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Wednesday, 21 April 2010

LA Confidential (1997)

Director: Curtis Hanson
Stars: Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kim Basinger and Danny DeVito
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

At the 1998 Academy Awards, the Best Picture Oscar went to Titanic, pandering to a bloated whore of a movie that isn't worthy of its status as the biggest grossing film by far in the history of the industry, at least until James Cameron beat his own record with Avatar, which could easily carry the same description. What's most surprising about that win is that there was serious competition that year, not least from this film, and while Titanic seems to have successfully ridden the initial wave of hype to reach nostalgia status in less than a decade, LA Confidential is by far the better film and I'd bet money it will stand up to posterity with much more of an emphasis. Certainly most critics were sold on its staying power, so while it lost out on the Oscar, the four biggest critic awards ceremonies all honoured it as Best Picture, a sweep equalled only by Schindler's List.

There are plenty of reasons why people paid attention. It's easy to see the star power from the benefit of hindsight, the key trio of actors being Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, after all. All of them are excellent in very different ways, unsurprising to the majority who have probably seen each of them in at least something important, but at the time Spacey was newly established while Crowe and Pearce were not widely known at all, merely a couple of Australian actors to most people in the industry, though technically Crowe is a Kiwi and Pearce is English. Some would see the blistering support from names like Kim Basinger and Danny DeVito as more obvious, even though they get substantially less screen time and less opportunity to shine. They're merely far more noticeable, though in his own way another supporting actor, James Cromwell, is probably better than both.

Mostly though it's the story, tough and clever, told exactly as it should be told and with all the technical backing it needs. It's a period piece, a 1997 film noir based in the 1950s and sourced from the novel by James Ellroy, who is something of a fascinating character in himself. When he was a guest on TCM to pick four of his favourite movies, it was hardly surprising that he picked examples of film noir, but it was very telling that three of them (Stakeout on Dope Street, The Lineup and Murder By Contract) were all set in Los Angeles and released in 1958, the year his mother Geneva was murdered there, a crime that has never been solved, even though he's had a go at doing so himself. It became very clear through his commentary that a prominent part of Ellroy's mind is still there, in the LA of 1958, and that's a great part of why this film and much of his writing feels utterly authentic.

The rest comes from director Curtis Hanson, a fan of the novel who managed to do justice to its complexities. Sometimes I feel the best modern adaptations are made by fans, from Sin City to King Kong and, in its way, Watchmen, which, while flawed, was far better than it had any right to be. Hanson, along with Brian Helgeland, another fan of the book, deservedly won Oscars for their adaptation. In particular Helgeland fought hard to land this opportunity and wrote seven drafts of the story for free over a two year period. It made his name and took him from the level of writing Robert Englund movies like 976-EVIL and A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master to that of writing Clint Eastwood movies like Blood Work and Mystic River, hardly a minor shift in prestige.

After a powerfully cynical introduction courtesy of the delightfully sarcastic Danny DeVito as sleazy tabloid journalist Sid Hudgeons, who runs Hush Hush magazine ('Off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush...'), we're introduced to our three lead characters. They're all cops working for the LAPD but they're very different people indeed because what this story really speaks to is the heart of the policeman, the driving forces behind why people have to become cops, the reasons that they lose sight of their motivations and the ways in which they refind them. All three of our leads run through that story arc in their own way, in different strands of a complex plot that weave together around a multiple murder case, the Nite Owl Coffee Shop shooting that left six people dead, including a former cop.
Kevin Spacey is Jack Vincennes, an experienced detective who loves his position as technical advisor to a TV cop show called Badge of Honor, a thinly disguised Dragnet. It's worth noting here that besides his mother's unsolved murder, the biggest influence on the young James Ellroy was a copy of The Badge, a collection of LAPD casefiles written by Jack Webb, who played the influential Sgt Joe Friday on Dragnet. Vincennes also has a profitable business association with Hudgeons, gaining publicity as Hush Hush gains copy. He's a clever and incisive man but he's a little too in love with the life he's found himself and perhaps he's forgotten what it means to be a real policeman. Spacey was at the top of his game in 1997, with Se7en and The Usual Suspects two years behind him and American Beauty two years in the future, so it's his name at the top of the credits even though his is the least of the three characters.

Guy Pearce is Edmond Exley, an up and coming second generation cop as by the book as they come, but with political savvy and ambition. He's prim and proper without a hair out of place, he's top ranked on the lieutenant's exam and he wants into the detective bureau bad. His boss, Capt Dudley Smith, recognises his political talent and wants to keep him out of the situations that he freely admits he wouldn't play the way most cops would play because he can't work in shades of grey. It's a peach of a role for Pearce because it really grows with the story and he lives up to it well. He was still a minor name at this point who had to audition along with the masses, but he was on a lot of lips after the Australian drag queen road movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Curtis Hanson refused to watch that film fearing that such a wildly different character portrayal might persuade him out of hiring Pearce.

That leaves Russell Crowe as the enforcer, looking a lot more Romper Stomper here than A Beautiful Mind as Wendell 'Bud' White. He's a violent man but one with principles. In particular he has a passion for stopping wifebeaters, a passion that he sometimes can't quite keep under control, leaving his character perpetually fighting not to be a contradiction. As Exley suggests, his blood is always up, and he thrives on those shades of grey that Exley abhors. He also builds an unhealthy attraction to Lynn Bracken, a high class prostitute and Veronica Lake lookalike, so much so that under other circumstances you might call him a stalker, certainly someone who crosses the boundaries between good guy and bad guy frequently. He's a coiled spring but he's all tangled up and liable to explode at the slightest provocation.

Initially the LAPD doesn't look too good here, even though Ellroy is consistently a staunch defender, even during more notorious incidents. All three of these cops get caught up in a violent episode where the department celebrates Christmas by getting drunk at the station and beating up a bunch of Mexicans who have just been brought in for attacking policemen. Exley is the watch commander who tries to stop them but is utterly powerless. White is there to stop his thug of a partner from killing them and, given that he's easily provocated, ends up in the middle of the ruckus too. Everyone else is watching and getting a few shots in, and even Vincennes ends up with a little blood on his pristine light beige suit. Unfortunately a couple of press photographers are conveniently on the scene and so the headlines the next day read 'Bloody Christmas' rather than 'Silent Night' and the people running the department are pissed.

So White is suspended for not testifying against his partner, who even his bosses call an embarrassment and a disgrace and so quickly send into retirement. Vincennes is punished by being removed from Badge of Honor, though he's savvy enough to ensure his treatment is kept minor. Even more savvy, Exley is promoted because he has no hesitation about testifying, believing that silence is not the same thing as integrity, and because he's politically astute enough to play some very clever dirty pool. He may not be able to answer yes to any of Smith's tough questions about whether he'd do what it takes to be a homicide detective, but he can certainly answer yes when asked whether he can deal with being despised by the department. That's a gutsy thing to do, even more so given his choice of profession, and while some films would be content with spinning out that story, it's merely the beginning here.
James Ellroy is known for his dense plots, the product of long and elaborate story outlines that on their own are often a few hundred pages long, and LA Confidential, the third in his LA Quartet that began with his fictionalisation of the Black Dahlia murder, is no exception. Hanson and Helgeland were thus set the unenviable task of compressing it into something that would work within the confines of a two hour film and even Ellroy agrees that they met what Hanson was aiming for. Hanson 'wanted the audience to be challenged but at the same time I didn't want them to get lost.' Ellroy said, 'They preserved the basic integrity of the book and its main theme... Brian and Curtis took a work of fiction that had eight plotlines, reduced those to three, and retained the dramatic force of three men working out their destiny.' This point is where two of the three are on downward arcs and the other is flying the other way, but the film plays through those arcs to their logical conclusions.

So White's suspension is promptly lifted as Capt Smith has other plans in mind for him because the local organised crime kingpin, apparently untouchable and ironically played by Paul Guilfoyle, better known as the police captain from CSI, has been locked up for a ten year stretch. Smith wants to put White's physical talents to work persuading mobsters to leave town. Vincennes has to manage his road back to Badge of Honor and come to terms with his association with Hudgeons. And Exley is the lieutenant who gets the call to the Nite Owl Coffee Shop, the location of the massacre that more than anything triggers the rest of our film. Like the other great film noir of latter years that was shot in colour, Roman Polanski's Chinatown, it's complex but not impenetrable, constantly leading us in new directions that make sense even though we didn't always see them coming.

As you might expect for a story written by someone who spends much of his mental time in 1958 Los Angeles, there's a lot of historical detail that's worth commenting on. Many of these characters and circumstances are real and not all of them are disguised. Most obviously kept under their real names are gangster Johnny Stompanato and his girlfriend, actress Lana Turner. While they're minor characters in this story, they're especially important because Stompanato's sensational murder by Turner's daughter in 1958 is one reason why the murder of Ellroy's mother may not have been solved as they happened around the same time and guess which one got the attention. The Lana Turner scene here is priceless, almost as much as Kevin Spacey's grin afterwards.

Hush Hush is, of course, a fictional version of Confidential, the notorious fifties tabloid that provided the title of the film, just as Badge of Honor is naturally an obscured version of Dragnet. Less obviously, the LAPD goon squad that tried to pressure gangsters to leave town through means of violence and kidnapping is real, as is the Bloody Christmas debacle. Pierce Patchett's escort agency featuring girls who look like movie stars may well have been real, given that a number of major film industry names from Mickey Rooney to Garson Kanin have mentioned such things in their autobiographies, but there's a stunning lack of detail anywhere about such a salacious subject so it could just be urban legend mixed with an obvious wish fulfilment fantasy on the behalf of anyone who even thinks about it. If you could spend a night with your favourite movie star, would you leap at the chance, even if it wasn't really your favourite movie star?

Wish fulfilment seems to be a strange concept to conjure up when thinking about LA Confidential, a dark story about a dark time in the history of Los Angeles, in its way the most important character in this film. It was an almost mythical place where people flocked to seek the American dream only to find plenty of people already there who had their own unique ways of offering just that for a price. Really the film, like most Ellroy stories, is more about lost wishes than fulfilled ones, but its existence and quality could easily be seen as a wish fulfilled for Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland. It's not really a film noir, because it's made in widescreen and colour and as late as 1997, but it comes as close as anything with those inherent drawbacks can. When the smoke spirals out of machine gunned windows we can almost imagine the sides of the screen closing in and the colour fading away. That's what every film noir has aimed at since the sixties and almost none have achieved. That this one comes closest is its greatest success.

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