Among the many pleasures afforded by L.A. Confidential, the smashing new movie about corruption and redemption and murder in early-Fifties Hollywood, is that its excellence is so unexpected. Curtis Hanson, a onetime film critic, has labored nearly two decades in the Hollywood vineyards doing screenplays, writing and directing modest thrillers, and eventually making the box-office big time with The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and The River Wild. Nothing prepared us for the texture, pungency, assured storytelling, or moral complexity of his new picture.
True, Hanson’s source is a characteristically textured/pungent/complex novel by James Ellroy, whose intimacy with the fragrant, poisonous history of Los Angeles makes Raymond Chandler seem like a daydreamer. But faithfully filming a novel doesn’t ensure that you’ll replicate its metabolism, feel the same sting of acid in the narrative bloodstream. Ellroy loves the movie, which honors his book but also stands on its own—the first L.A. movie in more than twenty years to come within hailing distance of the historical, cultural, and mythic resonance of Chinatown.
Both films are persuasive period-pieces that never flaunt period artifice. L.A.’s cinematography, by Dante Spinotti (who also shot Heat), is the best of the year. We seem to be feeling the sunlight of another era, at the same time that Spinotti’s palette suggests a Nineties updating and darkening of the hard, effulgent Technicolor lighting of that era (specifically, 1953). Nothing’s in quotation marks here. The action is direct, as bold as a slap.
You want plot? There’s lots, all artfully twisted, coming at us in Cubist squibs and splashes, involving a teeming cast, and filtered through the points of view of three L.A. cops who typify three distinct approaches to their profession. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a bully boy with the brute muscle to do his superiors’ bidding—say, beat a confession out of a man, or put a bullet in him before a lawyer and a susceptible jury can short-circuit the course of justice. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is the son of a fallen hero, a careerist with the political savvy to make himself and the department come out smelling like a rose. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a little older, a suave bullshit artist who enjoys celebrity status as technical advisor to the hit TV cop show Badge of Honor (read: Dragnet), and seems to glide through the sleaziest situation on a skin of oil. Yet as one atrocity follows another in the City of Angels, Vincennes finds himself ambushed by a forgotten sense of decency (this is Spacey’s subtlest performance)—just as White and Exley ineluctably trade places on the moral-ethical spectrum. How great to watch characters who really do change and grow, not just perform facile flipflops for the convenience of a screenwriter.
There’s more. Great character work by the likes of James Cromwell, Ron Rifkin, David Strathairn. And would you believe: an exquisitely directed Kim Basinger. See L.A. Confidential. Be astonished at discovering anew how very, very satisfying movies can still be. And how fine that can feel.
Mr. Showbiz 9/19/97