In its heyday, the film noir genre turned out more than its fair share of classic movies in the late 1940s and early 1950s. These were tough stories often shot in black and white with a typically cynical view of the world. Tough guy actors like Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan dotted these stories which appealed to audiences then and especially now over 60 year later. But as great as some of these movies were, they were limited by the times they were made in with censorship and production codes keeping a tight rein on these stories.
No such problem in 1997 when L.A. Confidential was released in theaters with a moderate success in theaters and almost complete critical acclaim. Director Curtis Hanson revisits much of what made film noir popular with this hard-bitten, rough-edged movie. Hanson uses Los Angeles extensively in location shooting, and much like 1974's Chinatown did, produces a feeling of what the city must have felt like in the past. With no censors holding him back, the story is blunt and straightforward, full of language and violence that never seems extreme and is almost always essential to the story. This one slipped by me since its release, but am I ever glad I caught up with it.
Based on a novel by James Ellroy, L.A. Confidential has a plot that is pretty near impossible explaining here without giving away many of the key twists and turns it takes. Anyways, here's the gist of it. It's 1953 Los Angeles where the LAPD is full of corruption and scandal with three very different cops stepping into the limelight. First, there's Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), a rising star on the force looking to make a name for himself the right way, the moral way. Second, there's Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), a veteran of the force and a bit of a celebrity for his work with 'Badge of Honor,' a thinly veiled Dragnet rip-off. Don't be confused though, Vincennes is a good cop, even if he may take some shortcuts in his detective work. And last, there's Bud White (Russell Crowe), a brutish homicide detective not above planting some evidence or beating a confession out of a suspect.
Not always working together, the three officers are all involved in one way or another with a massacre at a little diner where 5 people, including a former cop, were murdered, apparently by three young black men wielding shotguns. But as the trio soon figures out, everything is not so cut and dry as it seems. It's nice to see a deeply-layered story like this that requires the viewer to pay attention to each and every scene, every line of dialogue. Even paying close attention, the story is so convoluted and full of twists and turns that it can be hard to follow. Never fear though, the last 30 minutes wraps everything up nicely with an impressive body count too.
Movies with a big ensemble cast have always appealed to me, and this is one of the best. Pearce, Spacey and Crowe all bring something different to their parts, cops who are very different but also very similar. They go about things differently, but they want the same results. Joining them in the cast is Kim Basinger who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her part as Lynn Bracken, a high-price callgirl involved with Crowe's White and the case they're all working. Often more recognized for her good looks than her acting chops, Basinger delivers a strong performance as a woman who ends up as a pawn in a huge conspiracy. Rounding out the cast are James Cromwell as commissioner Dudley Smith, Danny DeVito as Sid Hudgens, a paparazzi before there was TMZ, and David Strathairn as Pierce Patchett, a millionaire working with the movies, cops, drug dealer and prosititutes.
Racking up Oscar nominations in 1997 like crazy, but only winning two -- stupid Titanic -- this is one of those movies that has it all from casting to cinematography to a great understated score from Jerry Goldsmith. It's a throwback to the movies of classic Hollywood, the Golden Age of movies, albeit with a lot more language, cursing and graphic violence. LA Confidential has a professional feeling hovering around it that too often movies are lacking. Can't recommend this one enough, although the final scene does have a bit of a cop-out. Small potatoes I guess in the bigger picture.
L.A. Confidential <----trailer (1997): ****/****