L.A. Confidential: Curtis Hanson’s Best Picture of 1997

la_confidential_4_croweA lot of praise has been showered today on L.A. Confidential and deservedly so. Every aspect of filmmaking is accomplished in it: the writing, direction, acting, cinematography, editing. When over 100 critics in the country single out a movie as the best of the year, you begin to be suspicious. Such critical consensus is unheard of.

Incurable critic that I am, I have watched L.A. Confidential three times, beginning in Cannes, and I still can’t find a major flaw in it. Oh, I have a long list of small ones that I’ll send to Curtis Hanson by fax.

L.A. Confidential represents the best of what we describe now as Classic Hollywood Cinema. The movie is satisfying on any level: thematically, intellectually, and visually.

Why is it satisfying What makes it such a great film

*It has a multi-layered, densely plotted narrative, that’s full of twists and turns.

*There’s psychological depth, emotional ambiguity, and moral complexity.

*It’s so rare in American films to see a movie that contains more than two or three characters. L.A. Confidential boasts a dozen memorable characters, each fully rounded, each resisting easy categorization.

*Subtlety–The three cops (played to perfection by Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce) are flawed, tarnished–each one of them has a crucial defining moment that is silent–who will forget Kevin Spacey’s decision to leave tabloid payoff on the bar, or the look on Russell Crowe’s face, when he stares in the mirror after a brutal beating.

*Relevance–The film deals with timely issues: police corruption, city politics, big business and small, racial and legal problems, the journalistic code of ethics. As a futuristic take on the 1950s, it anticipates many themes that will become hot-button issues in the future of the City of Angels.

*There’s graphic violence in the film, but it’s not special-effects violence, it’s integrated into the story. In the final shootout, which is beautifully staged, every bullet counts.

*More than anything else, L.A. Confidential provides a portrait of a way of life, it vividly captures a whole community, sharply divided along race, class, and education lines.

*The movie looks back at the past, in this case 1953, through the prism of the present, so that we actually get a sense of how and why L.A. has evolved the way it did.

*Finally, the movie requires the audiences to pay attention to detail, think, without telling them where to place their sympathies.

*Oh, did I mention that it’s also highly entertaining.

Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me a truly great honor to present the Los Angeles Film Critics Best Picture Award to L.A. Confidential, produced by Curtis Hanson, Arnon Milchan, and Michael Nathanson.

Speech given in honor of the film, while serving as president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.

Detailed Plot

In early 1950s Los Angeles, Sergeant Edmund “Ed” Exley (Guy Pearce), the son of a legendary LAPD detective, is determined to live up to his father’s reputation. His intelligence, insistence on following regulations and cold demeanor contribute to his isolation from other officers. He exacerbates this resentment by volunteering to testify in a police brutality case, insisting on a promotion to Detective Lieutenant against the advice of Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). Exley’s ambition is fueled by the murder of his father by an unknown assailant, whom he refers to as “Rolo Tomassi” to give him personality.

Officer Wendell “Bud” White (Russell Crowe), whom Exley considers a “mindless thug”, is a plainclothes officer obsessed with violently punishing woman-beaters. White comes to dislike Exley after White’s partner, Dick Stensland, is terminated due to Exley’s testimony in the Bloody Christmas scandal. White is sought out by Dudley for a job in which they harass and beat up out-of-town criminals trying to fill the void left in Los Angeles following the imprisonment of Mickey Cohen for tax evasion. The Nite Owl case becomes personal after Stensland is found to be one of the victims.

Sergeant Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a narcotics detective who moonlights as a technical advisor on Badge of Honor, a popular TV police drama series. He is connected with Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), publisher of the Hush-Hush tabloid, receiving kickbacks for tipping Hudgens off to celebrity arrests that attract readers to the magazine. When actor Matt Reynolds is killed during a scheme in which he is to be caught in a homosexual tryst with the L.A. District Attorney, Vincennes is determined to find his killer.

The three men individually investigate the Nite Owl killings, which initially look like a botched robbery resulting in six homicides. Exley pursues absolute justice, trying to live up to his family name. White pursues Nite Owl victim Susan Lefferts, which leads him to Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), a Veronica Lake look-alike prostitute with ties to the case investigated. White falls for Bracken, but she sleeps with Exley so that Hudgens can take compromising photos. Vincennes follows up on a porno racket with ties to the Nite Owl and Bracken’s wealthy pimp Pierce Patchett, operator of Fleur-de-Lis, a service that alter prostitutes by plastic surgery to resemble film stars like Lana Turner or Rita Hayworth.

Three blacks are charged with the killings and later killed in a shootout. However, they were not the killers but gang rapists–their Hispanic victim lied in her statement. Captain Smith was behind the Nite Owl killings, in an effort to take over the heroin empire that Mickey Cohen left behind. After killing Vincennes, Hudgens, and Patchett, Smith sends hitmen to murder White and Exley. However, while killing Vincennes, the latter says “Rolo Tomassi,” which arouses Exley’s suspicion when Smith asks Exley who that is.

White and Exley, long-time rivals, start working together when they realize Smith’s agenda. Smith shoots White but surrenders to Exley. As police arrive, Exley shoots Smith in the back, killing him. The LAPD cover up Smith’s crimes and say he died a hero in the shootout while protecting Exley, but Exley demands reward for cooperation in the deception.

Exley is praised as a hero and receives medals for his bravery, and the Police Department launch an investigation of their men. Upon leaving City Hall, Exley sees Bracken, who tells him she is returning home to Arizona. In the back of her car sits White, who survived gunshot wounds but unable to talk. Exley and White shake hands and Bracken drives off into the sunset.

 

Cast

Kevin Spacey as Det. Sgt. Jack Vincennes

Russell Crowe as Officer Wendell “Bud” White

Guy Pearce as Det. Lt. Edmund “Ed” Exley

James Cromwell as Capt. Dudley Smith

Kim Basinger as Lynn Bracken

Danny DeVito as Sid Hudgens

David Strathairn as Pierce Morehouse Patchett

Ron Rifkin as District Attorney Ellis Loew

Graham Beckel as Det. Richard “Dick” Stensland

Amber Smith as Susan Lefferts

John Mahon as Police Chief Worton

Paul Guilfoyle as Meyer “Mickey” Cohen

Matt McCoy as Brett Chase

Paolo Seganti as Johnny Stompanato

Simon Baker-Denny as Matt Reynolds

Shawnee Free Jones as Tammy Jordan

Darrell Sandeen as Leland “Buzz” Meeks

Marisol Padilla Sánchez as Inez Soto

Gwenda Deacon as Mrs. Lefferts