The mesmerizing ‘L.A. Confidential’ unfolds in a seductive demimonde where violence and desire, nobility and vice, all intersect.
by David Denby
L.A. Confidential is not only the best American movie of the year (thus far) but, in some ways, the only American movie of the year. Much of the picture is so powerfully entertaining that it seems a strange artifact from another age—a time when story, characters, and milieu worked together on the screen as devastating fiction and in the moviegoer’s mind as memory and desire. L.A. Confidential, based on James Ellroy’s 1990 novel, is about corruption and honor in the L.A.P.D., and it’s set in 1953, in the period immediately after the imprisonment of the local Mafia boss Mickey Cohen. All of a sudden, power in the crime world is up for grabs; some of the greedier cops are trying to lay hands on it. When a group of people is massacred at the Nite Owl Café, the crime is initially blamed on three young black men. But the apparent solution to the murders unravels, and a larger pattern of evil behind the massacre, like a spreading stain, reaches out to cover widely separated elements of Los Angeles society. This is the classically fallen L.A. of Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald and of such film masterpieces as The Big Sleep and Chinatown—the beautiful bad place, violent, ravenously erotic, deeply cynical but also possessed of a touching faith in the future, a belief in innocence and pleasure. The end of the movie wears a crooked grin: Things are set right again, but not in the standard Hollywood way. Corruption, we realize, may be endemic to power, even to benevolent power.
The material arrives with a corrosive edge supplied by Ellroy and preserved by director Curtis Hanson and screen-writer Brian Helgoland. A merry little crumbbum named Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito) provides a sarcastic welcome-to-L.A. narration at the beginning: The city is growing rapidly, Sid tells us, and though the police may be preserving the image of a sunshine paradise, he knows “the truth.” The publisher of a tabloid scandal sheet, Sid is a true creator of sleaze journalism; he alerts the police to trivial forms of vice (i.e., sex and pot in a motel room) and then photographs for his magazine a celebrity cop, Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), making the bust. Sid and Jack work their dirty game for mutual profit and fame; one of the movie’s bitter jokes is that life is far dirtier than either of them will ever understand. Apart from its central narrative, L.A. Confidential is obsessed with such things as the porno and prostitution rings at the edge of the movie business, the violent racism of the Los Angeles cops, the habitual use of intimidation as a method of police inquiry. The hints and allusions become echoes, producing a pervasive anxiety, a sense of something horribly wrong that can’t be fixed.
In the past, in such movies as The Bedroom Window and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Curtis Hanson has shown some skill at building tension but nothing like the sensuality and power he demonstrates here. A bullheaded cop, Bud White (Russell Crowe), who’s on a real Galahad trip—he can’t stand seeing women hurt— approaches a black Cadillac with a beautiful woman and a wealthy Beverly Hills dandy in the back, and the fifties glamour of the moment arrives with so evocative an aura of danger (the woman’s face is bandaged) that we simply slide back 45 years without any sense of entering the past. The period details are there, but what matters are the emotions, the story, the pull of death and despair. Violence and desire bring the period close to us. By the end, the noir attitudes—the general fatalism— seem not merely a set of stylistic conventions but a more serious attitude toward evil than anything we have now.
The bandaged woman, it turns out, is a call girl whose appearance has been altered to make her look like a movie star. Wealthy clients pay to sleep with Lana Turner and Rita Hayworth look-alikes. That could be a metaphor for what we all want out of the movies—the erotic power of falsehood. L. A. Confidential is even sardonic about its own tropes: One of the cops runs into the real Lana Turner and takes her for a whore. That’s a good, raw joke, and the movie has many almost as good.
The violent Bud is one of two heroes, neither of them unblemished. In a masterstroke, Curtis Hanson and producer Amon Milchan have cast Australian unknowns as these men. As played by Russell Crowe, Bud is a man of abnormal rage who pounds people with his fists on command; he’s a follower, a tool of the seemingly benevolent but actually vicious chief of detectives, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). Bud barely knows himself, and Russell Crowe’s features, which seem soft and unformed—puffy, like the face of a pre-moral child—slowly come into focus for us as the movie goes along. Guy Pearce, who plays Ed Exley, a straight-arrow cop, all ambition and calculation, is exactly the opposite: His face is overdefined, his jawline too clean, his mouth too tense (he has Katharine Hepburn’s mouth, somehow). The slender Pearce doesn’t look like a cop, which is probably why he was cast. His Exley is a young man on the make who uses rectitude as a way of getting ahead, and the other cops despise him. Arrogant and repressed, Exley is the natural enemy of Bud White, but they both slowly change, and it’s thrilling for us to discover the gradual alteration in the faces of these new actors. Russell Crowe comes up from brutalism, and Guy Pearce down from moralism. and they meet in the middle and join forces (to our relief).
The movie suggests a deep fallibility in even the best men, a bottomless deceit in the worst, and a wide range of honor and venality in everyone in between. Kevin Spacey makes a major creation out of the suave, nattily dressed son-of-a-bitch Jack Vincennes, a preening cop who serves as adviser to a hit TV series about the L.A.P.D. It takes us a while to realize quite how intelligent Vincennes is (his brain is working even after he’s taken a bullet). Jack recovers his soul; so does the Veronica Lake look-alike played by Kim Basinger, an actress who, in the past, has never quite known who she is and discovers herself here as an imitation. Basinger, soft and saddened, is very touching as a guilty hooker, a good-bad girl worthy of the high forties. The movie is filled with wonderful actors—David Strathairn, in a pencil-line moustache, displaying surprising wit as a sleek smoothie living high off the prostitutes; Simon Baker Denny as an eager-to-please young actor-stud too beautifully dumb to stay out of trouble.
There’s one cheap scene in which Pearce and Crowe terrorize someone by hanging him out of a window, and, at the end of the movie, the corpses perhaps pile up a little too rapidly. The vicious concentrics that radiate out from Mickey Cohen’s death become numerous beyond counting, yet the filmmakers pull everything together in the end. The world, it turns out, is not beyond redemption. Loyalty is possible, even love. This violent story truly earns its quiet, biguous final note of exhausted calm.
New York Magazine, September 29, 1997