-- Peter Rainer
The 1950s-era Los Angeles of L.A. Confidential is Noir Central. Its denizens are tattooed in shadow; the play of light and dark in the streets, the police stations, the morgues, is fetishistic. The post-war L.A. touted in the travelogues and billboards is a boomtown, but what we actually see is unsettling: a city of the future infested by people with only a past.
Like the best noir crime thrillers, L.A. Confidential, directed by Curtis Hanson and very loosely based on the 1990 James Ellroy novel, suggests a menace even greater than the one we are presented with. It’s been a long time since we’ve had sordidness this ripe in the movies. Hanson and his cinematographer, Dante Spinotti, understand why we allow ourselves to be taken in by noir – it sexes up our own worst suspicions about how the world works.
With a cast of more than 100 characters, Ellroy’s novel is a sprawling overload of plots and subplots. The overabundance has an obsessive, almost punitive quality, as if the L.A. horror could no loner be contained within the confines of a single narrative. Pulp noir is, almost by definition, a slick genre, but Ellroy’s book is a rare thing – a noir epic. If you stand back from its jumbled panorama, it comes together like one of those compressed 3-D images that suddenly snap into focus if you stare at them long enough.
Hanson and co-screenwriter, Brian Helgeland, have hooked into Ellroy’s depraved, moody-blues mindset and tricked out a story line from his welter of happenings. The movie is still a dense thicket of subterfuges and wrong-way turns, but at least it’s negotiable.
Besides, confusions are a part of noir. We don’t look to these movies for handy resolutions, and the films that wrap things up for us are often the least resonant. Hanson makes this mistake at the end of L.A. Confidential, but otherwise he demonstrates that every safe exit is really a trap door. The result is perhaps the best noir crime movie since Chinatown – not that, aside from Devil in a Blue Dress, there has been much competition.
The assumption in noir has always been that appearances are not deceiving. If you’re fat, you’re gross; if you’re a woman, you’re no good; if you’re rich, you’re sleazy. It’s a reactionary genre – or it would be except for the strain of sentimentality that runs through it. (Think of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe – the white knight of the dark streets.)
The key to L.A. Confidential – what makes it different – is that just about everybody in it isn't what he or she seems. Sometimes the characters are even worse than you imagined; sometimes they show off a valor and a rue that spin you around. The mysteries to be solved in L.A. Confidential aren’t only whodunits. The flip-flops of chracter are mysteries, too. We never are sure how people will act in this film, and that is part of its texture. It keeps us off balance until the end.
Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), when we first see him, is a Los Angeles police officer on the make for a higher rank. College-educated, the son of a decorated cop killed on the job, Exley, with his wire-rim glasses and pursed, polished features, is almost comically straight-arrow. But there’s a connivance built into his uprightness, which he uses as leverage to get what he wants. In a police force rife with corruption, Exley accomodates himself to his image-conscious higher-ups as a do-gooder – a poster boy. When a number of his fellow cops brutalize some Mexicans brought to the police station on Christmas Eve, Exley alone rats on his comrades – and wangles a promotion for it. He’s not wrong to rat. The cops – spearheaded by Dick Stensland (Graham Beckel), along with his partner, Bud White (Russell Crowe), and Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) – behaved like racist thugs. But Exley uses the ugly incident as an opportunity, knowing full well he’ll be shunned, or worse, by his fellow officers. He doesn’t care; he doesn’t really want to be liked by them anyway.
It’s to the film’s credit that Exley’s apple-polishing is given its due. So is the cynicism and sense of betrayal from the other cops. We don’t see much more of Stensland except his corpse, but White the bully-boy turns soulful and becomes Exley’s antagonist. Taken by Capt. Dudley Smith (the marvelous James Cromwell) as a strong arm on crime raids, White inevitably is drawn into a collision course with the golden boy. It’s as if he and Exley were fated to square off.
Vincennes is the most jaded of the cops. Dressed nattily – he wears his finery the way a lizard wears its skin – he makes side money setting up Hollywood busts for Sid Gorgeous (Danny DeVito), the yowly editor of a tabloid magazine called Hush-Hush. Vincennes also works as an advisor to the television series Badge of Honor, which portrays the LAPD as shining warriors. He values his sleekness because it camouflages the scumminess of his operation. But he also values the scumminess; it confirms his wisdom about how rotten things are. Vincennes fancies himself a connoisseur of the vile.
What gives Spacey’s performance its edge – its greatness – is that finally we can see how little this connoisseurship means to him. Inside the sleek cynicism is a weariness with what he has become. When Vincennes is given an opportunity by Exley to right a wrong he perpetrated – a Hollywood bust turned murder – he jumps at it. His chance for redemption transforms him. It’s as if the real person – guileless and decent – has melted away the mask.
Perhaps the reason Vincennes comes across as the most layered of the film’s characters is because his take on things – detached yet impassioned – matches Hanson’s. When Vincennes is at his sleekest, it’s as if everything he speaks issues from an echo chamber of irony; he’s supremely facetious. And Hanson directs the action in the same double-edged way. Underneath the cool-cucumber flipness, he’s terribly engaged.
He realizes you can’t direct a ‘50s crime noir as if we were still living in the ‘50s. When the police chief (John Mahnon) talks up the LAPD as a “great force in a great city,” it’s balanced by his directive to the cops regarding some black suspects in a brutal mass murder. For their apprehension, he urges “all available force,” and, to his credit, Exley gags at the euphemism. He mutters to himself, “Why not just put a bounty on them.”
Noir, for all its up-from-the-streets atmosphere, is situated in a pulpy never-never-land where everything we see and hear seems encoded yet explicit. The emphasis in L.A. Confidential on the racism and corruption of the LAPD grounds it. It’s as we were witnessing the origins of an outrage that is still with us. When White, the self-styled avenger of battered women, shoots a rapist and then makes the shooting look like self-defense, we feel unclean watching the fix – even though our outrage matches White’s. We’re privy to an obscenity, and Hanson makes us feel our own complicity in it.
In fact, throughout L.A. Confidential we feel implicated in the luridness of what we’re watching. That’s one of the dirty pleasures of noir. Hanson has shuffled through these shadows before. His script for the almost unknown 1979 Elliott Gould thriller The Silent Partner was a marvel of malice. Despite some questionable casting involving the likes of Steve Guttenberg and James Spader, Hanson’s third and fourth features as a director, The Bedroom Window and Bad Influence, were expertly creepy neo-noirs.
The casting in L.A. Confidential is mostly first-rate – though a little of Devito’s smirky bombast goes a long way – and the creepiness is more masterfully stage-managed than ever. Hanson has finally come into his own. A former movie critic, he seems to be playing out in this film his own fantasia on the noirs that formed him. When we follow the trail of blood in the Nite Owl Coffee Shop – the murder trail that leads to the black suspects – Hanson intensifies our dread drop by drop. It’s as if an Edward Hopper all-night diner had blurred into a charnel house.
At the same time, Hanson is reaching for a more sentimental and valorous conception of the noir thriller than we are accustomed to in the movies. It’s his way of recasting the genre by making it less reacionary. And so, in place of the standard-issue noir vamp who drives men to their doom, we get Kim Basinger’s Lynn Bracken – the whore with the heart of gold. Lynn is a prize filly in the stable of pimp-financier Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn), who runs a house of prostitution featuring women surgically altered to look like movie stars. (Such a ring actually existed in Hollywood). Lynn is the Veronica Lake stand-in, and Bud White falls for her. He lets her know she’s better-looking than Veronica Lake – that’s how we first know he loves her.
In his squad car, in the rain, he watches her from afar. Much later on, feeling jilted, he slaps her in the rain. (What would noir be without rain?) Lynn is the bright angel of noir who replaces the vamp, and it doesn’t quite work. She’s such an ethereal goddess that you crave some poison in the mix – something slutty and indefensible. Basinger has the right vanilla parfait look – she certainly a pulpmaster’s wet dream – but she’s given to say things like, “Bud can’t hide the good inside of him.” And we’re meant to agree with her.
Transforming a noir vamp into a touchy-feely angel of mercy isn’t much of a bonus; noir shouldn’t be this soggy and righteous. When someone like Jack Vincennes fights to reclaim his goodness, we can at least recognize the smarm it came out of. Lynn, though, is untainted from the get-go.
What all this means, I suspect, is that Hanson is much better at malice than virtue. He can’t make the scenes with Lynn come alive because they’re cream-filled with good intentions. It’s the same creaminess that mars the film’s ending. (The book’s fade-out is vaguely similar but far less smug). In a way, Hanson is a victim of his own success here: He’s so good at nastiness that the counterbalancing sweetness pales in comparison.
He’s not always at his best on the dark side either: A scene involving the strong-arming of the D.A. (Ron Rifkin) is poorly staged, and there are a few too many cutesy-ironic touches, like the shot of Vincennes under a movie marquee for The Bad and the Beautiful.
But Hanson understands in his bones what draws us to this netherworld: we want to know where the bodies are buried. In one particularly startling sequence we actually find out – White crawls under a house and pulls up a rotting corpse. It’s as if in this scene White becomes the Ulysses of noir. He’s reached the rot that noir tries to slick up and glamorize.
The three lead cops in L.A. Confidential react to depravity; they have a conscience. Hanson wants to give us a richer sense of character than the standard noir, and, by the end, his cops have earned their chops. The blood on Exley’s face no longer looks decorative and out-of-place, as it did in the beginning. It looks like it belongs there – it’s a part of his story. L.A. Confidential is a movie about a war within the police ranks, and it’s also a film at war with itself. Hanson craves the lurid shock of pulp, but he also wants to go beyond pulp. With his smarts and almost tragic sense of the consequences of vice, he just about gets there.
Essay excerpted from Rainer on Film: Thirty Years of Film Writing in a Turbulent and Transformative Era. (2013, Santa Monica Press)
Peter Rainer is the film critic for The Christian Science Monitor and appears regularly on Film Week on KPCC-FM.