L.A. Confidential: An Essay

Tragically losing out to that behemoth boat movie for Best Picture accolades in 1997, L.A. Confidential showcases a much broader, more intriguing swatch of themes and conflicts than any of its competition -- and many films of the '90s, period. It soaks into the hopping 1950s Californian prestige, ushered in with velvet snarkiness by our "noble reporter" of Hush-Hush magazine. Instead of the beauty behind it all, Hanson's adaption of James Ellroy's novel focuses on loyalty, corruption, and justice within the Los Angeles Police Department. Well written from floor to ceiling with surprisingly sharp prose from Payback director Brian Helgeland, L.A. Confidential's script dissects the hell out of several distinct characters rich with starkly differing methodologies. It's easily one of the best films of the nineties, and grandly sits in the company of the likes of Welles' Touch of Evil and Kubrick's The Killing as one of the better detective noir films to date.

The film's rapid start wastes little time in throwing its audience into the bowels of corruption and malice surround the city and its law enforcement. It gathers together the up-and-coming prodigy Ed Exley (Guy Pearce, Memento), the goodhearted bulldog Bud White (Russell Crowe, American Gangster), and the socially-aware narcotics / homicide detective Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey, Usual Suspects), who happens to be a consultant on a police television show that closely mirrors the classic detective serial "Dragnet". They all operate under the umbrella of Chief Dudley Smith (James Cromwell, The Green Mile), a highly-decorated staple in the police force with a concentric focus on both brute force and suave police work to get to the root of investigations.

They get tied up in the murderous activities surrounding the Night Owl Massacre, a brutal slaughter that occurs late at night in a hot-spot coffee joint. While Jack uses this highly-publicized opportunity to unravel the mystery for his own celebrity-like vanity's sake and White barrels through his line of clues with blunt force, Exley tries to grind through the prim-and-proper methods of discovery. All this occurs in the aftermath of a departmental shakedown that rustled Exley from the woodwork as a snitch, while also getting White and his partner fired and Vincennes reassigned to the homicide department away from his typically wealth-inducing narcotics post.

Within this two-hour-plus span of police politics and vulgarities, we get the chance to soak in dialogue that seems crafted for razor-tongued swiftness. It flickers with bluntness and charisma aplenty, giving us an atmosphere that has become influential to lyrical neo-noir successors. The language has a personality all its own, mirroring the 1950's mood -- but with a harder, almost rhythmically modernized edge. Words feel authentic and humorous, but with that same kind of gravitas that makes listening to vintage dialogue a joy. Each character has his or her own kind of language, from Vincennes' cheeky humor to Smith's coy Irish mumblings. Most enjoyable, however, is how overwhelmingly blunt Crowe's gruffness can be, which combines with his threatening energy to craft an effectively intimidating manner.

Hanson's casting search was geared towards finding electric personalities that were a) affordable, and b) unrecognizably electric -- a feat that he succeeded in with spades. Though, looking back now, it almost looks like a premeditated shortlist of all-star powerhouses. Naturally, the performances from Crowe and Spacey rely heavily on their respective charisma instead of fluid character assimilation, but that's how we like it from them. Spacey's surprisingly gripping as Jack Vincennes, as his celebrity status as a vigilant crusader for Hugh-Hush magazine actually fondles the sensitive cash-packed underbelly of the booming narcotics industry in Los Angeles. Crowe, on the flipside, plays the street-smart thuggish cop bit quite well, pumping full-blooded veracity into a short-fused character hell-bent on beating the truth out of anyone who holds back. Several intriguing supportive characters adorn the scattered locales of Los Angeles' tainted socialite circles as well, each brought to life with grin-inducing precision. David Strathairn adds dashes of charismatic dodginess as a high-scale porn king / pimp, while DeVito's bustling reporter persona as Sid Hudgens borderlines on classic.

But the true dramatic talent comes from Guy Pearce as the bookworm-ish, straight-edged rising star in the homicide department, Ed Exley. Pearce is an unbelievable chameleon, something that has really stretched to its limits with the gritty western film The Proposition and, naturally, his hauntingly vacant persona in Chris Nolan's Memento. However, his transforming personality here is a force to be reckoned with once he starts to acclimate to the rugged brutality and brashness of detective work. In one of the best-performed scenes of his career -- and that's coming from a huge admirer of Nolan's twisty mystery film -- Pearce lights up the screen with tension and unrelenting intelligence during a piercing interrogation between three murder suspects. He's stiff, slick, smarter than he should be, and impressionable to the sliminess of the division. Watching both his preemptive strikes and stalwart reactions towards corruption is splendid.

Constructing this downward spiral and swaying malleability for its characters helps L.A. Confidential gyrate around one key theme: the balance between unblemished purity and proper justice. Captain Smith, during a moment when he tries to deviate Exley's interest from the detective homicide position, comments that Bud White is able to "say yes" to a few questions that he has posed to him a few times. These questions pertain to the common beating, trickery, and dishonesty that came with the territory of being a successfully ardent cop in the '50s. It also creates one of the more entertaining analytical dynamics I've experienced, crafting an atmosphere where we compare the tactics of cops to each other -- especially between Exley and Bud White -- for positives and negatives, successes and loopholes, and the comparable ways each one gets what they want from their targets.

Once this moral dynamic is introduced early on, it rarely backs down from its gripping and questionable nature. Since then, several films have tinkered with the idea of constructing elaborate schemes to dodge the law, such as in Gone Baby Gone and, on an international scale, Memories of Murder. Its frequency in L.A. Confidential drains the shock out of that mechanism, instead allowing its audience to see the tactic as a tool used for everything between idle threats directed at a wife beater to the planting evidence on a known felon to ensure criminal indictment. It raises the question in our own minds, "in that situation, would I plant evidence to get a evildoer off the streets?" Most important, the film doesn't take a stand by answering that question, instead utilizing different methods to allow us to make up our own minds -- or see them coalesce for what they both have to offer.

When it's not playing the role as moral guide through this acceptable dark underside, L.A. Confidential also tackles vanity among those disconnected symbionts that thrive and feed off of the dark underbelly of Los Angeles. Utilizing the Fleur-de-lis prostitution ring as a springboard, it focuses on the time period's newly-discovered infatuation with public image. This ushers in the radiant Academy-award winning performance from Kim Basinger (Batman) as the lucid prostitute Lynn Bracken. Her dynamic personality creates such depth and duality around her sophistication that it speaks her history without words. From the moment that we witness her iconic turn-and-gaze at Bud White in the liquor store, we see a woman trapped in a world vastly inferior to the blooming warmth that she exudes.

This old-Hollywood beauty, projecting her likeness to Veronica Lake, quickly builds a relationship with Bud White -- something that might seem questionable to some at first glance. However, combined with the crumbling wall that Crowe lowers in Bud's personality, Basinger's Lynn somehow becomes epitomic to his eyes and sells us on the connection that arises the instant they meet. The existence of her prostitution ring, a gig that revolves around the business model that each employee resembles a specific Hollywood starlet, sketches out the painfully obvious obsession that society has with obtaining things we cannot have. This ideal arises as a potential catalyst that could be fueling Bud's attraction, clouding real passion with the lust arising in the oft-fantasized notion of sleeping with "Veronica Lake".

When aligned with Exley's desire to have justice and purity in equal measure, it builds a grand play on those unsatisfied archetypes that lie beyond our reach. Moreover, this fascination with public image becomes an explosive and unnerving mechanic that electrifies the escalating tension brewing between all characters caught in this loop. As a plateau to this tension, L.A. Confidential showcases one of the best close-quartered shootouts in cinema within its explosive conclusion, not just because of supreme editing but also due to well-crafted claustrophobia. Dante Spinotti's cinematography accentuates this by layering point-of-view shots with clean, expository pans that paint a perfect image of each character's whereabouts in a small, darkly-lit house. Several parallel scenes, many of which revolve around raids on similarly confined spaces to that of the house, keep the tense pacing throttling along until this engulfing, satisfying climax.

It reflects the film's commonly well-designed spatial conception, all of which helps in crafting a pragmatic nature within the iconic pulp dialogue and ravishing visuals of one of the '90s strongest and most thoroughly entertaining films. Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland have gone on to direct other strong films following this, but none of them compare to the one-in-a-lifetime concoction that sizzles in L.A. Confidential's pitch-perfect marriage of cast and crew. It's a film that zeroes in on corruption themes that apply just as much in the '50s as they do to our modern era. That's a rare feat, one that has to be experienced to appreciate. Witnessing a film like L.A. Confidential that retains potency and ferments with time is one of those true, enthralling benchmarks of film as a medium.

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