L.A. Confidential (1997)


It’s Old Hollywood again and you want to dress up a little and get some classic drinks in some bougie lounge seats… this is a spot in Los Angeles’ Koreatown that should not be missed: The Prince. The food is to be desired, but the vibe is there.

Noirvember Film Series #10:

“L.A. Confidential” (1997) directed by Curtis Hansen, is a fast-paced neo-noir that focuses its’ lens on police corruption in Los Angeles in the 1950’s, when the Golden Age of Hollywood was in full swing. With a screenplay by Hanson and Brian Helgeland is based on James Ellroy’s 1990 novel of the same name, the third book in his L.A. Quartet series, this feels like the precursor to Martin Scorsese’s 2006 “The Departed,” but dipped in the sunny, sleazy Old Hollywood spectacle. Hansen combines character specificity and complicated morality and brings an original adaptation to the screen with thoughtful cinematography and production design to bring to life the authentic feel of Los Angeles in the 50’s.

This film introduces two relatively unknown actors in North America at the time, Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, but was stacked with popular backing castmates Kim Basinger, Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito. We first meet LAPD Sergeant Edmund “Ed” Exley (Pearce), who is an upstanding officer, determined to nobly fill his fathers shoes who was an esteemed officer killed in the line of duty by an unknown assailant who goes by the name “Rollo Tomasi.” However, his pursuit of righteousness is not quick to make him friends: his first order is to testify against a slew of other officers in a case dubbed the “Bloody Christmas” in exchange for a promotion to Detective Lieutenant, against the advice of precinct captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). Leading the group of Exley haters is Officer Wendell “Bud” White (Crowe), undercover cop who devotes the majority of his time to mercilessly reprimanding women beaters, an outcome of a childhood trauma.

After a massacre shooting occurs at a bar called Nite Owl, Smith and Exley begin working to find the perpetrators which leads them to a shootout with a group of African American men, as well as interrogations with a group of former cops and a mesmerizingly beautiful hooker resembling the famous Veronica Lake, Lynn Bracken (Basinger). Through a sweeping number of twists and turns, it becomes clear that there is an upscale escort service called Fleur-de-Lis which is known for using plastic surgery to “cut” its prostitutes to look like film stars, run by Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn), and further, it appears that many a cop has taken their turn cavorting with the women in the service, a source of blackmail in the LAPD.

“L.A. Confidential” exemplifies several components of classic film noir such as a femme fatale at the center of the crime (Basinger), moral ambiguity driving the story, and shadowy, impressively constructed cinematography (by Dante Spinotti). (It is also worth calling out the exceptional production and costume design by Jeannine Oppewall and Ruth Myers respectively). An element to this film that separates it from many other noirs is that the lead character is far more likable and principled than the typical noir lead, who feel more easily corruptible and gullible. Where noir is so often propelled by dark characters, the bulk of the stars in this story are presented with justified perspectives and revelatory backstories. This film is also a nice example of pulp noire, a genre that tackles an urban environment using noir techniques. The performances were praised at the time, but feel underrated with the passage of time. Basinger is effortlessly stoic and puzzling, Pearce gives a consistently strong performance, but Crowe as White is completely unhinged, brutal and fully uninhibited – a surefire push for him to land his career defining role as Maximus Decimus Meridius three years later in “Gladiator” (2000).

Going up against “Titantic” at the Oscars, it managed to only win two of the nine Academy Awards it was nominated for (“Best Supporting Actress” for Kim Basinger & “Best Adapted Screenplay”), but it has maintained a reputation, especially among cult film lovers, and is being discussed for a sequel set in the 1970’s (which would allow Pearce and Crowe to reprise their roles and was meant to star Chadwick Boseman alongside them before his untimely passing). The film ultimately lays somewhat untouched in the back of our minds as it is not frequently discussed or re-reviewed, but it is a phenomenal movie. “L.A. Confidential” is fully entertaining without a dragging moment, well-written, intricately constructed and is sincerely fun to watch. A neo-noir/pulp noir/1990’s crime drama for the books.

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