How do you make a great movie? Make three movies but pull it into one. In a way, that’s the film noir classic formula, but usually it’s two sides or one highly confused side. Of course, there’s always one overarching tale that gets wrapped up right there near the end before the hero is faced with a choice. Three makes it highly risky for confusion, truncation, and easy outs. But if you can be serpentine without being opaque, brief as in pith, and be willing to be bold, then you may have something. L.A. Confidential (1997) had something, they had probably the best movie since The Godfather (1972) and it might be better.
Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is an ambitious political animal of a police officer. He’s a little oily, but ultimately he’s clean. Like a hall monitor. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is rougher around the edges…and the middle bits too…but he’s on the side of justice with an eye out for anti-female activity. Rough justice, obviously. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a jaded narcotics officer who’s basically kept going for the fun and the glory of it all with gossip columnist, Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), feeding him cash for collars. When we met these guys, Mickey Cohen (Paul Guilfoyle), the L.A. mob boss, has just been put away and there’s a power vacuum. Things kick off and a dense drama of intrigue and mystery unfolds with our three heroes taking their separate threads through it all.
Cops in the 50’s. Film noir storytelling. Can’t go wrong. Well, yes it can. You just need overwrought dialogue, hammy acting, and a pathetically trivial underlying story. But I can see how if you saw L.A. Confidential, you’d get the wrong idea. It works and comes together so near flawlessly that it looks easy.
Don’t get me wrong. The dialogue might trip up (very little) here and there. The acting does come off a little overdone—a little singed, maybe. And the underlying story? No, that’s pretty much fantastic.
My measurement is really very simple and I’m sure you understand it. The amount of troubles–and I use the term very gently–in a movie are counted off against the amount of great moments. If an element is otherwise fine-not-great, it will sink the movie when things go badly. Basic accounting, really.
The dialogue in L.A. Confidential has its most significant trip, in my opinion, when Exley meets up with Veronica Lake look-alike Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger). I’m not sure whether it’s Guy Pierce’s accent messing with Basinger’s accent or what, but the words seem stilted and punchy. On the assets side, you’ve got a dozen (at a guess) terrific lines with one or two that would go down in history if audiences didn’t see a hundred movies a year. It won for Best Adapted Screenplay, by the way.
It’s got to be worth noting that the two main characters are Australian. Points? What’s more amazing about that is that Pearce and Crowe hadn’t made much before this. I take this to be the main reason that many people haven’t seen this movie. (A perception that may be flawed due to the fact that I was 12 when it came out and didn’t know anybody that saw it.) Spacey was already known as a great actor, but really only in support–and he’s basically just support in this too–but he always provides a lot of support. Pearce and Crowe are very good and great, respectively, but Spacey is off the charts. He nails every moment he’s given.
Looking at the cover, though, you’d think Basinger is the crux of the mystery and Spacey’s the main character with two menacing skin-heads chasing him. Weird. Basinger won for Best Supporting Actress that year. Fair enough, but she is, at best ancillary and a dribbling font of information.
But what puts this movie into the Top Whatever of my favorite movies is the story. This movie clocks in at 2:18 and I’m riveted the whole time. Sure, I’ve got a pretty good attention span for movies, but I’m not just staving off boredom, I’m living the dream. That’s not because of constant gun battles, either. This is mystery done right with characters we’re interested in. I don’t think anybody gets short changed and I wouldn’t change a scene (other than to tweak some dialogue).
Curtis Hanson, who directed and co-wrote with Brian Helgeland, did a superb job. He uses the music to perfection (Jerry Goldsmith), he obviously kept the story flowing, but there’s also the pace on screen that tracks perfectly (editor, Peter Honess—ha, his Ho-ness. Sorry Pete). When the characters are in a hurry, the story moves quickly, when the characters are taking their time, the emotional nuance is on display. Ultimately, with a great movie the director is going to get the credit, but it’s a nice touch that Hanson probably deserves it as well.
I don’t want to jinx it, but you’ve got to admire Hollywood’s restraint. Talk about a movie that screamed out for a sequel but never got one. Without giving too much away, there’s a dynamic duo that develops and still has the rest of the 50’s and 60’s to conquer. If not a sequel, where’s the TV series? I never thought Hollywood had a conscience, but I may have to reconsider.
The term film noir is wildly over-used these days, but L.A. Confidential actually deserves the label. We think of film noir as something good, or at least I do, and that means we have to limit the term to the right elements. I can’t distinguish the necessary from the sufficient just now, but let’s say the police, crime, mystery, wit, moral ambiguity, and a sexy moll need to be in the discussion.
Obvious purchase. No respectable collection would be without it.