L.A. Confidential is a 1997 film based on a novel by James Ellroy, set in the 1950s but filmed in a very ’90s style. It is a master class in adaptation, taking what many people thought was an unfilmable book and boil it down to its essential elements. In many ways it also acts as a spiritual successor to that other great Los Angles noir film, Chinatown.
At first blush, the story is that of two competing story lines. Gangsters are being killed or run out of town in the wake of Mickey Cohen’s imprisonment, as evidently someone is consolidating power in his absence. There’s also been a massacre at a local diner, evidently an armed robbery gone wrong. Three very different types of policeman get wrapped up in the investigations, eventually learning that they are more interconnected than you would think. There’s Bud White, played by Russel Crowe, a policeman more valued for his propensity toward violence than his detective work. There’s Ed Exley, played by Guy Pearce, an ambitious up-and-comer who seems willing to play at politics to get ahead. And there’s the charmer, Jack Vincennes, as portrayed by Kevin Spacey, a burned-out detective more interested in making his way into entertainment and feeding tidbits to a sleazy tabloid run by Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito) than in actual police work.
The plot is intricate and demands that attention be paid to it, otherwise it is easy to lose track of what characters are tied to what threads, but the payoff at the end is immensely satisfying and a credit to the writing and directing to put it all together. This is a movie to take notes on if you want to see how a simple plot (a murder) can snowball into a full blow conspiracy.
The intricacy of the plot aside, one of the best things about this movie for me is how none of the characters are as two-dimensional as they might appear at first blush. Bud White, while violent, is capable of first rate investigative work. Ed, while ambitious, possesses a moral center that sees him through to the end, as well as a clarity of vision and a hidden capability of violence. Jack, while full of self-loathing at what he’s become, remembers why he joined the police in the first place and seeks his redemption by picking up a case no one else cares about.
On top of the leads, Kim Basinger turns in a terrific performance as Lynn Bracken, a prostitute who passes herself off as a Veronica Lake look-alike, and James Cromwell is perfect as Chief Dudley Smith, complete with over the top brogue.
So if you haven’t watched it, or it’s been a while, this is definitely a movie to give a viewing to.