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L.A. Confidential (1997)

by on 2011/03/14

“I did what I had to do for justice.”

* * * * *

You know, if it weren’t for the colour stock, dynamic camera, explicit nudity, graphic violence, modern actors, swearing, and a widescreen aspect ratio, L.A. Confidential would be an incredible film noir. As-is, we must settle for it merely being an exemplary crime epic.

Some movies are clearly driven by plot. Others rely on the players. This one enjoys the rare fortune of being gifted with both. Complex, yet never confusing, the threads tend to align with one of its three main characters. Their personal and investigative arcs orbit, intersect, and converge by The End.

The setting is the mid-Fifties, in Hollywood, California. An LAPD nearly crippled by dysfunction and a poor reputation fares better in politics than justice, though even the politicians yearn for reform. The force tends to punish on the basis of racism, sexuality, and outright self-interest, with methods as brutal as they are biased.

Guy Pearce (Memento) portrays Ed Exley, a second generation officer, living up to a legend, and far more smart than social. He’s investigating a multiple homicide at a diner called The Nite Owl.

Russell Crowe (1995‘s The Quick and the Dead and 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma) is Bud White, a “direct” cop with an abusive past, an aggressive attitude, and a weakness for damsels in distress. His arc incorporates the majority of screen time by Kim Basinger (Batman and Never Say Never Again) as Lynn Bracken. She won an much-deserved Oscar for her stint here as an escort who looks like starlet Veronica Lake.

Kevin Spacey (The Usual Suspects, Superman Returns, and too many more to mention) plays Jack Vincennes, with some of the subtlest work I’ve seen from him. He’s a charming rake, usually neutral, flexing his ethics as money and fame dictate. Frequently accompanying him is mercenary friend Sid Hudgens (Batman ReturnsDanny DeVito). His muckraking tabloid Hush-Hush depends on celebrity drug busts.

Their disparate tales of murder, exploitation, and vice spin an intricate tapestry with room enough for a legion of roles. Among them:

  • James Cromwell (Star Trek: First Contact) as a captain, Dudley Smith
  • David Strathairn (Sneakers) as pimp and porn king Pierce Patchett
  • Simon Baker (Land of the Dead) in his feature debut as actor Matt Reynolds
  • Matt McCoy (Star Trek: The Next Generation) as Brett Chase, leading man on the Dragnet-like cop show, Badge of Honor

Because my reactions will tend toward praise for L.A. Confidential, let me get right to the criticisms. Perhaps it’s only one.

At two points in the story, an investigator is figuring things out, piecing together clues. For some reason — plotting imprecision, imperfect foreshadowing, confused test audiences, whatever — writer/director Curtis Hanson uses a partial optical wipe in mid-frame. The intent is to reveal what the character is remembering, an embedded flashback fragment. The effect is clumsy, and illustrates what our resident femme fatale calls a crutch for the hard of thinking.

However, in other aspects, assume nothing but the best. The narrative successfully balances complication and clarity. Its writing is superlative, with an appropriately over-the-top voice-over, and dialogue as good as its delivery. Period details abound, with overt references to everything from The Bad and the Beautiful to Dean Martin. Even the fictional Badge of Honor looks vintage.

Visually, the photography looks almost ideal. I understand the director didn’t want to use a grainy black and white and — given the anachronism of a newer era’s actors — he probably made the right choice. If I have a qualm, it’s that I wish the stock could have resembled that era’s Technicolor, as seen in films like 1954‘s Rear Window.

Sonically, the soundtrack is rife with retro gems by Chet Baker, Bing Crosby, Jackie Gleason, Dean Martin, Johnny Mercer, and Kay Starr. Jerry Goldsmith’s score continues his winning streak with mournful strings, and the occasional subtle brass, reed, and winds. His unnerving piano motifs sound prepared and distressed, like a menacing hybrid of John Cage and Ferrante & Teicher. Taken as a whole, the music is appropriate, evocative and, ultimately, effective.

Which might be said of L.A. Confidential overall. Its themes, stories, characters, performances, and production all succeed without question. My few concerns are quibbles and nitpicks. You’ll rarely find so long an experience over quite as soon.

Happily, there may be more of sorts. The filmmakers were informed by a host of older pieces, including The Bad and the Beautiful, Bad Influence, In a Lonely Place, The Killing, Kiss Me Deadly, The Lineup, Private Hell 36, Some Came Running, Tarnished Angels and, of course, lots of Dragnet. It seems I’ve got more viewing to do.

* * * * *

Rated R / 18A for adult situations, disturbing scenes, language, nudity, and violence

138 minutes

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