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Monday, September 26, 2016

L.A. Confidential

In a year when many directors of note have passed away, Curtis Hanson may not be at the top of the list. He was only 71, and suffering from illness for a while. He had an eclectic career, dabbling in many genres, and mostly adapted novels. But to put it in baseball terms, Hanson was like a journeyman pitcher who manages to throw a perfect game. His perfect game was L.A. Confidential.

Released in 1997, L.A. Confidential swept the critics' awards but was swept overboard by Titanic at the Oscars. I like Titanic fine, but it's no L.A. Confidential, one of those films of which can be said there is no false note, no bad moment, not plot holes, not a bad performance, not a wrong word written. Hanson directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Brian Helgeland, for that he did win an Oscar.

L.A. Confidential is based on a book by James Ellroy. If you've ever read a book by Ellroy, you usually want to take a shower afterward, because he shows the venal and the corrupt, usually in Los Angeles. The film opens with Danny DeVito extolling the virtues of L.A.: "Come to Los Angeles! The sun shines bright, the beaches are wide and inviting, and the orange groves stretch as far as the eye can see. There are jobs aplenty, and land is cheap. Every working man can have his own house, and inside every house, a happy, all-American family. You can have all this, and who knows... you could even be discovered, become a movie star... or at least see one. Life is good in Los Angeles... it's paradise on Earth. Ha ha ha ha. That's what they tell you, anyway."

Ellroy, and the film, take great pains to show the corruption and festering behind the sunshine. The book was complex, and one of the great skills of Hanson and Helgeland was cutting it down. They centered the story on three cops, and jettisoned the rest (including a Walt Disney-like figure). The three cops are Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce), who wants to live up to his father's reputation on the force and is a straight arrow, not reluctant to testify against other officers; Bud White (Russell Crowe), an enforcer formed by years of rage about what his father did to his mother, and with a particular problem with wife-beaters; and Jack Vincennes, a cocky narco cop who is consultant to a show much like Dragnet, and in cahoots with the press, who offer him busts in exchange for flashy stories.

In a way, the trio meet the requirements of Freud's definition of the personality. White is the id, who is only after basic needs; Vincennes, the ego, who deals with the reality of the needs of the id in a social world; and Exley the superego, which adds a moral layer to the id and ego. What's great about the film is that they are all at odds at one point or another--White will toss Exley around a room--but they all end up working together to take down a crooked cop.

That cop is played deliciously by James Cromwell. His Dudley Smith is one of cinema's great villains, a smooth operator with a condescending tone (he calls his underlings "lads") and an Irish accent. Hanson and Helgeland also play fast and loose with the dead and the undead--two characters in the book who live are killed off, one surprisingly so (no more surprised was I, who had read the book).

The plot, even though streamlined, is extremely complex, dealing with hookers who are operated on to look like movie stars and the takeover of the rackets after the incarceration of Mickey Cohen. At the center is a mass murder at the Nite Owl coffee shop, in which Exley collars the suspects, but then has doubts about it. This will tie together all the participants, and it will end in a shootout at the magnificently mangy Victory Motel (great credit is due to Jeannine Oppewall, production designer).

I have absolutely no complaints about this film. It launched the career of Crowe (funny that almost twenty years later, in The Nice Guys, he plays a similar character, but much heavier) who makes a perfect guy who is used as muscle but is smarter than even he knows. His relationship with Kim Basinger as the Veronica Lake look-a-like hooker is authentic and touching (I've never really cared for Basinger in anything else). Spacey is great, a guy who floats above it all, taking money from the sleazy press (who is DeVito, also great), and Pearce, who was also unknown then, makes a convincing stalwart who aims to do the right thing.

There are a number of great set pieces, and I must compliment the editor, Peter Honess. There are big scenes, like when Crowe and Pearce shakedown (literally) the D.A. (Ron Rifkin), and another simple one when Pearce enters a building, checks the mailbox number, and proceeds to the right apartment. It is cut in extremely short scenes--just long enough for the eye to retain them--and wastes nothing. I also particularly enjoyed a scene in which Pearce accosts who he thinks is a Lana Turner look-a-like, but Spacey tells him, "That is Lana Turner." (That scene was shot at the Formosa Cafe, which still exists).

L.A. Confidential is just a smashing film, with a great score by Jerry Goldsmith, aces photography by Dante Spinotti (most of it is not shot as noir--much of it is out in the bright sunshine--he and Hanson wanted to shoot it like a contemporary movie). It does justice to Ellroy's book, even with the changes.

Hanson made some other good movies, including Wonder Boys, which I'll get to anon. But for this one, he was perfect.

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