“Come to Los Angeles, the sun shines bright, the beaches are wide and inviting and orange groves stretch as far as the eye can see. ” So begins L.A Confidential’s opening voice-over by Danny DeVito as the Hush-Hush sleeze tabloid publisher Sid Hugens. The sunny narration accompanies scenes of cozy houses, happy families, and Hollywood movie stars. Sid types one of his tabloid stories, but as he likes to say, there’s trouble in paradise, and he quickly turns from brochure glossy jargon to organized crime headlines, tales of gangster Micky Cohen and gangland murders, all reflecting badly on the Los Angeles Police Department. How could that happen in “paradise on earth,” he states, and with the “best police force on the earth? This is all set in Los Angeles, 1953, based on James Ellroy’s neo-noir novel, and adapted for the screen and directed by Curtis Hanson in 1997. It’s also one of the best movies of its era.
Hanson grew up in L.A. and had a strong affinity for Ellroys’ novel. He had loved the Warner Brothers actors Jimmy Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Edward G. Robinson and the alienated characters they played. He saw L.A Confidential as an extension of that tradition. He had also admired directors John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and Nicholas Ray. In the film he combined his favorite theme of image versus reality, with L.A. as the natural center of manufactured reality. This made the L.A. Confidential story a natural for him. After he optioned the novel he was pitched by Brian Helgelend who was also seeking to write a screenplay based on the novel. The two then teamed up. Hanson had two other strong suits: a definite visual style, and a keen ear and love of music. Out of his personal collection of Los Angeles photos and images he picked 18 to show to the producer Aron Milchan. Some of them ended up in the film, like the opening postcard of “Greetings from L.A.” and the photo of Veronica Lake. Other portraits he had were those of Guy Madison and Aldo Ray. These he showed to the two unknown Australian actors who would take on lead roles: Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe. The photos were guides to their respective time-period appearances. Hanson introduced them to Hollywood film noir classics. One of his particular favorites was In a Lonely Place, starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. He had to work hard to convince Kim Basinger to take the role of Lynn Bracken, after she had recently given birth to her daughter. He met her for lunch at the Formosa Café and showed her his photo board and wowed her with his grasp of the visuals for the film. As for Russell Crowe, he patterned his tough-guy demeanor after Sterling Hayden in Stanley Kubrick’s noir film The Killing.
The soundtrack to L.A. Confidential is filled with Hanson song selections of the era: “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive;” “Wheel of Fortune;” “Powder Your Face with Sunshine;” “Look for the Silver Lining;” and “But Not for Me“ among others. The score was written by Jerry Goldsmith. The strand throughout was the jazz trumpet of Chet Baker in a couple of classic numbers and trumpet solos in Goldsmith’s compositions. “Oh my God the man knew music,” said Kim Basinger about Hanson.
Hanson and Helgeland pared-down Ellroy’s baroque novel with its staccato mix of street slang and police procedural jingo, yet certain key dialogue was kept. Hanson would focus the story on three main characters, but even then the studio thought that was too many. They are intoduced in quick successive scenes. After the Hush-Hush intro, it’s night, and we see the face of Officer Bud White in his car. Officer Dick Stensland is in the back seat, drunk. We hear a couple arguing – with the man being abusive. Bud calls-in a domestic violence case to the Hollywood station. He gets out of the car, sees what’s happening in the window, and pulls the electric cord to the eleborate Christmas decorations that crash down from the roof. The man comes and asks “Who the hell are you. ” Bud says “The ghost from Christmas past, and “why don’t you dance with a man for a change.” After the guy misses his swing and takes a few punches to the mid-section and head, he ends up hand-cuffed to the railing. Bud tells the guy if he ever hits her again he’ll have him sent up on a child-molestation rap. He then gives the wife money out of the guy’s wallet and asked if she has somewhere she can go.
The next scene introduces officer Jack Vincennes, played by Kevin Spacey. He’s the flashy detective , seen here at a party on the set of the hit TV show Badge of Honor, where’ he’s the technical advisor. But now he’s dancing with a beautiful wanna-be TV star. The pairing is short-lived after Sid Hugens walks up and she huffs off. It seems he wrote a piece on “Ingénue Dikes of Hollywood,” where her name was mentioned.
The following scene introduces the third main character: “good cop” the young Sgt. Edmund Exley, He’s being interviewed by a journalist as the son of the legendary detective Preston Exley. He’s filling-in that night as the Watch Commander at the HQ while the “men” have their Christmas party. One of the other central characters, Capt. Dudley Smith, excellently played by James Cromwell, chimes in to the interview. And just as Bud White and Stensland and Jack Vincennes and all the other cops are good and fueled up on alcohol, several Mexicans are hauled in – charged with beating up two cops. A brawl results and while Exley tries to break it up he’s pushed into a storeroom and locked in. The reporters covering Exley’s story get plenty of photos which make newspaper headlines. Some cops will have to pay for this bad press , the Police Chief says, and somebody’s going to have to stool – and that sets up some of the dynamics and plot lines that make up this riveting movie. But that’s not all, cops are not just getting rid of mafia types to rid the City of the Angels of crime, maybe some of them just want to take over the rackets for themselves?
As Hanson had wanted, L.A. Confidential is a film where it’s difficult to tell image from reality. In addition to the normal crimes of drugs, racketeering, and gambling, here we have prostitution where the hookers are “cut” to look like Veronica Lake, Rita Hayworth, and Lana Turner. Or is it the real Lana Turner? Ed Exley and Jack Vincennes team up, and go to the Formosa Café, still in business in Hollywood today. There they interrogate Johnny Stompanato, a real hood back in the day. He’s having drinks with a blond, who Exley calls a whore cut to look like Lana Turner. Vincennes tells Exley that she is Lana Turner. That’s before she throws her drink in Exley’s face. And of course Lana and the Stomp really were lovers, until Lana’s daughter Cheryl stabbed him to death for being abusive, and put on trial for it. Or was it really Lana that did it? Hush-Hush.
Officer Bud White was one of the two cops set up to take the fall for the brawl at the HQ. Only Capt. Dudley Smith thought his tough guy skills too important for the bureau to lose. He gets his badge and gun back, along with special assignments as “muscle.” Except he’s also smart, and attracted to Lynn Bracken, and starts some investigating of his own.
The film has its own filming set, where a TV show has actor cops arresting fake criminals, while real cops are perpetrating real crimes while sending newly arrived Mafiosi back to New Jersey after a good beating. Jack Vincenes does his investigating in places like Hollywood’s Frolic Room, next door to the Pantages Theater, where The Bad, and the Beautiful is playing, starring Lana Turner. To feed Hush-Hush with stories we have an innocent gay man Matt Reynolds set up with the crooked D.A. Jack Vincennes tries to find Matt to talk him out of it. But its too late when he finds Matt in his room. Jack has now gone full gamut from the cool show business cop to a man full of self loathing.
Meanwhile, two other characters are either centers of gravity or are pulling the strings in the plot. Bud White and Ed Exley have both fallen for Lynn Bracken, causing jealousy and fights but eventually teaming up to look for where the rot lies in the police force. This was an investigation Jack Vincennes started. And Capt. Dudley Smith and his men are particularly interested in framing some innocent men for some reason. Exley and Bud White, polar opposites, end up partners in a snakepit. They get trapped and must fight it out – for their own lives and for the version of their story that must get told.
L.A. Confidential was a surprise hit and won universal critical acclaim. It received nine Academy Award nominations and won two: Best Actress in a Supporting Role, and best Adapted Screenplay. It went up against Titanic or it would have undoubtedtly won more.
Curtis Hanson died September 20, 2016 at age 71. His other notable films included, “The River Wild” (1994), “Wonder Boys” (2000), “8 Mile” (2002) and “In Her Shoes” (2005). He received high praise by the actors he worked with.
James Ellroy was also born in L.A. He wrote L.A. Confidential as one his “L.A. Quartet:” The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz. When he was ten his mother was raped and murdered. The perpitrator was never found. Ellroy transfered his confused emotions to the case of the Black Dahlia, and has written crime fiction in his adulthood.
I came to L.A when I was 4 in 1953 the year the movie takes place, growing up and frequenting the neighborhoods of Echo Park, Eagle Rock and Hollywood depicted in the novel and movie. I am the same age as Ellroy and lost my father in tragic circumstances when I was 13, so I can identify somewhat with his confused early years.
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