L.A. Confidential (1997)

When it’s on: Monday, 18 June (11.05 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Whilst I’ve enjoyed the several James Ellroy books that have passed before my eyes, I can’t say I have ever begged for more. It’s not that I think they’re anything less than brilliant, more the sheer demand they place on my concentration span. Densely plotted and involving many fully rounded characters, you get what you pay for with an Ellroy, but they’re heavy going pieces of work. I thought I’d done well with Clandestine, only to find it was a quickie he’d knocked out in between bigger projects. And then there’s American Tabloid, a convoluted tale leading to the Kennedy assassination that I devoured whilst on holiday. As Mrs Mike siesta’d the afternoons away in mid-forties Luxor, I worked my way through bottles of water, cheap cigarettes and the book. I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way.

L.A. Confidential is much the same. Character after character pops up, each with its own complicated back story and distinct personality, every one either as crooked or as on the make as the next. Fantastic stuff, but I could see why adaptations of Ellroy’s work are few and far between. So much happens, involving so many people, that holding it together on film should be virtually impossible. Ellroy was very complimentary of the 1997 adaptation, calling it a ‘wonderful fluke’ because it somehow pulled all the disparate threads of his novel into a ‘movie of that quality.’ L.A. Confidential claimed an Academy Award for Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland’s screenplay, and would surely have won more but for it sharing the bill with a certain Titanic.

And yet there must be no one who would possibly rank James Cameron’s watery epic above a masterpiece like L.A. Confidential. I like Titanic, but this one’s a bit special. If you haven’t seen it, my strong recommendation would be to ensure you’re sat comfortably for Film4’s screening tonight. Record it, because after watching it you’ll want to do so all over again, only with the benefit of hindsight so you can see how cleverly the strands have been woven together, how sublime the entire cast is and the layers within the characters they play. Or maybe you’ll just replay it for your favourite moment. Mine is the look on Guy Pearce’s face when another character says the words ‘Rollo Tomasi’ at a crucial moment. It beats the unfortunate meeting in the diner involving Lana Turner. Or the bit where Kevin Spacey’s ‘celebrity cop’ pockets a packet of marijuana after a drugs bust. Or the powerhouse performance put in by Russell Crowe. Or the seductive Irish brogue of James Cromwell’s captain. Or the ‘window’ scene. Or Danny DeVito’s opening voiceover. Or the playing of various 1950s hits, like Wheel of Fortune. Or just how uncontrollably sexy Kim Basinger is, even in her 40s. Or the period detail.

It’s a crime yarn for the viewer who’s prepared to put in the hours, to appreciate a film that packs more story and characterisation into a running time of little over two hours and loses little of the book’s detail. It’s rightly referred to as a modern take on film noir because the attention to detail is note perfect. L.A. Confidential feels like a film from the 1950s, only one that flips a finger to the censorship laws of the era by showing the blood and letting the characters speak like real people. The casting is every bit as amazing. Of the three main players, Kevin Spacey was the most famous and made his turn as Jack Vincennes feel effortless, up to the point where he’s challenged over why he’s in the force. The real coups were Pearce and Crowe. Both had appeared in Australian soap, Neighbours, Pearce for several years, and the pair were relatively little known in America before their appearances in this. Crowe in particular is brilliant, the tank with a chivalrous streak and desire to be more than a mere heavy. They could have copped out and given the roles to more famous actors, but would they have been nearly as memorable?

It’s simply a superb film, and like all the best ones I find something new to enjoy in it with every viewing.

L.A. Confidential: *****

10 Replies to “L.A. Confidential (1997)”

  1. Nicely done once again. This is one of the few films I feel really deserves to be termed a modern classic. A lot of period films just don’t quite work, but this one nails the look and feel of a 50s noir thriller perfectly.

    I don’t know how many times I’ve seen this now and I still love it, but one thing that I’ve altered my opinion of a little is Spacey’s performance. I used to think it was fantastic, but time has made me reassess that aspect slightly. I still think he’s good in the role, but there’s a bit of a forced, unreal quality to it, almost like I can see him acting. I’ve grown to appreciate Crowe, Pearce and Cromwell’s work more and more, and Spacey’s a bit less. Still, that’s a minor quibble, and probably something only I feel.

    I have the novel resting on my shelves and still haven’t gotten round to reading it. One day, I guess…

    1. Thanks Colin. Regarding Spacey, I’ve always felt the same whenever I watch Cate Blanchett in a performance. Don’t know quite why, but I always get the impression it’s Cate Blanchett acting rather than her character. Perhaps as you say it’s too forced. In Spacey’s case, I thought he made it all look pretty effortless, perhaps up to the point that he has that conversation with Edmund Exley when he’s supposed to become more introspective. But I get something new with each viewing. I thought Guy Pearce was the outstanding performer but more recently have come to really appreciate the job of work Russell Crowe puts in and the phenomenal journey his character takes. He’s like a different person at the end of the film to what he was at the start, and to get all that across is quite masterly.   I think I might spend a week over the summer holidays with an Ellroy that I haven’t read yet. They ain’t bedtime reading. Concentration needed, which I can’t often enough spare.

  2. Well written review, I agree that the film perfectly captures the period in which it is set and the performances help make the film so good.

    1. Thanks vinnieh. When it comes to the casting, you kind of get what Ellroy meant when he called the film a wonderful fluke. How could they possibly have assembled such a cast, in many ways the perfect performers for each of their roles? How L.A. Confidential lost out to Titanic at the Oscars seems more and more a travesty, but well, nothing new there I suppose.

      1. It is of course impossible to overstate how ‘mega’ Titanic was back then – it just got more and more popular. I went to see it twice (in my defence, I was staying on my own whilst working in Cheltenham and went to the cinema to fill in the occasional evening) and that was nothing compared to the real hardcore fans. It was by anyone’s standards the film of the year and whilst I’m not suggesting it should have got the Oscars on that basis, is helps that it was a half decent film.

  3. I know what you mean Ellroy – I like the books, but they are exhausting!

    My favourite scene might be one of the most understated – when Lynne takes Bud into her ‘real’ bedroom, which is this small, sweet little refuge, a million miles away from the satin opulence of her work space. As an adapation of the book it is fascinating to see the extent to which the narrative has been overhauled and I have always felt that the movie, structurally at least, owes rather more to THE BIG NOWHERE, the book that preceded it in Ellroy’s LA Quartet, than to its ostensible source. I’m thinking here in part of the jaw fropping moment involving Dudley and Jack two thirds of the way through, which has a specific correspondence with that novel rather than in Ellroy’s CONFIDENTIAL.

    William Goldman was one of the few people at the time to criticise the ending of the movie, and I agree that it is a surprisingly conventional one – it helps explain why it was a big success (especially when compared with the less sexy and uncompromising BLACK DAHLIA). On the other hand, it tells a good strory very well and the main performances are top notch. I’ve got this one on Blu-ray and regularly get the urge to watch it again – which in my book is a major compliment.

      1. I might be tempted to try a spot of froppage but don’t have the jaw for it…

        Thanks a lot Sergio. That scene in Lynne’s bedroom does highlight a real strength of the film, a small moment that speaks volumes about one of the characters. I love the bit where Bud, upon being shown the room, realises that he’s the one. Just lovely.

        As stated in the blog, I really should try more Ellroy. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read, but each book’s like a long-term commitment, and maybe it’s Dudley’s fate that kept me away from The Big Nowhere, which I understand is a classic. They’re generally the kind of books that demand a HBO series, which makes the achievement of the film that bit more brilliant. Packing all that into one feature really took some doing. Repeat viewings are always on the table for me.

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