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: *****