For our Saturday movie date this week, we're marking the twentieth anniversary of LA Confidential, which opened in September 1997, with a belated tip of the hat to its director, Curtis Hanson, who died last year sooner than he should have. You expect feature films to have problems with Jane Austen or Henry James, but what's depressing in recent times is the way they seem to have difficulty even managing their own relatively straightforward genres. By way of example, a week or two before LA Confidential was released, a thriller opened in which barely anything made sense: Mel Gibson's Conspiracy Theory started off perfectly fine with a paranoid cabbie, suddenly lurched into Manchurian Candidate territory, and wound up with one of those villains who has innumerable opportunities to kill Mel but never does because he prefers toying with him - which only movie baddies do. Like so many films, it's a compilation album of bits which work fine in other pictures.
So it came as something of a surprise to find Brian Helgeland, who wrote Conspiracy Theory, doing such a fine job twenty minutes later with LA Confidential, adapted from a then very recent source, James Ellroy's dense hallucinatory crime novel of the early Fifties - and directed by Curtis Hanson, who'd spent the Nineties doing amiable formula stuff like The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. You miss Ellroy's chopped-up pseudo-bop voice for about 40 seconds, but there's Johnny Mercer singing "Ac-cent-tchu-ate The Positive" over the opening titles, which is a droll choice. In great thrillers - Double Indemnity, say - Los Angeles itself and its particular social cartography are a kind of character in the plot, which is why Michael Winner's decision to relocate The Big Sleep to Surrey didn't work out for him. When the title's LA Confidential, you need a sense of place even more, and Hanson delivers, from the grubby glamour of Dante Spinotti's cinematography to the voluptuous menace in Jerry Goldsmith's fine score, in which even the arrival of literal rodents is accompanied by the string section.
It's Christmas Eve in the City of Angels: Dino's on the hi-fi, a husband batters his wife under the Yuletide lights, and down at the precinct the LAPD does much the same to a bunch of hapless Mexicans. Some of the dramatis personae here are real: Mickey Cohen, the boxer turned mobster whose incarceration prompts a run of gangland slayings by would-be successors; Johnny Stompanato, the thug with the classy dame who wound up starring in the city's starriest (pre-OJ) murder trial. James Ellroy knows this world well: his dad was Rita Hayworth's accountant, and his mom's murder has been unsolved for six decades. But most of the characters are his own, especially the three cops: Bud White, a thick-set, seething street tough; Edward Exley, a bespectacled pencil-necked rookie despised by his comrades; and Jack Vincennes, a morally relaxed dandy who serves as paid adviser to a "Dragnet" knock-off on TV by day and plays LA's celebrity crime-stopper by night.
The film introduces almost all its characters as types - a suggestion here, a gesture there, and we assume, having seen so many cop thrillers, that we know them already. At which point, ever so unobtrusively, they begin to trade places. Just as the film blends real events with fiction, so its cast mixes familiar Hollywood faces with complete unknowns. For a Hollywood production set in Hollywood's back yard, Hanson went to the furthest reaches of the British Commonwealth for half his principals: the Antipodeans Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce play White and Exley, respectively; James Cromwell, last seen as Babe's farmer, is the weather-beaten police captain, Dudley Smith. Hot off The Usual Suspects, the enigmatic Kevin Spacey plays Vincennes, hovering suavely on the brink between self-satisfaction and self- loathing. "Why'd you become a cop?" asks Exley.
Vincennes pauses, gazes across the room and says blankly, "I don't remember." As often with Spacey, you're not quite sure what's going through him at that moment, even as the plot conspires to give him a chance to remember.
Danny DeVito is a sleazeball gossip peddler, Kim Basinger is a novelty whore, and perhaps the most pleasurable aspect of the entire movie is that billing is irrelevant: in contrast to the usual so-called "ensemble" pictures in which the cast are picked off in order of increasing check size, it's startling to be confronted by a film that stacks up a Hamlet-scale body count while disdaining the conventions: You have no way of knowing who'll make it to the end. If there's a character who embodies (so to speak) the film it's the one who could so easily have brought the whole edifice crashing down. Kim Basinger plays Lynn Bracken, the aspiring actress who caught the bus to Hollywood and wound up a hooker. "It's still acting," she points out, which is true enough and a point that the typical bored dead-eyed trollop might bear in mind. But it's especially so in Lynn's case: She works for the Fleur de Lys, which specializes in girls who've been "cut" (as in plastic surgery) and coiffed to look like your favorite movie stars. Lynn is the lookalike for Veronica Lake, the in-house Veronica Lakealike.
Of course, she doesn't look like Veronica Lake so much as a sad, shop-worn Kim Basinger. But Basinger is terrific as a hard-edged, half-defeated romantic fantasist. As yet another man crosses her threshold, the turntable plays Gershwin - "They're writing songs of love/But Not For Me" - and somehow what should be an overly crass statement of the obvious instead hints at other outcomes. Basinger as Bracken as Lake gets to the heart of LA Confidential, a meditation of the burrows of deceit that hollow out Los Angeles. In a company town where the industry is the production of make-believe, why wouldn't that seep out from the factory to infect reality? The film doesn't answer that philosophical conundrum, but, in one of several ingenious diversions along the way, it does use it as the basis for an excellent Lana Turner joke.
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