The members of the Los Angeles Police Department circa 1953 are corrupt to a man. Torture is the preferred interrogation technique. Racism is pervasive.
The press is populated with shameless scandalmongers. A woman is either a prostitute with a heart of gold – or just a prostitute.
Given the utter lack of sentimentality on display in director Curtis Hanson's noir classic, it's a miracle that we care about any character in this wade through the human cesspool.
But thanks to three terrific actors, a deeply brooding atmosphere, some dollops of astringent humor, and a powerful momentum that sweeps us along even when we think we've lost our way, L.A. Confidential ultimately delivers, achieving a grudging poignancy in the face of brutality.
The screenplay by Hanson and Brian Helgeland is a masterful distillation of the many themes, characters, and subplots from Ellroy's novel, a compelling but daunting literary labyrinth that practically requires a flow chart for comprehension.
Set in the early '50s, the film adopts the splashy style of that era's scandal rags. We're immediately immersed in this world of excess through a garish travelogue; it's like a chamber-of-commerce film directed by a tabloid editor.
In fact, it's narrated by a rumor-mag mogul (Danny DeVito) who informs us that, with the imprisonment of L.A. mob boss Mickey Cohen, the town is up for grabs. This hustling sleazebag assures us that all his dirt is "off the record, on the QT and very hush-hush." The film then introduces its three principle characters, all cops.
Bud White (Russell Crowe, the Australian actor who became an American movie star with this picture) is a thug with a twisted conscience.
Unable to prevent the murder of his mother when he was young, he now tries to compensate by making life miserable for wife beaters. Bud is widely regarded as a dolt, but his willingness to rough up suspects makes him invaluable in the pre-Miranda interview room.
The cynical Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a slick detective who cares more for his wardrobe than his job. He's famous as the technical adviser for a cheesy TV cop show and for setting up celebrity drug busts for DeVito's tabloid journalist (Vincennes claims responsibility for Robert Mitchum's marijuana conviction).
Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is a squeaky-clean reformer who is widely despised by his good ol' boy colleagues. But Exley's honest-cop image masks a ruthless departmental politician, eager to bend the rules and deal with the devil for advancement.
Exley and White are mortal enemies, representing polar opposites in style, personality, and intellect. Vincennes views their rivalry with bemused detachment.
But the infamous "Nite Owl Massacre" – an apparent robbery-gone-bad at a 24-hour diner – forces the three cops into a reluctant alliance and sets them off on a search for truth that will shake the very foundations of the LAPD.
There's way too much plot in L.A. Confidential to summarize here and far too many characters to mention more than a few: James Cromwell as a ruthless chief of detectives, Kim Basinger as a call girl whose specialty is looking just like Veronica Lake (she won an Oscar for this performance), David Straithairn as her high-end pimp, Ron Rifkin as the thoroughly corrupt district attorney.
L.A. Confidential is chilly and brutish and unforgiving. But for all that, it never quite sinks into utter cynicism. For all their sins and shortcomings, the principle characters retain a shred of idealism that is their salvation – and in some cases, their undoing.
Other films in the series “While the City Sleeps: After Dark”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- February 4: The Big Sleep (1946) Not Rated
- February 11: Sleepless in Seattle (1993) Rated PG
- February 18: Nights of Cabiria (1957) Not Rated
- February 25: After Hours (1985) Rated R
- March 4: Dark City (1998) Rated R
- March 11: Date Night (2010) Rated PG-13
- March 18: Blade Runner (1982) Rated R
- March 25: L.A. Confidential (1997) Rated R
Admission to these films is free.
The series complements While the City Sleeps, the 2013 Adult Winter Reading Program.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.