Curtis Hanson’s seminal crime epic L.A. Confidential is a master class in telling a story economically and entertainingly as well. Hanson and Brian Helgeland’s adaptation turns James Ellroy’s monster of a novel into a clean, well told story that never feels like its leaving anything out to better fit an under three-hour picture. In effect, there is not a wasted frame or line of dialogue throughout the film as each piece fits together seamlessly building to a thrilling gun battle at a rundown motel.
Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, and Guy Pearce lead an all-star cast as three very different detectives drawn into a web of conspiracy and murder when one of their own is killed in a sleazy diner. Prostitution, drugs, and corruption are the name of the game in the seedy world of 1950’s Los Angeles. To get into the story would take up far too much time but needless to say, like all the great noirs, the story takes numerous twists and turns and a lesser filmmaker would have made a confusing mess of it. But Hanson handles the material deftly, guiding the viewer and its main protagonists through a labyrinthine story that can be hard to process on the page but crackles off the screen.
In a story this complex, it can be easy for the characters to get lost in the shuffle but the actors give them a dimensionality with as few minutes of screen time as possible as the story switches and changes perspectives between the three main detectives. The performances are outstanding from top to bottom, especially with the Oscar-winning turn by Kim Basinger as a prostitute cut up to look like Lana Turner. Sultry and hard-edged with just a simmering sense of vulnerability wrapped up underneath, Basinger humanizes a character that could easily have been “the girlfriend” or “damsel in distress” part. In fact, the film takes several well-worn character tropes and clichés and layers them with fine performances and incisive writing that develops them beyond their “types”. Crowe’s thuggish Bud White develops into a man with many weaknesses and Crowe has a look of sadness that undercuts every violent act he commits. Pearce gives a darker edge to the good boy-scout in Edmund Exley while Spacey delivers a cool guy persona that masks deep insecurities and a smarts that only becomes revealed as the film goes along.
Hanson has crafted a brilliant addition to the film noir canon, with a sharp eye for the great period detail. Dante Spinotti’s brilliant camerawork captures a bygone era of glamour and corruption. It’s a Los Angeles that lies just underneath the city as it is today and the film represents that shining a light on police corruption at the highest levels. But the film is about what we do and who we are when faced with that corruption. As we are led by our three main protagonists, the film leaves it to the viewer to decide where we start and where we want to end up. It’s dark and gritty but there’s an elegant shine and glamour just on the edge of the dirty politics and police work that takes up much of the run time of the film. It’s an ode to another time and, also, an old-fashioned form of filmmaking. Drop the color for a black and white film stock and one would think they were watching a movie straight out of the 1940’s or 50’s and that is probably the greatest compliment I can give this film.
- L.A.Confidential (1997, US, Hanson) (dirkmalcolm.wordpress.com)
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