LA Confidential is a classic film noir thriller reinvented retrospectively courtesy of James Elroy‘s seductively engaging novel. It’s certainly not unique in that respect – the rash of adaptations of books by Elroy, Elmore Leonard and others make this one of the best travelled genres of the past 30 years or so, maybe from the Coen brothers‘ superb 1984 debut Blood Simple – drawn heavily from the works of Dashiell Hammett. But it sets a high standard for the genre. A seminal work, you might say.
LA Confidential is stylistically up there with the best of them – it looks truly sumptuous. Making the most of its LA locations, the period settings, music of the era, costumes, everything is redolent with the authentic atmosphere of 1953, positively dripping with glamorous movie star lookalikes, and the sleazy underbelly of corrupt cops, mob gangs, trashy reporters and violent murders in seedy motels and cafes.
As for the plot, it centres on the power vacuum left after a mobster, Meyer “Mickey” Cohen, is jailed for tax evasion, thus creating an immediate parallel with the demise of Al Capone. Drugs and prostitution rackets hang in the air, though some ignore them. Murders follow, though the police are just as corrupt and heavy-handed as the villains, so who do you trust? And how do the figures fit together?
The movie is littered with beautifully drawn and contrasting characters bounce off each other brilliantly, notably the trio that form the movie’s heartbeat: ambitious and incorruptible Lieutenant Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce looking rather different to Memento), avenging his father’s death and not afraid who he upsets on his climb up the greasy pole; charming socialite and snappy dresser, Sgt Jack Vincennes (the ever delightful Kevin Spacey), special advisor to TV cop show Badge of Honour and recipient of backhanders from Danny Devito‘s gossip-mongering reporter; and Bud White (a young-looking Russell Crowe in characteristically mean mode), muscle man who acts as enforcer for Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell, not in Babe Pig mode), but who has a soft spot for helping women treated violently by men.
Exley earns a medal for killing suspects for the Nite Owl shootings, but suspects something is wrong, only to find Bud White is also investigating for his own private reasons. The pair clash over a prostitute modelled to look like star Veronica Lake for whom White has also fallen. More than that it’s impossible to say without providing spoilers, and that would not be fair!
Around these three, a fine ensemble cast of supporting characters has been established, all of whom add significant value. Ironic that at the time, the main backer of the movie was worried that there was no top-line star – though in hindsight he has stars aplenty. Kim Basinger won Best Supporting Actor Oscar for her role, and of course Crowe, Spacey and David Strathairn have all won major gongs, with good cause, but here no character is weaker than any other.
But what works best though are the storyline and script. Never less than taut and pacy, LAC fizzes with humour, tension, giddy twists and turns In spite of being well over 2 hours long – a credit to Curtis Hanson‘s direction, and the script he co-wrote with Brian Helgeland. Hanson has very rarely put a foot wrong, nor has he pandered often to the slower members of the audience to catch up ( brief glimpses of a couple of characters superimposed on one occasion are the only really concessions.)
There is also a cinematically wonderful moment, a twist that tells Exley precisely who is the man responsible for the death of a key character. More than that I’m not saying – you can find out for yourself. The plot offers a number of twists, made all the more thrilling by virtue of engaging and credible characters. Pearce’s Exley in particular stands up well to the rough treatment, demonstrating his stiff resolve to be a god honest cop and stand out against a police force rotten to the core.
If I have any criticism it’s that the story seems to have been truncated in translation from the novel, possibly through the exclusion of subplots. Cromwell’s Irish-American accept seemed a tad corny too, but apart from that the only part of the movie stretching the credibility of the audience is the final shoot-out. Otherwise it’s simply a wonderful movie I would wholeheartedly recommend to everyone!