Drenched in the tawdry glamour of Hollywood in the early 1950s and up to its ears in the delirious corruption of police and city politics, “L.A. Confidential” is an irresistible treat with enough narrative twists and memorable characters for a half-dozen films. Curtis Hanson’s rich and impressively faithful adaptation of James Ellroy’s novel will satisfy mystery fans and probably reps the best film of its type since “Chinatown,” although as that classic proved, even the most outstanding examples of the genre have only modestly good B.O. potential. After its Cannes fest bow, pic is being held by Warner Bros. for fall release, when it should be able to take advantage of top reviews and seasonal fest appearances to maximize its commercial profile.
After slowly accumulating his artistic and commercial stripes over the years, director-co-writer Curtis Hanson comes into his own as a filmmaker here with a densely plotted, superbly acted policier that packs plenty of surprises and satisfies on virtually every level. Hollywood buffs will be especially entranced with the many knowing inside references, but Ellroy’s knotty yarn also involves seamy aspects of Southern California’s political, business, racial, legal, journalistic and underworld history, to excellent and subtle effect.
Film virtually swims in corruption, but remarkably manages to avoid a cheap or cynical attitude. Kicking off with the imprisonment of real-life gangster Mickey Cohen, pic plunges headlong into the LAPD by introducing some notably colorful members of the force.
Sgt. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) made his name busting Robert Mitchum for dope and continues to get plenty of mileage out of arresting celebs in tandem with Hush-Hush magazine editor Sid Hudgeons (Danny DeVito) and acting as official adviser on the “Badge of Honor” TV show. Officer Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a rough, quick-tempered cop who refuses to rat on his racist partner, Stensland (Graham Beckel), after the latter leads a violent attack on some Mexicans brought to the station on Christmas Eve.
Feeling no such hesitation is another young officer, Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), a ruthlessly honest, college-educated young officer and son of a reputable cop who won’t play along with the policemen’s code of protecting one another. Exley testifies about Stensland’s malfeasance to veteran Capt. Dudley Smith (James Cromwell).
Shunned by his colleagues in the wake of his finking, Exley keeps his own counsel while the department goes about its work of running the pretenders to Cohen’s throne out of town and sniffing around the edges of a movie star look-alike call-girl ring run by suave pimp Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn). Plot proper kicks in heavily with a massacre at the Nite Owl Coffee Shop, a blood bath that leaves six victims, including the infamous Stensland, in its wake.
With a brave trackdown of suspects and brilliant interrogation techniques, college boy Exley emerges as the hero of the case, and first half ends with Exley earning the unlikely sobriquet of “Shotgun Ed” due to his bold wrap-up of the proceedings. That the apparent culprits are black adds to the sociological fabric of the story, but, fortunately, Hanson doesn’t hit this over the head, letting the racial aspects speak for themselves.
With an hour left to go, one can’t imagine exactly where the film will go from here, but so many seeds have been planted that the possibilities are rife. With a soft, protective spot for women, the tough Bud White, trying to make inroads on the elusive Patchett, begins a sensitive romance with one of his girls, Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), a double for Veronica Lake who is popular with downtown city councilmen.
Informing his police pal that the D.A. (Ron Rifkin) swings both ways, tabloid hustler Hudgeons arranges for Vincennes to catch the official with a pretty boy at a motel, with very messy results, while White and Exley are thrown onto a collision course when it appears that there may have been more to the Nite Owl case than met the eye, things that bear unexpectedly upon Patchett’s operation and the conduct of the entire LAPD.
As aspects of previously hidden relationships and activities unfold, the intrigue and tension mount steadily in ways that are complicated but not confusing, thanks to the expert adaptation of Hanson and co-scripter Brian Helgeland. Furthermore, no one is beyond suspicion or, for that matter, elimination, as some of the most significant characters are shockingly bumped off well before all the strings are pulled together.
Although one can sense the general drift of guilt and criminal responsibility for much of the mayhem, the specific revelations are still bracing, as well as convincing, when they arrive, and only the final minute or two are a bit on the soft and conventional side.
“L.A. Confidential” serves as an almost overwhelming reminder of the pleasures of deeply involving narratives in the old Hollywood sense. With the emphasis on intense violence and major action set pieces to put across modern crime films, screenwriters have slighted the story aspects (with the occasional exception, such as “The Usual Suspects”). This picture restores the primacy of the dramatic line, which tends to make the violence even more startling when it comes.
Furthermore, there is a raft of superbly drawn characters, brought to life by the members of a cast assembled with brilliantly offbeat imagination. For instance, it is impossible to imagine what possessed Hanson to assign the leading roles of the two young cops to Aussie actors, but Crowe and Pearce are both dynamite.
Muscular, bullheaded and ruggedly good-looking, Crowe is every inch the image of a WASPy Southern California cop, but also brings credibility to his tender and well-motivated episodes with the vulnerable whore, who inspires Basinger to her best screen work in quite some time.
Pearce, who portrayed the youngest drag queen in “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” lends Exley fierce moral, ethical and intellectual dimensions that considerably enrich the picture’s texture; one senses a great deal going on behind the wire-rimmed glasses that everyone on the force advises him to get rid of.
Less unexpected, but just as important, Spacey is aces as the somewhat older homicide veteran who relishes his special status as a “real Hollywood” cop, has cultivated a wry view of his own casual corruption but is not beyond rising to the occasion when something truly alarming occurs. Rounding out the array of top cops, Cromwell, not Australian but best known as the farmer in the Oz pic “Babe,” is superbly nuanced as the force’s grand old man who knows where everyone’s bodies are buried.
In showy smaller roles, DeVito shines in the old-style character part of the sleazy king of sensationalist journalism, while Strathairn outstandingly oozes the oil that prevents his big-time pimp from being grabbed by the authorities.
Working deeply within film noir territory, Hanson resists overdoing self-conscious stylistics, concentrating instead upon telling the story in superbly chosen settings that cumulatively convey a pungent sense of a virtually vanished L.A.
Tale ranges from police h.q. downtown to the Hollywood Hills, South Central and such well-known hangouts as the Formosa Cafe and the Frolic Room, with Jeannine Oppewall’s production design and Dante Spinotti’s widescreen lensing doing the rest to convey a growing city with a light dusting of moral contamination to be found everywhere.
Costume designer Ruth Myers, editor Peter Honess and composer Jerry Goldsmith, throwing in a hint of his “Chinatown” score for good measure, also weigh in with important contributions.