December 8, 2011

L.A. Confidential (1997)

IF SOMEONE TOLD YOU they were making a movie about police corruption in 1950s Los Angeles, starring two unknown Australian actors, and directed by the guy who did The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, would you believe it would win two Oscars and turn out to be one of the best films ever made?

Against the background of 1950s Los Angeles, L.A. Confidential intertwines stories of police corruption, the battle for control of the L.A. underworld, a mass shooting in a late-night café, and a pimp who has his prostitutes surgically altered to look like famous Hollywood starlets.


It shouldn’t have worked. A period piece, two virtually unknown foreigners as the leads, and half a dozen plotlines running concurrently over a span of nearly two and a half hours. Yet L.A. Confidential is one of those rare instances when all the elements come together to create, without hyperbole, a modern masterpiece.

From the performances of the actors (perfectly cast by the legendary Mali Finn), to director Curtis Hanson’s vision of the L.A. of yesteryear (he’s a lifelong Angelino), to the Oscar-winning script by Hanson and Brian Helgeland (brilliantly pared down and adapted from James Ellroy’s mammoth book), to the infectious soundtrack (mixing standards and Jerry Goldsmith’s score), to Ruth Myers’ costume design, all the pieces of L.A. Confidential connect masterfully into one perfect, ambitious puzzle.

In terms of the performances: Yes, Kim Basinger’s Oscar-winning performance as high-end call girl Lynn Bracken is good and worthy of recognition, but it’s hardly the best performance. It doesn’t even come in second or third. She’s trumped by a top-tier ensemble cast that includes:
  • Russell Crowe, whose brutish Bud White has a deep-rooted issue with criminals who abuse women
  • Guy Pearce as clean-cut Edmund Exley, who won’t step outside the law to deliver justice, but learns how to work the system
  • James Cromwell as police captain Dudley Smith, who questions Exley’s abilities to go above the law to stop criminals and get confessions
  • Kevin Spacey as slick detective Jack Vincennes, who thoroughly enjoys his gig as advisor on Badge of Honor, the hottest cop show on TV
  • Danny DeVito as Sid Hudgens, publisher of the scandal magazine Hush-Hush, who’s always looking for an angle or scoop
  • David Straithairn as Pierce M. Patchett, a respected businessman and philanthropist who also employs prostitutes who are “cut” to look like movie stars
With L.A. Confidential, Hanson perfectly captures the dichotomy of Los Angeles that exists to this day: The idea of image versus reality. The glitter and fame of Hollywood that masks the city’s seedy, violent underbelly. And a supposedly honorable police force that’s mired in corruption, racism, and brutality. (The fact that Hanson opens and closes the film with Johnny Mercer’s “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive” is no accident.) It’s a world where polar opposites join forces to help each other’s cases and uncover awful truths – and where one cop sworn to serve and protect turns out to be a callous, cold-hearted criminal behind the very crimes and corruption our anti-heroes are investigating. It all culminates in a final shootout that’s a master class in choreography and editing.

L.A. Confidential is one of those films that requires a second viewing to catch everything you missed, but it’s hardly a chore to do so. Character nuances become more noticeable, the narration and multiple storylines flow together better, and terrific instances of foreshadowing are much more appreciated.

Kevin Spacey has said that if L.A. Confidential hadn’t been released the same year as Titanic, it would have won the Oscar for Best Picture. Off the record, and on the QT: He’s absolutely right.

Is it suitable for your kids?
Despite being set in a time when movies were largely free of inappropriate material, L.A. Confidential has plenty of content not meant for all audiences. There are scenes of brief nudity, discussions of drug use, graphically violent footage of mob hits, and more than a dozen people dying by bloody shootings. There’s also frequent adult language, plus occasional glances at vintage nudie and S&M magazines. High school kids and older is probably the benchmark to use when deciding if L.A. Confidential is suitable for your kids.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
Factoring in its subject matter, nearly all-male cast, and police procedural setting, I’d gamble that L.A. Confidential is more for dads. In fact, it should be required viewing for all dads who love movies.

L.A. Confidential
* Director: Curtis Hanson
* Screenwriters: Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland
* Stars: Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito, James Cromwell
* MPAA Rating: R

Rent L.A. Confidential from Netflix >>


Retro Hound said...

No one commented? I thought this was a great movie. I've only seen it once though.

FilmFather said...

Yeah, I was expecting more comments on this one. Actually, I've gotten 6 comments on this review since I posted it on the TCM Classic Film Union.


Related Posts with Thumbnails