L.A Confidential is the kind of the film that looks like it was forged right in the upper echelons of cinema heaven; a perfect blend of intelligent writing, uniformly grand performances and flawless execution, all thanks to director Curtis Hanson. As a lover of crime fiction set in the 1940-50s, I couldn’t have asked for more. It’s a contemporary re-imagining of the film noirs of the classic Hollywood era, but one that has the advantage of not being bound by the limitations of the Hays Code. Many directors have tried their hand at this genre before but only a few can boast of doing it right, and Hanson is one of them. This is one of those films that make you say: “They don’t make ’em like this anymore.”
The film was adapted from James Ellroy’s book of the same name but I believe the story-line is actually an amalgamation of the story-lines taken from a series of books that are part of Ellroy’s L.A Quartet. The three main characters are from the book L.A Confidential and writer Brian Helgeland along with Hanson decided to keep them as they are and took out every scene in the book that did not have these three characters. The story opens on Christmas Eve and the setting is early 1950s Los Angeles. We are introduced to the three main characters who are detectives in the LAPD. Edmund Exley (played by Guy Pearce) is an idealistic Detective Sergeant who prefers to go by the book. But he is also someone with lofty aspirations and is looking for every opportunity to rise to the top.
Bud White (played by Russell Crowe) is a plainclothes officer who has a soft spot in his heart for abused women and occasionally displays his disgust toward woman-beaters. Jack Vincennes (played by Kevin Spacey) is another Detective Sergeant who is something of a celebrity in his department. He is a narcotics detective and also a technical advisor on a show named Badge of Honor. When White’s partner Dick Stensland, White and Vincennes brutally beat up some Mexican prisoners, Exley testifies against them and earns the resentment of White and others in the department. White is thereafter recruited by their police captain Dudley Smith for a muscle job that involves getting the town rid of out of town criminals who are trying to take advantage of the absence of a mob boss named Mickey Cohen who has been recently arrested.
When Stensland is found murdered along with many others inside a coffee shop called The Night Owl, these three officers are brought together. Exley soon gets into the good books of his fellow officers after solving the Night Owl murders but very soon learns that he had killed the wrong men and that the real culprit is out there somewhere. When Vincennes notifies Exley of another murder case that he is investigating and when White tells him that he has certain hunches of his own, all three realize that everything is somehow connected. Without spoiling anything I would say that there is a big twist towards the end that is in some ways better and more satisfying than a similar twist in The Usual Suspects. Just as how the villain in that one was called “Keyser Soze”, here it is “Rollo Tomasi”.
The blueprint of L.A Confidential is definitely that of some of the books of Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett or the film noir classics such as The Big Sleep, Out of the Past or Double Indemnity but what sets it apart from those films is the surprisingly coherent narrative. I mean, anyone who has seen The Big Sleep knows how complicated it’s story is. So much that even Raymond Chandler didn’t have all the answers. There are plenty of colorful characters in L.A Confidential but Helgeland seems to have been very aware of the flaws of those film noir classics when he set out to write this one. There are three cops and one femme fatale but they are not written as two-dimensional characters. White, Vincennes and Exley are characters with shades of grey and we find it a bit hard to root for either character.Everything that I would normally love to see in a thriller are here. There are multiple murder mysteries, deception, intrigue, manipulation, well-choreographed shoot-outs, sleazy characters, shady locations, razor-sharp dialogues etc. Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey and Russell Crowe are in peak form here and no one else could’ve played their roles better. Spacey seems to be channeling either Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra or possibly a combination of both. Crowe is very effective as the burly, no-nonsense cop with a raging temper and Pearce is perfect as the smart, calculating and politically-minded cop. It’s hard to imagine that these actors almost didn’t get cast because of the budget. But Hanson was relentless and that really paid off. It’s a pity that Titanic won the Best Picture instead of this one.