Why I Love L.A. Confidential
"Go back to Jersey, sonny. This is the City of the Angels, and you haven't got any wings."
L.A. Confidential, directed by Curtis Hanson - who also co-wrote the screenplay - was released in 1997. Twenty years on, it is perhaps the greatest Noir of the last two decades, up there with Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice and Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me. The film is, as if I need to tell you, an adaptation of James Ellroy's novel of the same name, the third chapter of his famed L.A. Quartet. L.A. Confidential is a truly great adaptation, and in more than one way improves on the novel. Big respect to Ellroy for admitting that the film did the story better than his novel, pointing out the moment when Ed Exley, played by Guy Pierce, confuses Lana Turner for a hooker. Ellroy said that it was incredible that he never thought of making that joke. If a famously protective, frequently grumpy, sort like Ellroy can admit that the movie is excellent, then you know it's got the goods.
L.A. Confidential is on the level of Chinatown for Noir. Removing the serial killer subplot from the novel gives the story a focus that was often lacking before. It is a story about corruption, deviant sex fiends and a city where everybody is crooked no matter how pure their heart is. Ed Exley is a straight arrow when he enters the LAPD, but a city like L.A. does not allow for such idealism. Through a Christmas themed punch up in a jail cell, Exley advances his career by throwing guilty members of the force under the bus. This makes Bud White, played by Russell Crowe, whose partner was fired because of Exley, fairly bad to be around. Both Crowe and Pierce do a stellar job here, with Exley being just as smug and self-satisfied as he is depicted in the novel, and White being a volatile, but ultimately honest cop.
Pulling the strings is Captain Dudley Smith, whose true intentions become clear as the film progresses. Here is a truly dirty cop, who has a twisted sense of morality and is happy to trample over criminal's rights to get a conviction. Smith is played by the exquisite James Cromwell, as a slippery, deceitful bastard, but also one with his own personal justification for doing bad things. "They deserve it," he tells himself, as he fits up innocent men for crimes his people have committed. The scenes with the three black men, guilty of rape and kidnapping but innocent for the murders they are being accused of, is one of the most powerful in the movie. Exley successfully breaks them and gets them to incriminate themselves. Smith stands back and lets it happen, knowing he has manipulated Exley flawlessly, so that Exley thinks what he does was his own idea. Then White gets sent in as a battering ram to finish the job. The way Cromwell plays this, devilishly surveying the landscape and pulling the strings, is extraordinary. He is so sinister, yet also somehow appealing and charismatic. I guess that's the secret to how he got people to do what he wanted.
The other two important characters of the movie are Jack Vincennes played by Kevin Spacey and Lynn Bracken played by Kim Basinger, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. It is a tremendous shame that Spacey has disgraced himself with alleged behaviour that is simply unacceptable, as he is a truly brilliant actor. His presence on the screen electrifies the viewer, always delivering his lines in ways that you never see coming. He perfectly portrays the character of Vincennes, from the novel, and raises it even higher than it was in the book. The scene where he is looking at a fifty dollar payoff, and wondering why he is such a corrupt sleaze, is perhaps my favourite in the movie, and displays every bit of Spacey's subtlety and charisma. The scene where he is shot by Dudley Smith is shocking, with dead on performances from Cromwell and Spacey. Kim Basinger does a really fine job here, playing the quiet torment of the character with expertise and grace. She thoroughly deserved the Oscar.
L.A. Confidential is a classic Noir. Its reputation will only grow as time goes by, as it is placed beside other greats like Chinatown, The Long Goodbye and After Dark, My Sweet. This is what Noir does so well: to examine the rotten and dark heart of society and the hypocrisy of those who claim to be moral leaders. If I had to compare it to one movie of its kind, it would have to be Chinatown. Both are obsessed with the hidden machinations of the powerful, as they discard human beings like trash. Those who claim to be clean are the fools. Only those who can admit their own complicity can do something about it. Exley, Vincennes and White have to come to terms with the fact that they aren't clean, that their souls have been sullied by exposure to institutional corruption and criminality. By understanding who they are - one of the key aspects of any Noir - and by coming to terms with their reality, they can become agents of change. This goes back to my taking issue with Otto Penzler's definition of Noir. In L.A. Confidential, the good guys win, even if it is with some caveats. Not everyone ends up dead. There is some happiness to be had and shared. Noir is about compromise, and an understanding that things will not end up exactly how you would like them to, but hopefully by having your eyes opened to the reality of your world, and by discarding the seductive fantasy, you can make a new life where the truth is prized above all else.
L.A. Confidential is a movie that just gets better on repeated viewings. Its complexity is effortlessly woven through an exciting, emotionally satisfying picture that appeals just as much to the heart as it does to the head. I first watched L.A. Confidential with my father, and I credit it with being one of the first Noirs that I truly loved, and helped to propel me head first into the genre, getting neck deep in tales of cruelty, sexual deviancy and general sin. In Noir, you drown or you don't. If you don't you get a new life, with eyes open and no childish naivety. To get there though, you have to get in the water. Try to swim, or die. I find this aspect of the genre to be the most compelling, past the common tropes of private detectives and femme fatales. The idea that to become a full human being, you have to embrace your darkness and your deceit and the evil growing in your heart, is a radical idea. It is something that I have had to do, to find peace. This is why Noir is the greatest genre: it demands as much from you as what it gives back. It is in many ways a pact with the devil. See if you can float. Take the gamble. L.A. Confidential does this better than most. It is the finest Noir in the last two decades, and very likely before that.