I’m a sucker for film noir. Especially those containing organized crime. There’s a sort of eerie appeal to the whole Los Angeles culture. The Golden Age of Hollywood with its squeaky clean police force, its booming film industry, the ever-growing gangster culture complete with top hats, classy suits and the ever-present tommy gun. I absolutely love all that.
“Come to Los Angeles! The sun shines bright, the beaches are wide and inviting, and the orange groves stretch as far as the eye can see. There are jobs aplenty, and land is cheap. Every working man can have his own house, and inside every house, a happy, all-American family. You can have all this, and who knows, you could even be discovered, become a movie star or at least see one.”
That’s how LA Confidential starts. A voiceover from Danny DeVito over a montage of post-WWII Los Angeles in all its glory. That was enough to get me hooked.
“That’s what they tell you anyway”, says Danny DeVito when he finishes his voiceover. Turns out LA isn’t the greatest city in the world with the greatest police force. It’s all a sham. And DeVito’s character running a low-budget magazine who pays off cops to solve crimes, to keep up the glamorous Hollywood life, doesn’t change the fact that all that Hollywood glamour has some shady stuff going on behind the scenes.
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Based on James Ellroy’s third novel of the same name in his LA quartet series, the movie is one of the greatest depictions of Los Angeles culture. Instant celebrities, actors walking down the Boulevard, celebrity cops doing drug busts, tabloid pieces and the like. Films based in Los Angeles usually do a job of making them feel bluesy, corrupt, ‘concrete jungle’ types. The closest thing to a noir of Los Angeles apart from this has been Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, starring Jack Nicholson.
LA Confidential director Curtis Henson was aware of all this, and decided not to portray LA in that light, rather to romanticize it, glorify it, see it as a city where you can persevere. In this era of Los Angeles, the early 50s, mobsters like Mickey Cohen rule the criminal underworld, celebrity cops are out in full force, tabloid papers are rife with stories of famous drug busts and solved murders.
Crime and vice lived in the shadows back then. The LAPD were the best police force in the world, and the papers were doing their best to pick up steamy stories to keep them in that light. LA Confidential is essentially the story of three cops, their behaviours, their codes and morals and their methods to solve a particular murder.
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Detective Ed Exley, played by Guy Pearce, is a straight arrow who doesn’t take bribes, doesn’t mess about, and has the flair and cunning of a politician, a career he plans to take up one day. Officer Bud White, played by Russel Crowe, is a hardened policeman who isn’t afraid to bend the law to achieve what he sees as justice. Jack Vincennes, played by Kevin Spacey, is a charismatic celebrity cop who consults for a TV police serial and works with Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), who runs Hush Hush magazine. They set up celebrities or politicians in compromising situations, Vincennes breaks in to bust them and Hush-Hush gets the story.
Three completely different individuals with three completely different sets of morals, who have opinions on the other two. At first, the movie carries on in an episodic fashion, one unrelated event after another. A millionaire named Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn) has a secret business in p*** and high-priced call girls, and specializes in prostitutes who have had plastic surgery to make them resemble movie stars.
A bunch of drunken cops beat up Mexican suspects and get their photos on the front page. Exley and Vincennes, for quite different reasons due to their differing morals, testify against their fellow officers, breaking the department’s code of silence. There’s a massacre at the downtown Nite Owl Cafe, and a cop is one of the victims. Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) calls out for justice to avenge one of their own.
A series of events which happen in a storyline which carries forward in a maze-like fashion. The entire script is so complex, yet so simple at the same time, when all the events come together like a puzzle. It’s a glorified, romanticized version of the American Dream, the glamour of Los Angeles, but also a remainder that the American Dream is rotting on the inside.
The final shootout scene can only be described as what it is: something that came out of a 1950s movie. It’s ridiculous. But it’s remarkably brilliant. While the overtones of the movie are the same as the book, the narrative is completely different. This is classic Hollywood in its heyday. But it is more than a film noir. It doesn’t push its boundaries. It gives a psychological element to it all, especially to our three protagonists. LA Confidential is the world of Los Angeles in the 1950s, but none of it can be classified as ‘pulp’.
I’ve specified on the various colourful personalities present in the movie, like Exley, Bud White, Vincennes, Captain Smith, Lynn Bracken — one of Patchett’s most prized call girls who becomes White’s and Exley’s love interest, Patchett himself, Sid Hudgens, Dick Stensland, Buzz Meeks and so on. Each character has their own unique trait that makes them so distinct and so memorable. But I would be remiss if I were not to commend the perfect portrayals of all these actors in bringing these characters to life.
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Obviously, Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey and Russel Crowe deserve plenty of praise for portraying their characters so flawlessly; for giving their characters the identity and personality on which the narrative hinges on. As the narrative goes forward, there are plenty of twists and turns, and whilst remaining grounded, it never loses its Hollywood film noir feel.
This masterpiece of a film ranks near the top of my all-time favourite movies. It delivers on all fronts so flawlessly. It gives me the noir feel I love, but at the same time nailing the story and not being too far-fetched. LA Confidential may just be the last great film noir. I haven’t seen a movie quite like it since, but I’d like to.
“But until then, dear readers, you heard it here first, off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush.”
Where to Watch: Amazon Prime