As corruption grows in 1950s LA, three policemen – one strait-laced, one brutal, and one sleazy – investigate a series of murders with their own brand of justice.
It’s been a while since I’ve watched ‘L.A. Confidential’, undoubtedly one of my all time favourites, and in my unashamedly unbiased opinion, one of the best films of all time. In 1997 when it was released, it was unfortunate to come up against the cultural juggernaut that was ‘Titanic’ at the awards ceremonies, subsequently losing all bar two of its nominations to James Cameron’s disaster epic (a film I do happen to like a hell of a lot, despite the backlash it seems to have received in the years since), with Kim Basinger picking up ‘Best Supporting Actress’, and Brian Helgeland’s terrific script taking home ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’. In the 18 years since its release, there hasn’t been a single thriller come close to matching it.
The film is based on James Ellroy’s noir novel of the same name (one of four novels in his ‘L.A. Quartet’), which focuses on corruption within the LAPD, and the discovery and subsequent investigation of it by a trio of officers. Helgeland’s script transfers the source material superbly to the screen, creating an intricately plotted mystery that weaves a thrilling web for the audience to get caught up in, but where it succeeds where other thrillers haven’t is in the superbly sketched characters. The characters are mostly introduced as archetypes of noir fiction before the script taps into their psychology and reveals something much deeper. You’ve got the classic femme fatale (Kim Basinger), the violent cop (Russell Crowe), the guy who plays by the rules (Guy Pearce) amongst others, but Helgeland’s script gradually starts to subvert our expectations of these characters, weaving their journeys in superbly with the mysterious case of the Nite Owl murders. The murder mystery that forms the centrepiece of the movie is a wonderfully written tale of sex and corruption that draws every character in the film into its orbit, creating surprising revelations and plenty for the viewer to ponder. Things move at such a breakneck speed that it can become challenging to keep up with every development – there’s barely a scene wasted with even the smallest moment leading to something important further down the line. ‘L.A. Confidential’ has one of the tightest plots in recent movie history and when the pins start dropping, the experience is absolutely gripping
The performances and casting throughout the film are uniformly superb, with each actor a terrific match for their character, and each performance pitch perfect. ‘L.A. Confidential’ was the film that brought Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce to the attention of American audiences, and their performances as rival cops contrast superbly. Pearce’s Ed Exley is a politician in a detective’s coat, unpopular with the other officers but deeply committed to getting to the truth (and if it furthers his career then so be it), whereas Crowe’s Bud White comes more from the old school of cops, a big ball of rage but a man who is cleverer than he looks. Surrounding them, Jack Vincennes is a character made for Kevin Spacey, unusually charismatic with a sarcastic tone, whilst character actor James Cromwell is typically authoritative as police captain Dudley Smith. The rest of the main cast is filled out with Danny Devito’s sleazy tabloid publisher, Kim Basinger’s prostitute and her pimp (David Strathairn), all of whom play key parts in the development of the plot.
Curtis Hanson’s direction is subtle but showy, with a superb attention to detail that draws in plenty of subtext from clever remarks and background information that reward the rewatch experience. My minor complaint is that I could have done without the couple of flashbacks to trigger the viewer’s memory of key plot points, but it can be forgiven in a film with a complex and twisty plot. The production design of the film is outstanding, with Los Angeles luridly shot and the period details striking, whether they’re in the background or the forefront. One of the greatest joys I get from rewatching this film is in waiting for the key moments when everything clicks into place and the momentum really starts to kick in. There’s a relentless pursuit of story throughout and the payoffs are deeply shocking and satisfying when they come. It also becomes apparent watching now where the videogame ‘L.A. Noire’ got the inspiration for its look and soundtrack from!
Perfectly paced with outstanding performances, ‘L.A. Confidential‘ is an intricately plotted noir thriller that grips from start to finish, and it’s a film I’d highly recommend revisiting.
Directed By: Curtis Hanson
Starring: Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kim Basinger, Kevin Spacey, Danny Devito, James Cromwell and David Strathairn