Los Angeles in the early nineteen-fifties is quite a place, with crime rampant around the city, and that’s just the police force. The gangster Mickey Cohen is their main target, but no matter how often they think they can get him reined in, he manages to squirm out of their clutches to become increasingly powerful, generating what effectively is a war between the Cohen mobsters and the cops, many of whom have no qualms about using violence and bribes to get their way. Three cops in particular will be instrumental in upsetting this apple cart: the bruiser Bud White (Russell Crowe) who considers himself on the side of all abused women, the smoothie Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) who supplements his income with media work, and the would-be crusader Ed Exley (Guy Pearce)…
Author James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet was among the most electrifying series of crime novels published in the latter stages of the twentieth century, but there were problems with turning them into movies (or television series, as this item was proposed as initially), since they were so densely packed with plot and incident that conjuring the unique mood and texture of Ellroy’s writing would prove next to impossible, not to mention the fact they were so stuffed with extreme violence that any attempt would see them considerably toned down, thus leaving out much of what rendered them so vivid and disturbing. Those obstacles, after a long time in gestation, were solved by director Curtis Hanson and his co-writer Brian Helgeland more or less ignoring them.
They both went their own way in a considerably simplified account of the novel, taking the same characters and giving them different things to do, even to the point of inventing a new ending with different fates for them. Ellroy was pleased with the results, as were a lot of moviegoers who turned it into a hit that garnered two Oscars, one for the screenplay and the other a Best Supporting Actress gong for Kim Basinger who played a key character who was meant to be a Veronica Lake lookalike, an effect somewhat harmed when a clip of the actual Lake was played during the story and you could see for yourself they would never be mistaken for one another, mostly because Basinger looked unmistakably like herself.
That quibble aside, it was a very strong cast well handled by Hanson, who with this could lay claim finally to a movie many proclaimed a classic after toiling in the middle ground of filmmaking for a number of years, and you would not begrudge him that accolade especially as he achieved a slick result that crafted an understandable narrative out of what could have been a big muddle. Yet there was a lingering sense that L.A. Confidential (film) was not quite as smart as it thought it was (book), especially as it built its twisting events up to a climax that was really too pat, too keen to wrap up every thread in a neat bow while on the page Ellroy was drawing his book to the next instalment. One reveal in particular could make you groan, not least when it was resolved as if this were a white hats versus black hats Western.
Not to say there were no benefits from watching L.A. Confidential, as the sheen of its visuals were a handsome recreation of the era without being too preserved in the past; it had an immediacy greatly assisted by the three excellent performances at its centre. Crowe was perfectly cast as the thug with the heart of gold, easy to be offended and easier to redress that with his fists or his guns, Spacey’s slyly amused performance demonstrated why he may be more difficult to cast than he seemed, but once he was in the right role he would shine, and Pearce pursed his lips as the conservative cop who is maybe not as true blue as he would like to think (though the resolution of his connection to Basinger’s prostitute certainly arrived out of the blue). Elsewhere, James Cromwell as the Chief struggled with an Irish accent but was ambiguous for long enough and Danny DeVito impressed as the scandal sheet hack, but the anarchy on the streets of Los Angeles was hard to accept when reassurance was the final note the film sounded, and not one that rang true, especially in the nineties. Music by Jerry Goldsmith.
Back in the days when I had to sneak in to theaters to see an eighteen-certificate movie, L.A. Confidential proved a thrilling, especially memorable experience. The projector broke down three times! Yet people were so engrossed they didn't complain, plus we all received free cinema tickets as compensation. So I got to watch Face-Off for free the next day!
To my mind the finale skilfully plays the Hollywood game of wrapping things up neatly yet hints at dark things in Ed Exley's future. The whole film is remarkably atmospheric, ominous and powerful with performances that seared themselves in my memory. Also an amazing Jerry Goldsmith score.
21 Dec 2015
It does look great, but it's curious that a film out of L.A. in the nineties should go for the bad apple explanation of police corruption and state it was more or less dealt with forty years before. It feels like an essentially dishonest film to me (without getting too Tarantino).
22 Dec 2015
Chalk that up to LA-based filmmakers possibly perhaps not wanting to ruffle the LAPD's feathers too much. I don't find it too tidy an ending given Exley goes along with the cover-up and the cycle seems poised to begin again.
22 Dec 2015
The cycle hadn't ended in the book, which is what I couldn't help compare the film to, and continued in the next one which will presumably never be filmed. It's asking way too much to expect that kind of faith to material so movie-unfriendly, I admit.