April 8, 2013

L.A. Confidential (1997)

One of James Ellroy's greatest gifts as a writer is the ability to deconstruct the noir genre and make the hard boiled men and the femme fatale women be so much more, but also so much less, then what we expect them to be. L.A. Confidential is Ellroy's third book in his L.A. Quartet (the first being The Black Dahlia and the second being The Big Nowhere) and in it he creates a sprawling epic in which we follow three characters who are brought together by fate ... but will do anything to stay away from each other.

The film version of L.A. Confidential, directed by Curtis Hanson, takes a Stanley Kubrickian approach to Ellroy's work (a la The Shining) by gutting the majority of the book's plot but salvaging the characters. L.A. Confidential is a weird film adaptation because it neither makes the book better or worse and it is impossible to pick which one is superior: they are so different yet so alike that they are judged on their own merits.

Despite having seen L.A. Confidential before reading the book, it had been about 12 years since I had actually seen it. I remembered some of the big moments but I also saw the film when I was in high school and, frankly, I just wasn't that smart back then. I missed a lot ... I can realize that now. Having JUST read the book, I was expecting to be disappointed with the film seeing as the book is so amazing. Plus, the hyperbole effect of seeing a 'classic' like L.A. Confidential, which I was pretty much seeing for the first time again, if that makes sense, had me shaking in my boots.

But I had the unique joy of reading an epic classic and watching an epic classic ... both are amazing. The film was fortunate enough to have the perfect cast, the perfect director and the perfect release date for it all to work. It is, simply, fate at the movies. Anyone else starring, anyone else directing, any other year ... you'd get Mulholland Falls or even The Black Dahlia. But this is L.A. Confidential, and like Unforgiven and Open Range with Westerns (and perhaps, like The Matrix to action and The 40 Year Old Virgin to comedy), the noir genre would NEVER be the same.

L.A. Confidential follows Sgt/Lt. Exley (Guy Pearce) a by-the-book yet deceptively ambitious police officer who is willing to walk over anyone to uphold said book. The film also follows Bud White (Russell Crowe), a hard core bruiser with a sneaky intelligence who has a soft spot for damaged women, and Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), the closest thing to a former cop as an active cop: busting celebrities and setting up busts to aid in his own publicity as a would-be producer of hit television show Badge of Honor.

In Ellroy fashion, a number of unrelated events crash into each other and force the three officers, so very different from each other, to come together: the extortion of a high profile District Attorney, the brutal murder of six people, including a former cop, at a late night diner called the Nite Owl, and a prostitution racket filled with movie-star look alikes.

Though the filmmakers' take out 90% of L.A Confidential's subplots from the book, it manages to dangle the massive conspiracy, of which I don't want to reveal too much for those who haven't seen it (I am not usually like that but this movie is too good to spoil), in our noses, daring us to make our own connections before completely pulling the rug out from under us.

Curtis Hanson, director, and Brian Helgeland would win an Oscar for their amazing tight script which handles three separate (but equal) subplots together without a dull beat. But, despite the wonderful script, it all comes back to fate. How did this all come together? You can write down great words, but can actors speak them effectively?

L.A. Confidential might be one of the greatest acting juggernaut's in film history, with an assist from timing. Guy Pearce is a revelation as Ed Exley and his appearance here basically made his international career. His ability to be puppy-dog innocent and psychologically ruthless makes him almost impossible to read.

Though found on the same island as Pearce, fellow Australian Russell Crowe couldn't be more different then him. Bulky and readable where Pearce is wiry and cold, Bud White exudes expected noir-machismo but with a heart on his sleeve mentality and almost forgivable animal reactions that are NOT expected for a film of this ilk. If Exley thinks things through, Bud breaks things and asks questions later. Both approaches work for the characters and it is this opposite-attracts philosophy that makes the hate-hate relationship between Exley and White so powerful.

*a wonderful example of the differences in Pearce's Exley and Crowe's Bud. Also, the supporting actors here, from the cops to the perps, are just magnificent, showcasing L.A. Confidential's amazing cast.

Crowe is my favorite actor and this was the first film I ever saw him in. And that mattered (fate playing a role) because, like Pearce, unknown Crowe made this his film. His sheer force of personality sold his side of the story. Actors can play tough ... Crowe simply is tough. Like Pearce, his career was made with this film and, unlike Pearce, he would ride this success to more critical acclaim, earning three Oscar nominations (and one win) in three straight years at the beginning of the new century.

But we can't forget about the actor who won an Oscar for her role in this film: Kim Basinger. Talk about fate. This was the role she was meant to play. I think Kim Basinger is an atrocious actress. And I never really found her that beautiful or unique either ... before or after L.A. Confidential. But she is SO beautiful, SO good and SO hard to look away from that her Oscar is well deserved. Her character isn't really that important to the entire story ... but every time she is on screen you think she is the center of the entire universe, let alone the film.

*SPOILERS Some crazy emotions running by the time this stuff happens. Basinger is so quiet and powerful here and Crowe is so vulnerable. The two of them together is magnetic as you'll see in the clips below.

But despite this, there is still one performance one notch better, believe it or not. Kevin Spacey. He's a shell of himself now but the man ... is ... simply ... amazing in this film. There is no place where Spacey starts and Vincennes ends. He is the character. And, if for nothing else, I recommend this film almost solely for his performance. Asked to be based on Dean Martin, Spacey breathes in the film's atmosphere. His performance is so three dimensional you can see subtext in the shifting of his eyes.

*one of the greatest scenes in the film, no doubt. Picture perfect Exley and Vincennes

But the secondary characters (or so you'd think) also offer chameleon like performances. James Cromwell is brilliant as Lt. Dudley Smith, pulling off Irish with ease. Danny DeVito is always under appreciated but his role as pre-TMZ sludge reporter Sid Hudgens is inspired. He acts as a pseudo narrator to this world and no one could play it better. Ron Rifkin as D.A. Ellis Loew, a brilliantly cast Matt McCoy as Badge of Honor actor Brett Chase, Paul Guilfoyle as the smooth Mickey Cohen, an inspired choice in Paolo Seganti as Johnny Stompanato, Graham Beckel as Bud's partner Stensland, and the wonderfully snobby David Strathairn as Pierce Patchett round out the wonderful tour-de-force of thespians.

But what else do you need to make a classic piece of cinema? Acting, check. Writing, check. Directing, check. How about music? L.A. Confidential has it: Jerry Goldsmith at his most effective, mixing his superior late '80s/early 90's scores (such as Basic Instinct) with his later '90s, early '00s more technical work (think Star Trek: Insurrection). Cinematography, indeed: Hanson makes sure DP Dante Spinotti not only captures the redressed L.A. landscape beautifully but he also positions key actors and extras in key positions in the fore-, middle-, and backgrounds. L.A. Confidential is almost like a stage play where even the non-speaking roles to the corner are adding to the atmosphere and are alive.

*a sample of Goldsmith's score

I do have one gripe ... that despite the screenwriters sticking to Ellroy as much as possible for a two and a half hour movie, the characters are never truly thrown into the pit of despicability. For example (and spoilers will go here), Exley, in the films, kills the four Nite Owl suspects in the film only due to an accident and when fired upon. In the books, he kills them because of his jealousy over his girlfriend's love for Bud White. He takes credit for the killings, becomes a hero and only years later redeems himself.

Another example is Vincennes. Yes, Vincennes is a dirty little extortionist/fraud artist in the film but in the book he has a wicked past, including the drug-fueled murder of two civilians and his dip back into drug and alcohol abuse. Even Bud White, knight in shining armor for women in the film, only respects them SO much in the book, frequenting whores and generally planning the death of Exley until the end, badge be damned!

But this is a gripe only someone whose read the book can talk about. In the end, like I said above, the book and film are the same but different and the Exley, Vincennes and Bud of the book are similar looking but decidedly different creatures in the film and are not held to the same rules.

I could really go on and on about the film ... and make this review more kiss-ass then it already is. But this film is brilliant. Watch it. And look at it from the perspective of fate, like I mentioned: Spacey has never been better, Pearce has never been better, Basinger has never been better, Hanson hasn't directed a better film, Helgeland hasn't written a better movie, Crowe has only seldom matched his performance here (ditto Jerry Goldsmith with the music) ... this is a film destined by fate and, unlike other films, blessed by it.

1 comment:

  1. Well, sounds like it's about time for me to revisit this film...


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