Director Curtis Hanson’s 1997 film, L.A. Confidential, was far and away the best film released in Hollywood during that year Titanic swept all the awards. There were likely some independent American films that were good, and possibly some foreign films that were its equal, but from Hollywood, nothing was close. It is a great film that succeeds on every possible level, Perhaps its lone flaw is that there is no underlying deep philosophic posit to it, save, arguably, that all people are corrupt and corruptible; it just depends on the degree and motive.
It has been called a film noir, and while technically correct, to describe the film as that alone is to limit it. It has more than just a noirish sensibility or vibe, it has great cinematography, great scoring, great editing, a terrific screenplay (co-written by Hanson and Brian Helgeland), great pacing--at only 138 minutes, yet the density of a film twice as long--and down the line fantastic acting, from its three male leads, Kevin Spacey, Guy Pearce, and Russell Crowe, to its leading lady, Kim Basinger (the least of all the actors, but still her best performance, by far), to its supporting actors, James Cromwell, Danny DeVito, and David Strathairn.
It is in no sense a poetic film, and given its adaptation from crime novelist James Ellroy’s novel of the same name, this is no accident. But it does show that, in the hands of a director with a vision (however singular and irreplaceable), even pulp fiction can become high art. After all, look at the plots of William Shakespeare’s greatest plays…they are as pulp as any soap opera running today. That this film was overlooked at Oscar time, in favor of James Cameron’s worst film, Titanic, due mostly to the phenomenal financial success of that movie, today seems like one of the all time great Oscar boners, even if astute critics (as myself) derided the result when it occurred. L.A. Confidential did, however, snag nine nominations, and won two of them: Best Adapted Screenplay for Hanson and Helgeland, and Best Supporting Actress for Kim Basinger. Basinger, while good in the role, was not great, and this token Oscar continued the tradition of awarding beauty over talent. Even worse was the fact that Basinger was the film’s Leading Lady, not a supporting actress. Far more deserving of an Oscar were any of the three male leads, and especially James Cromwell. The film’s score, by Jerry Goldsmith, is the understated sort that compliments the action. Good screen composers know when that sort of score is apt and not. After all, Goldsmith did write the seminal score for the original Planet Of The Apes, a score that is one of the most innovative and influential in cinema history and helped define that film’s mood and action. Dante Spinotti helmed the camera, and, along with the editing of Peter Honess, does a terrific job of noirizing the vivid colors & sunny skies that abound in the film and establishing characterization even when the actors are not the focus of a moment.
The film is framed against the opening narration of Sid Hudgens (DeVito), the editor of a slimy gossip rag called Hush Hush. The narrative is complex, with many asides, but here is the main thrust: it is early 1950s Los Angeles. Three LAPD cops are investigating aspects of a recent café shooting, at a place called The Nite Owl: Sergeant Edmund Exley (Pearce), the son of a slain LAPD detective, is the good cop determined to make right; fellow cop, narcotics Detective Jack Vincennes, a glamour boy consultant on a Dragnet-type tv show who helps set up stories for Hudgens, but has lost his soul for doing so; and Officer Wendell ‘Bud’ White (Crowe), a near-psychopathic lunkhead who evolves as the film progresses.
The two disk DVD, put out by Warner Brothers, features the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and has a multi-person splice commentary on Disk One, with many of the actors and principals in the film, chiming in. It is a good device, well used, although a second track from Hanson would have been a good addition, even though he adds in a few comments. Only Basinger’s minor comments add nothing. The revelations by Pearce and Spacey, especially, make the commentary worth listening to. Cromwell’s lament that he wished his character had more backstory is a common complaint, but the point of the film is not why Cromwell’s character is who he is, but how that affects all around him. Film critic Andrew Sarris also has a few moments but he says little of any critical depth, acting more like a rapt fanboy than a critical eye. There is also a music only track and theatrical trailers on the first disk. The second disk has the featurettes, interviews with the cast and crew, a pilot for a television series based on the film (with Kierfer Sutherland) that aired only years after the film’s release, plus a few other minor features. The package also includes a music CD with six of the songs used in the score.
L.A. Confidential is a great film not because it is revolutionary, in terms of style nor approach, but because it is so uniformly excellent in every area. It is one of those films that stands in counterpoint to the director as auteur, although surely a different director would have made a different film. The point is that the material is so good that it’s one of those can’t miss films. It also exemplifies that the most revolutionary thing in art is greatness, especially sustained greatness. Any work of art, and any artist, has to be judged in this manner, since it is the only objective way to evaluate things. Notions like revolutionary or daring are too subjective. What was revolutionary often becomes clichéd. True originality resists easy mimicry and subsequent triteness.
A good example of this comes from two earlier films that this one is most compared to: Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). While both of these are good films, neither is great. Chinatown is far less complex than L.A. Confidential, and almost wholly dependent upon lead actor Jack Nicholson’s abilities. Quick…other than John Huston, name me an actor from that film. See? It’s also a far less realistic film, and far more dependent upon style. Even more style-dependent is Pulp Fiction, a film almost devoid of realism. In fact, even though L.A. Confidential is based on a novel while Serpico was based upon real life events across the continent, the former is really an extension of the latter’s exploration of evil. Both show that all the cops are criminals of one sort or another. Only degree of criminality is in question. In both films, the leads win, but pay for victory with extreme loss. This is why Curtis Hanson’s film is better than the two films it’s most compared to by critics, and holds up well against the more realistic drama of Serpico. It’s also why, the violence in L.A. Confidential, especially when compared to Pulp Fiction, is never gratuitous. It’s always at a minimum, within the bounds of character and circumstance, and advances the story, even if just in a small way. Also, the fact that all the cops, even the ‘good ones,’ are criminals, is something just not seen in most films of the last few decades of Right Wing hagiography of all who wear uniforms.
When this film came out, in 1997, it was one of the few films that I ever saw twice in a theater. After having seen it once with a female friend, I recommended it to other friends, and went to see it again with them. In watching it a couple of times over the years, and for review, it is one of those films that has many things in its backgrounds, many moments that become ‘Aha’ moments upon rewatch, and make the viewer re-evaluate just what the film is doing and why. This is the definition of depth. Yes, the film is not as existential as Ingmar Bergman’s Shame, nor is it as innovative as Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, nor does it present reality as closely and achingly as Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, but its uniform excellence, ability to do even its genre moments well, and recasting clichés as something different (bright lights noir), are among the many reasons this film rises to greatness. I would not go so far as Andrew Sarris, in casting all crime films as pre- and post-L.A. Confidential, because the film does as much to celebrate film noir as it does to recast it, but it certainly is one of the best Hollywood films of the last thirty years or so. It is also the high point of director Curtis Hanson’s rather pedestrian career, and the only one of his films to ever come near and surpass greatness, another argument that auteurism is not the only way to get a great work of cinema made. Without the contributions of those mentioned, this film would likely still have been a good one, but great? I doubt it. Regardless, L.A. Confidential is a great film, one of the best crime drams ever filmed. See it. Or else.
©2011 Dan Schneider
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