L.A. Confidential is a cop film that operates on several levels – it is at once a crackling great mystery, a nuanced study of three multi-dimensional characters, and a hard-nosed look into the problems of police and political corruption in America’s large urban centres. It is one of the great noir movies of the modern cinematic era.
The notorious L.A. crime syndicate boss Mickey Cohen has been sent away for ten years for tax evasion, and his empire is up for grabs, apparently to the party who bids the highest number of corpses. The LAPD seems to be unable to stem the toll taken by the war of succession and its already dubious image is suffering a daily decline. An incident in which several Hispanic prisoners are brutally beaten while in custody by several officers in apparent retaliation for assaults on two of their own deals another blow to the department’s reputation. Heads roll and deals are made.
Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a tough bruiser of a cop who has a soft spot for abused women and who maintains a stubborn loyalty to even his moronic slob of a partner. Early in the film we see him rough up and threaten a parolee who is abusing his wife and, shortly after, manhandles the ex-cop who is bodyguard and driver to an apparent pimp whom he suspects has broken the nose of one of his prostitutes. White, who as a child watched his father beat his mother to death with a tire iron, is selected by his captain as a kind of enforcer, charged with muscling out-of-town thugs contending for parts of Mickey Cohen’s territory into leaving the city. Bud just wants to work on real cases as a homicide detective.
White falls for a prostitute who is connected to an investigation he is involved in and who is a Veronica Lake look-alike. The hooker tells White’s partner, “I see Bud because he can’t hide the good inside of him.”
Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a slick narc who spends much of his time hobnobbing with movie stars as the technical advisor to a TV cop series that looks very much like Dragnet. He maintains a business arrangement with tabloid reporter Sid Hudgens (Danny deVito), making busts of high-profile individuals while Hudgens and his crew get the scoop on the arrest, for a payoff, of course.
Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is the highly intelligent son of an LAPD officer who was killed by a small-time criminal who “got away clean.” Exley is conflicted in that he wants to honour his father by being a good cop while harbouring near-naked ambition to rise quickly in the force. Exley quickly shows himself to be an outsider by wearing steel-rimmed spectacles, refusing to take dirty money or operate outside the law to bring justice to criminal suspects, and testifying against fellow officers. He pays the price in ridicule and isolation, but he remains defiantly non-conformist.
There is animosity – at times violent – between these men, but events occur that cause them to question their own motives and methods and to ultimately join forces in bringing about a surprising resolution to a major case; one of them loses his life in the process.
Every frame of L.A. Confidential, which was adapted by director Curtis Hanson and screenwriter Brian Helgeland from the novel by James Ellroy, is riveting. The complex plot is interesting and intriguing rather than confusing, and the denouement, which does not come until very near the end of the film, is entirely satisfying because it has been beautifully set up. The 1950s costumes, props, and sets are believable; the cinematography lends the film a kind of delicious “nouveau noir” sensibility; the violence, both actual as well as implied and potential is in no way gratuitous but rather constitutes a vital element driving the plot.
The acting is consistently good. Crowe, an often underrated actor, plays tough and vulnerable, angry and wounded perfectly here. Spacey, as usual, melts into his role. His final scene with Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) is a masterpiece of acting. Kim Basinger, who plays Lynn Bracken, the Veronica Lake look-alike, is marvellous: wise and tender and completely self-aware, a small-town girl in the big city doing what she has to do. Basinger garnered a best-supporting-actress Oscar for her portrayal of the high-class prostitute.
L.A. Confidential is a movie that engenders unconditional love in the attentive viewer. There are no slips, no gimmicks, no cringe-inducing lives of dialogue; there is just a whole lot of fine film-making.
“Cavalier Hotel Pool Los Angeles CA,” by 1950sUnlimited. Creative Commons Flickr. Some rights reserved.
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