Kevin Spacey - Jack Vincennes
Kim Basinger - Lynn Bracken
Russell Crowe - Bud White
Guy Pearce - Ed Exley
James Cromwell - Capt. Dudley Smith
Danny DeVito - Sid Hudgens
Curtis Hanson - Director
Curtis Hanson - Producer
Curtis Hanson - Screenwriter
Brian Helgeland - Screenwriter
Dante Spinotti - Cinematographer
Jerry Goldsmith - Film Score
The 1950s-era Los Angeles of L.A. Confidential is Noir Central. Its denizens are tatooed in shadow; the play of light and dark in the streets, the police stations, the morgues, is fetishistic. The postwar L.A. touted in the travelogues and billboards is a boomtown, but what is actually seen is unsettling: a city of the future infested by people with only a past.
Like the best noir crime thrillers, L.A. Confidential, directed by Curtis Hanson and very loosely based on the 1990 James Ellroy novel, suggests a menace even greater than the one that is presented. It's been a long time since there has been sordidness this ripe in the movies. Hanson and his cinematographer, Dante Spinotti, understand why the audience allow themselves to be taken in by noir--it sexes up their own worst suspicions about how the world works.
With a cast of more than 100 characters, Ellroy's novel is a sprawling overload of plots and subplots. The overabundance has an obsessive, almost punitive quality, as if the L.A. horror could no longer be contained within the confines of a single narrative. Pulp noir is, almost by definition, a slick genre, but Ellroy's book is a rare thing--a noir epic. Standing back from its jumbled panorama, it comes together like one of those compressed 3-D images that suddenly snap into focus if stared at long enough. Hanson and his co-screenwriter, Brian Helgeland, have hooked into Ellroy's depraved, moody-blues mind-set and tricked out a story line from his welter of happenings. The movie is still a dense thicket of subterfuges and wrong-way turns, but at least it's negotiable.
Besides, confusions are a part of noir. The audience doesn't look to these movies for handy resolutions, and the films that wrap things up are often the least resonant. Hanson makes this mistake at the end of L.A. Confidential, but otherwise he domonstrates that every safe exit is really a trap door. The result is perhaps the best noir crime movie since Chinatown (1974)--not that, aside from Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), there has been much competition.
The assumption in noir has always been that appearances are not deceiving. The key to L.A. Confidential--what makes it different--is that just about everybody in it isn't what he or she seems. Sometimes the characters are even worse than imagined; sometimes they show off a valor and a rue that spin the audience around. The mysteries to be solved in L.A. Confidential aren't only whodunits. The flip-flops of character are mysteries, too. The audience is never sure how people will act in this film, and that unease is part of its texture. It keeps the audience off kilter until the end.
Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), when first seen, is a Los Angeles police officer on the make for a higher rank. When a number of his fellow cops brutalize some Mexicans brought in to the police station on Christmas Eve, Exley alone rats on his comrades--and wrangles a promotion for it. It's to the film's credit that Exley's apple-polishing is given its due. Officer Bud White (Russell Crowe), the bully-boy, turns soulful and becomes Exley's antagonist. Taken by Capt. Dudley Smith (the marvelous James Cromwell) as a strong arm on crime raids, White inevitably is drawn into a collision course with the golden boy. It's as if he and Exley were fated to square off.
Detective Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is the most jaded of the cops. Dressed nattily, he makes side money setting up Hollywood busts for Sid Hudgeons (Danny DeVito), the yowly editor of a tabloid magazine called Hush-Hush. Vincennes also works as an advisor to the television series Badge of Honor, which portrays the LAPD as shining warriors. What gives Spacey's performance its edge--its greatness--is that finally it can be seen how little this connoisseurship means to him. Inside the sleek cynicism is a weariness with what he has become and his chance for redemption transforms him.
At the same time, however, Hanson is reaching for a more sentimental and valorous conception of the noir thriller than audiences are accustomed to in the movies. And so, in place of the standard-issue noir vamp who drives men to their doom, there is Kim Bassinger's Lynn Bracken--the whore with the heart of gold. Lynn is a prize filly in the stable of pimp-financier Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn), who runs a house of prostitution featuring women surgically altered to look like movie stars. Transforming a noir vamp into a touchy-feely angel of mercy isn't much of a bonus: noir shouldn't be this soggy and righteous. In a way, Hanson is a victim of his own success here: He's so good at nastiness that the counterbalancing sweetness pales in comparison.
The three lead cops in L.A. Confidential react to depravity; they have a conscience. Hanson wants to give the audience a richer sense of character than the standard noirs and, by the end, his cops have earned their chops. L.A. Confidential is about a war within the police ranks, and it's also a film at war within itself. Hanson craves the lurid shock of pulp, but he also wants to go beyond pulp. With his smarts and his almost tragic sense of the consequences of vice, he just about gets there.
--PETER RAINER, from The A List
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