L.A. Confidential try to ape many aspects of noir? Yes it does, much more so than, say, the film reviewed last week, Blade Runner. Curtis Hanson’s film takes place in a popular noir city with a story set during the period of film noir itself, the 1950s. Mistrust, betrayal, sidetracked dreams of Americana which experience a metamorphosis into bleak reality. However faithful a representation of a genre and era it tries to be, L.A. Confidential is a sublime piece of cinema and, in particular, of writing and direction which both lend it a strong sense of identity and undeniable power. It also makes for compelling viewing for the sake of seeing of earlier work from actors who today are major big screen icons.
Among its many qualities which impress so much is how large the movie feels. Some films, in order to provide a greater scope than most, believe it best to elongate the running time. Hanson’s endeavour is just over 2 hours, yet the manner in which the character arcs are handled as well as the pacing of the plot help the viewer believe that they too, along with the protagonists, have been on a spectacular, journey. Think of the character arcs themselves. All three detectives (detectives being the catch all term designating our troop of heroes) could not be more different from one another at the start of the picture. Exley operates as much like a politician as he does a policeman (the chief even says as much in a dialogue exchange). His dedication to the truth, to cleaning not only the streets of Los Angeles but the corridors and offices of the police department is enough to really grind the gears of his fellow colleagues. One of his ulterior motives is to move up the hierarchy as quickly as possible, and his unscrupulous philosophy does, in fact, impress some of his superiors, who gladly promote him early on. Needless to say, he does not win himself many fans, most certainly not Bud, who is more about the brawn than the brain, acting as the intimidating figure during those ‘dirtier’ interrogation sessions. It has come to the point where that is mostly what chief Smith uses him for, not any genuine, traditional investigating. Then there is Vincennes. A good detective, yes, but one whose dedication to the real cause has been diluted by dibbling and dabbling in the world of television, selling some of his stories for a cop drama in which a Hollywood actor portrays a fictionalized version of him. This is in addition to his under the table dealings with the tabloid man Hudgens, who finds much inspiration in the raw intelligence Vincennes provides to help him continue writing…and selling. Both because of their connections to some people involved in the murder investigation or, as in Exley’s case, because of an insatiable thirst to do well and never be in error, they eventually must work together, however annoying both Bud and Vicennes believe Exley to be. The latter, via his unshakable dedication, in many ways makes the former two better detectives. Vincennes, who also understands that his ties to Hudgens can cause pain in unforgivable ways, comes to appreciate and go along with Exley’s steadfastness, even though he will not show it too overtly. Bud, on the other hand and despite the probability that he would never admit to it, begins to take the investigation side of his profession more seriously than ever before. The perfect cop he will never be, but a better one than at the start of the film. As for Exley, he uncovers the rougher, grittier, bloodier side of being a lawman. Put the books and glasses away, it is time for some rough stuff. In essence, his exterior is hardened tenfold, thus squashing criticisms about his supposed ‘softness.’
Those are incredibly intricate character journeys all packed into a single film, a feat Hanson, who helped pen the screenplay, accomplishes with a quiet bravado. They are not ham fisted but rather slow transformations exercised with a degree of subtlety other noirs, the classic noirs, often lack. The writing and direction also shine in another provocative way that carefully expands the thematic structure of the movie. Much like the narrative, it is not something explored too explicitly. L.A. Confidential is in many ways about image, how people perceive it, understand it, and naturally how it can mislead. As previously stated, Hanson opens the film with a devilishly apt contrast between the Los Angeles in people’s minds and the Los Angeles of the streets. Detective Exley, apart from wanting to do well, is driven by the memory of his father, also a cop, who perished in the line of duty. The image and memory (which can function like an image) of his father is half his motivation. Halfway into the story Bud wants to change the image people have of him, attempting to go from the personification of police brutality to moderately competent in detecting. Vincennes is somewhat obsessed about his image, coming off more as a rock star of sorts than a blue collar cop. Some important figures in the police bureaucracy want to see the LAPD’s image changed to a healthier, friendlier one whereas others want to continue profiting and abusing of their powerful profession while falsely espousing a clean image. One of the suspects, Pierce Hatchett, make a living off of, one, the popular image of the porn industry and, second, within said industry replicating the images of Hollywood icons to satisfy consumer fantasies. Lastly, and here is where things get rather metaphysical, director Curtis Hanson is transmitting all of this hidden and overt imagery in a reproduction of film noir, staying true to some of the genre’s classic imagery while simultaneously subverting some it too (it is more graphically violent and definitely features a lot more cussing than in any vintage noir) all the while destroying some of it. When viewed under this prism, L.A. Confidential comes across as even richer in subtext than what a first glance might afford.
Lauded more often than not, L.A. Confidential is one of those movies that slowly yet surely lures the viewer into the world it creates. It is an uneasy world where non is to be trusted, and what fun it is to watch it all unfold.