Thursday, September 22, 2016

CANON OF FILM: "L.A. CONFIDENTIAL"

L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997)

Director: Curtis Hanson
Screenplay: Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson based on the novel by James Ellroy



For much of “L.A. Confidential,” the events all seem random and episodic, until we realize they’re all part of the same labyrinthian mystery, and then the three detectives begin to suspect it. It wasn’t the last film noir, but it might be last great one, and even if it isn't it might as well be. It feels like it, the same way that Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" feels like the last great western. Now universally accepted among cinephiles and critics alike as the best film of ’97 (While the public at large still considers it “Titanic”; [And I'd probably vote for "Good Will Hunting" myself, but it wouldn't be an easy choice) “L.A. Confidential,” feels as familiar in the film noir genre as “The Maltese Falcon,” and “Chinatown”. It feels so much like the 1940s, it’s actually odd to realize it takes place in the ‘50s. It’s also a movie that wouldn’t be made today, if nothing else the cast wouldn’t be affordable. Kevin Spacey was the biggest star in the film at the time, having won his Oscar for “The Usual Suspects,” and most of the rest of the cast money was spent on Kim Basinger for her supporting role. Everyone else, as well known as they are now, were fairly unknown at the time. The story begins with three cops, who are all completely different from one another. Jack Vincennes (Spacey) is the celebrity cop, working on a TV show, “Badge of Honor,” (Obviously, Dragnet) as a consultant. He works with scheming tabloid reporter Sid Hutcheons (Danny DeVito) to catch celebrities in compromising positions, making sure the camera is there to catch him arresting them. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is an aging, overweight but over-passionate enforcer cop. He walks a thin line between corrupt and crazy, and has a mean streak for men who beat on women. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is the son of a hero cop, young ambitious, and by-the-book, he makes more enemies out of the police than the criminals. The three cops’ heads first butt during a Christmas night riot in prison that has to be dealt with or covered up depending on the perspective. The next incident involves the shooting of five people at a cafĂ© called the Night Owl, suspects include African-Americans who are also involved in an unrelated rape. There’s a former cop named Buzz Meeks (Darrell Sandeen) who’s missing. He had been working as a bodyguard for Pierce Morehouse Patchett (David Strathairn), a local smut peddler who runs an exclusive escort service that specializes in hookers that look like movie stars. One of those hookers is a femme fatale named Lynn Bracken (Basinger in her Oscar-winning role), who may or may not know more than she says, and it’s impossible to tell whether she’s seducing or falling in love.

I’ve just given you random details, minor random details in fact. Like all great mysteries and detective stories, it's the process of solving the crime that’s more interesting than the actual result and why. I’ve seen this film more times than I can count, and I have a difficult time recalling every detail of the crime, and the levels upon levels of corruption and conspiracy. A few years back, the BBC aired their masterful “Red Riding Trilogy,” about police corruption in Northern England that lasted decades. The great lost of that wasn’t necessarily the corruption itself, but that it led to many crimes being unsolved and improperly investigated, the most notorious of which being the Yorkshire Ripper, who could easily have been caught if they simply did their jobs. Both "Red Riding..." and L.A. Confidential and period thrillers about police corruption, and three detectives who try to navigate through it in order to solve a crime that seemingly everyone and everything is doing their best to try to make sure they don't solve. James Ellroy’s book is based loosely on the actual corrupt L.A. Police department, but frankly, the story’s better if we don’t think about how it could’ve been real. The movie works better as style over substance, like all film noirs. The fact that it does come together so well is why master writers Hanson and Helgeland (Mystic River) won Oscars for the screenplay. 

Before his recent untimely passing, Curtis Hanson could legitimately be called one of the best directors around, but he was usually one that was too hard to pin down. He’s made other great films, most notably the overlooked “Wonder Boys,” and he’s also made some rather strange and interesting directing choices like “8 Mile,” with rap artist Eminem. He challenges himself by constantly changing genres, from psychological horror like “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle,” to adventures like “The River Wild,” to the more serene family comedy “In Her Shoes,” to the “Lucky You”, a rom-com about professional poker players, that somehow spent two years on the shelf right in the middle of the poker boom in the mid-2000s. He might occasionally make a forgettable film, but he hardly ever makes a bad one. What I suspect is the main thread that fascinates him is that they’re all about the characters at their core. While we follow the crimes in "L.A. Confidential", we learn about each detectives as they go through their own trials and tribulations and sometimes find a way to complete shock and surprise us; he's at his best when he's allowing the film to evolve and explore his characters. Few directors can create more than one fully-formed character in a film, try doing it with three, and that’s just the protagonists in this one. 



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