Captain Dudley Smith – “Go back to Jersey, sonny. This is the City of the Angels, and you haven’t got any wings.”
Confirming my fascination for American crime fiction, Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential serves as a perfect example of how to a) change and adapt a book into a film with great effect, b) produce and script an authentic and evocative motion picture, capturing the times, and c) keep the book’s author happy. You only have to look at Paddy Chayefsky, the author of Altered States and Network, to see how a novelist can grow disillusioned with a director’s vision of his book (Chayefsky’s presence on the set of Ken Russells adaptation of Altered States caused chaos and confusion). So impressed was author James Ellroy of Hanson’s version of the first instalment of his ‘LA Quartet’ that he dedicated a subsequent collection of notes and short stories to the director.
Opening to the heady sounds of 1950s swing, a voiceover from Sid Hudgens (Danny Devito), gossip-peddler for celebrity rag Hush Hush, describes the era. Hudgens dredges up dirt on all the young Hollywood stars and starlets, and his brief narration is accompanied by a sequence of shots depicting various activities such as premieres and organised crime in LA. We are introduced to the three central characters, all cops - Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce), young, ambitiously intelligent and willing to bend the truth in order to eradicate corruption from a very dirty LAPD. Exley’s father was a hero veteran cop, so the pressure to succeed is already present for him. Then we have Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey, playing against type), a glamorous, likeable detective whose role as technical advisor on a primetime cop show makes him the envy of his squad. Vincennes collaborates with Hudgens to arrest celebrities, giving Hudgens the scoop. Lastly there is Wendell ‘Bud’ White (Russell Crowe) – thug cop, enforcer – his hatred of wife beaters counterbalanced by his tenderness towards their victims.
With gangster Mickey Cohen in jail, an opening in L.A.’s organised crime underworld has appeared, and someone is taking out his goons. Not long after snitching his partners for an organised beating of Latinos in custody, and rising to Captain in the process, Exley investigates a multiple murder at the Nite Owl diner. Exley has been ostracised, and makes the call to the diner alone. Among the dead are Bud White’s partner and a prostitute who had recently gone under the knife. This discovery, along with Exley’s subsequent slaying of the suspects (earning him the nickname ‘Shotgun Ed’, betraying his meek appearance) in ‘self-defence’ leads to the Nite Owl case blowing wide open. With no one else around willing to help, Exley must call on Vincennes to assist. Vincennes has an ulterior motive – he both despises and admires Exley – Exley could have kept his mouth closed about the custody beating that Vincennes was involved in, and now Vincennes need to break a big case to get back to his squad and TV stardom. Bud White also hates Exley, but with his partner killed and with the emergence that someone is manipulating both Exley and White, the two reluctantly team up to crack the case.
Intrique, drugs, high-class prostitution, old school tactics, dirty cops, corrupt city officials, Hollywood and its stars are all covered well. Spacey, at the peak of his career, shines as Smooth cop Vincennes. Guy Pearce captures Exley’s youthful drive and deviousness to great effect. Russell Crowe, as Bud White, is the opposite of Pearce – hulking, brooding, a malevolent force, strangely moralistic when it comes to domestic violence but ready to use at any time the deadly weapons he calls his hands. However, I think my favourite performance here is that of James Cromwell as Captain Dudley Smith. Seemingly coming into films late in life, Cromwell embodies the role of the veteran Captain, a character he was born to play: an eloquent, softly-spoken yet powerful officer, coercing Bud White into black bag strong-arm cop work. Smith's Irish brogue has real underlying menace to it.
For me, this film ranks up there with the classic Scorsese crime dramas, as well as Chinatown and The Long Goodbye in its depiction of hard-boiled noir. L.A. Confidential evokes perfectly the vibe from the 50s – the settings, music, patterns of speech and that unmistakeable rapid-fire dialogue of the era. A lot of tough, battle-hardened men joined the police force after WW2. Men who were ideal for the kind of work needed to clean up the streets of Los Angeles half a century ago. These are the men depicted here. Things were done very differently back then. The film itself picked up two Academy Awards – Best Adapted Screenplay (by director Hanson and Brian Helgeland), and Best Supporting Actress for Kim Basinger, who dazzles as a whore who resembles starlet Veronica Lake. She has seen it all before. Hanson commands outstanding performances from his leading players. Period pieces are not easy to do – you only have to look at the disappointments that were The Black Dahlia (another Ellroy adaptation) and Hollywoodland to see how it can go wrong, but not here. This is boys own stuff, but with enough characters and angles to please everyone. The casting of Spacey, Pearce, Crowe and Cromwell was inspired – their potrayals of the cops from the books are right on the money.
The work of James Ellroy is not easy to adapt, often combining intricate plots with stories told from multiple perspectives. L.A. Confidential shows how it’s done. You hear that DePalma??