Crime Classic: LA Confidential

We're holding a free screening of a crime classic of your choice next week. Here's a closer look at one option: 1997's LA Confidential...

On the 5th June, we’re holding a free crime classic cinema screening to celebrate the launch of the videogame Murdered: Soul Suspect. You can find out details of the screening, and how you can vote for the film you most want to see, here.

For now, here’s our look back at the first of the films you can choose from: the 1997 crime classic, LA Confidential.

Please note: this piece contains spoilers for the film (apologies to those who read it before we added the appropriate spoiler warning)

Released in 1997, LA Confidential may have been outshone by James Cameron’s Titanic at the Academy Awards, winning just two of the nine awards it had been nominated for, but it has since been recognised as something of a masterpiece. The film follows three police officers, Bud White (Russell Crowe), Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) and Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), as they find themselves at the centre of several major criminal events. The film opens with the arrest of real-life gangster Mickey Cohen and weaves a story out of the subsequent battle for power in the city. When a massacre occurs at the Nite Owl cafe, White, Exley and Vincennes are drawn into a wider conspiracy that exposes the corruption at the heart of Los Angeles.

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To boil down LA Confidential into a simple narrative thread is difficult, something which also faced screenwriters Curtis Hanson (who also directed) and Brian Helgeland when adapting James Ellroy’s novel. The approach was to strip the book back to its bare essentials and to build it up from there. For Hanson, those essentials were Ellroy’s characters.

“What hooked me on them was that, as I met them, one after the other, I didn’t like them,” Curtis once said, “but as I continued reading, I started to care about [them].” The characters and their respective narrative journeys are placed at the forefront of the film with the plot, vastly streamlined from that of the novel, building around them. It’s a brilliant adaptation which loses none of Ellroy’s narrative power and turns it into a character-driven exploration of identity and the forces that act on it.

In order to extend this exploration to the characters, Hanson and Helgeland first focus on building the world around them. Opening with a superb credits sequence, the film immediately establishes the duality to Los Angeles that is at the heart of many of the characters’ struggles. The advertising clips and postcards paint a golden LA, all hopes and aspirations, but this is soon undercut by Danny DeVito’s perfectly pitched in-character narration as gossip magazine editor, Sid Hudgens. Those vistas soon give way to scenes of organised crime as Hudgens tells of the downfall of Mickey Cohen. The central conflict can be found here; the reality of Los Angeles is much darker and more corrosive than its carefully constructed image of a city where people come to achieve their dreams. 

The use of period detail to enhance this meticulous reconstruction of the era makes this Los Angeles artifice feel conversely more organic. Though the focus is on the characters’ journeys throughout, the world they inhabit feels immersive, multi-dimensional and most of all, dangerously alive. The bright cinematography captures this perfectly, eschewing more traditional film noir techniques in favour of something more modern. It emphasises that this danger isn’t just within the shadows, as men are killed in broad daylight. Even scenes set at night are operate under a glare; the ‘Movie Premiere Pot Bust’ is lit by a glowing neon cinema and the flashes of photographers’ cameras.

Alongside Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent Oscar-nominated score, the soundtrack evokes the dreamlike quality of the period and is often used in a blackly comic way to comment on the scene playing out. Particularly inspired moments are Hit The Road To Dreamland over a montage that depicts the assassinations of key members of Cohen’s racket, or How Important Can It Be? playing as Vincennes discovers a dead body. When Vincennes starts to piece everything together, the lyric ‘I have grown so much wiser now’ plays. The music never threatens to overshadow the proceedings, but provides an alternative commentary that, much like Hudgens’ opening voiceover, remains somewhat ironic throughout.

The characters’ journeys are the focus within this alternately nightmarish and dreamlike version of 1950s Los Angeles. These characters, unlikeable yet ones you root for, are translated as such from page to screen and captured perfectly in a trio of excellent performances. They are surrounded by a hugely capable and colourful supporting cast, too. Kim Basinger would go on to win an Oscar for her performance as the conflicted Lynn Bracken, while the performances of Danny DeVito, David Strathairn and James Cromwell live long in the memory. 

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Two minor characters that typify the way in the which the city corrodes individuals are Matt Reynolds (Simon Baker) and Susan Lefferts (Amber Smith). To paraphrase Lynn Bracken, they came on a bus with dreams of Hollywood, and his is how they turned out. Both are forced to use their sexuality in order to do a little acting and are later killed as part of a wider conspiracy they only have a passing knowledge of. In these two relatively small character arcs, Hanson and Helgeland offer a stark warning to both the audience and the characters of the way in which the city transforms and corrupts. The edifice of Los Angeles is what the police are repeatedly told they are fighting for, but it is too late. There may be idyllic sun-kissed suburbs and exciting neon-lit boulevards, but they are not the true face of the city.

The narrative of White, Exley and Vincennes is placed at the centre of this conflict. Each character begins with a very fixed goal in mind; White is using his violent tendencies to enact some vigilante justice against wife-beaters in the comfort of the law, Exley is politicking his way to the detective position he has always wanted and Vincennes is every inch the Hollywood cop, busting drug takers and working on a Dragnet-style TV show as a consultant. All established in their initial introduction scenes, the three men are classic noir anti-heroes, operating within their own moral code that doesn’t quite correspond to the world around them.

Kevin Spacey channels Dean Martin with Jack Vincennes, who acts as a warning for the other two officers. He views being a cop as a performance and works this to his advantage in the mutually beneficial partnership with Hudgens. However, he grows uncomfortable in the role and when Exley asks why he became a cop, he mournfully replies that he “can’t remember”. He’s already the jaded, twisted version of himself that threatens to affect both White and Exley and comes to the realisation too late. His death is the catalyst of the film, not only in terms of plot, but also for White and Exley. They settle their differences and fight not only the corruption within the force, but also within themselves. 

Exley is the film’s most fascinating character, a man who is entirely aware of what he wants and how he wants to get there. He actively creates an image of himself as the perfect heroic cop, but, like Vincennes, soon comes to realise that this outward persona is completely at conflict to the man within. His moral code is there, it just takes a little longer to dig it out. Again, it’s the little details that matter; Exley isn’t wearing his oft-mocked glasses when he believes that he has solved the Nite Owl murders, but is when he solves it correctly and realises that corruption is the order of the day.

White begins the film as the most classically heroic of the three characters, fighting for a cause he believes in. Lynn observes that he can’t hide who he is and he is certainly less adept at the duality that Exley actively creates. However, White is manipulated easily and soon becomes that which he fears the most, a man who hits women. When Jack dies, it offers both men a chance to alter their respective courses to solve the case, to become the real hero or to retire to Arizona. The characterisation is superb, creating believable and compelling arcs for White and Exley, aided with nuanced performances from Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce respectively.

In retaining that character-driven element, Hanson and Helgeland create a world that feels both expansive and intimate with characters that you grow to love even as you actively dislike them. Meticulous in its construction and near-perfect in its execution, LA Confidential is a fascinatingly layered piece of work and a fine example of the neo-noir genre.

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We’ll be looking back at the other crime classics you can vote for – Seven, RoboCop, Minority Report, Silence Of The Lambs – over the next few days. Screening details and how you can vote are here.

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