Saturday, March 22, 2014

From My Collection: A Modern Classic Movie Review of L.A. Confidential

What studio executive looked at the talent and material coming together on the 1997 adaptation of James Ellroy’s pulp detective novel L.A. Confidential and thought it was a good idea? On paper, it just doesn’t look like it should work. But I guess that’s proof then that studios can’t predict everything based on filmmakers’ resumes, popularity of talent and story material. In L.A. Confidential they had on their hands a 1950s period detective story with an unbelievably complex plot, one that rivals Raymond Chandler for its twists and turns and reversals. It’s true that pulp stories were steaming along in popularity in the late 90s and neo-noir was perhaps starting to make another brief resurgence.

It’s a brilliant tale of grand scope and ambition presented through the prism of what appears to be a small slice of post-war Los Angeles life. Its dark themes of corruption and power imbalances make for intriguing and difficult viewing that is hard to take when you examine beneath the surface. The story shows us a crossroads between police and political corruption and cronyism and the artificial veneer of Hollywood glamour, where the line between studio starlets and high-class hookers is so thin that a character could hilariously mistake Lana Turner for something she wasn’t. This is a Los Angeles where dreams are crushingly deferred or supplanted by sinister dealings, where an idealistic cop can fall prey to corruption despite his best protestations; where a veteran officer can look back on his career and fail to remember why he chose his profession in the first place; where wannabe actresses can be seduced by a wealthy pimp who gives them what they believe is, if not movie stardom, then at least the next best thing.

Brian Helgeland wrote the screenplay adaptation along with director Curtis Hanson. Helgeland had little experience or success to his credit. Hanson had already helmed a string of Hollywood thrillers with A-list talent, but none were greatly successful either with audiences or critics and none are particularly memorable. And what about the on screen talent? The biggest stars appearing in the movie were Kevin Spacey, fresh off an Academy Award-winning turns in The Usual Suspects and a handful of highly acclaimed roles that same year including the serial killer John Doe in Seven. Kim Basinger’s career was waning, though she had previously been a major box office draw. She would go on to win the Oscar for her role as a Veronica Lake lookalike and one of those aforementioned prostitutes. Spacey’s role was heavily publicized, but his was a supporting part, being one of a trio of detectives featured in the story and then getting killed little more than halfway through. For the two male leads, Hanson went with two then-unknown actors. One has gone on to moderate success while the other has become a major international Oscar-winning movie star. Guy Pearce presented himself as cool-as-they-come in the role of Ed Exley, a straight-laced and morally self-righteous detective who wants to solve cases by the book and within the bounds of the law. He’s so eager to root out corruption he has little regard for the consequences. Russell Crow was the other as officer Bud White, a volatile cop with a record of violence toward abusers of women.

Watching the movie sixteen years ago, there was no problem seeing Exley and White only for their characters because Pearce and Crow hadn’t yet built up a filmography of recognizable types. We didn’t know them yet. What surprised me so much watching it now (and I probably haven’t seen it for about eight or ten years) was how easy it was to look past the actors. This was true also of Spacey in addition to the other supporting parts filled out by Danny DeVito, James Cromwell, and David Strathairn, all of whome have had big success either prior to or since L.A. Confidential. It’s a testament to the writing as much as the performances that it’s so easy to fall into the world created in this movie and see not Spacey, but sleazy celebrity cop Jack Vincennes; not squat DeVito, but the even more execrable than Vincennes Sid Hudgens, editor of a Hollywood gossip rag.

The most obvious comparisons to be made are to both The Godfather and Chinatown for its complexity, scope, and vintage feel. Clearly, in terms of longevity and influence, it hasn’t quite lived up to either of those classics, although it is worth bringing it up. The production design is generally stupendous. Everything from the art direction to Dante Spinotti’s cinematography evokes a time and place of 1950s Los Angeles. The sepia tones of the sets and costumes combine with the half light and shadows in ways I can’t recall apart from Coppola’s and Polanski’s films. The grand cast of characters is on the scale of The Godfather while the theme of seedy corruption spoiling everything in L.A. seems a clear nod in the direction of Chinatown. The Godfather is the superior character drama perhaps given that it’s a family saga. Mario Puzo and Coppola were able to distill Puzo’s novel to the essence of the Corleone family whereas Ellroy’s novel is more plot driven. The characterizations in L.A. Confidential are certainly deep and well-established, but there are times it feels like they take a back seat to the complexity of the plot machinations. And the big final gunfight action scene has more in common with a classic western or traditional action film than with a character-drive story.

None of that criticism is to take away from the fact that the screenplay remains truly breathtaking in the way it draws you in, demands more from its audience than studio films are usually willing to, and makes us grow to sympathize with three cops who are pretty unlikable guys to begin with. L.A. Confidential had the misfortune to open in the same year as Titanic, which was a juggernaut, sweeping nearly all major awards in its wake. Hanson and Helgeland took home several awards for their adaptation, but we all know that awards don’t tell the whole story. Titanic has its merits, but Hollywood should look at L.A. Confidential as a model for what’s possible in the studio system: a multi-layered and profoundly challenging story that can make money, garner critical praise, and hold up over time.

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