Saturday 4 June 2016

Movie Review: L.A. Confidential (1997)

A film noir masterpiece set in Los Angeles of the early 1950s, L.A. Confidential features a convoluted, multi-layered and character-rich story of crime, corruption and conspiracy.

The arrest and imprisonment of crime boss Mickey Cohen creates a vacuum at the top of the Los Angeles underworld. The police department tries to project a clean cut image through the sanitized television show Badge of Honor, but the reality is that the force, under the command of Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), is rife with corruption.

Three officers go about their careers with very different attitudes. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) loves the glamorous life and colludes with scum journalist Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), who publishes the Hush- Hush tabloid, to stage high profile narcotics arrests. Ambitious Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) has a strong moral compass inherited from his father, a deceased cop, and wants to be promoted to Detective Lieutenant as quickly as possible. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a hot head, quick to settle disputes with physical violence, but he also may be smarter than he looks. When a jail cell brawl gives the police department a black eye, Exley earns the wrath of his colleagues, and a promotion, by naming names.

Despite Cohen's arrest the department struggles to put a lid on increasing levels of street violence. Cohen's former associates are methodically gunned down, then a bloody multiple murder is committed at the Nite Owl coffee shop, with ex-cop and White's former partner Dick Stensland among the victims, as well as porn starlet Susan Lefferts (Amber Smith). A trio of Negroes is suspected of committing the Nite Owl murders and Exley becomes a hero for bringing them conclusively to justice.

But White pursues the Lefferts angle and uncovers a high-class pornography, prostitution and blackmail ring operated by businessman Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn), who forces his girls to undergo plastic surgery to resemble famous movie stars. White starts a steamy relationship with Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), the Patchett girl made to look like Veronica Lake. Exley starts to have doubts about the perpetrators behind the Nite Owl case, White starts to feel used by Smith, and Vincennes finally gets disgusted with his own attitude when a gay sting operation goes wrong. The three men still don't like each other but have to start cooperating to uncover what is really going on in the L.A. crime world.

Directed by Curtis Hanson, who co-wrote the the Academy Award winning script with Brian Helgeland, L.A. Confidential oozes style, substance and attitude. The adaptation of the James Ellroy book remains coherent despite the various narrative threads, multiplicity of characters, and various personal and hidden agendas. Curtis and Helgeland expertly weave together a hard-hitting story of uncompromising violence and sex that celebrates unique characters, avoids buddy movie trappings, and maximizes the value out of strong and opposing personalities forced to co-exist.

In focusing almost equally on three protagonist, none of them too likable, L.A. Confidential sets itself apart from most other crime films. Vincennes, Exley and White have quite a few more flaws than redeeming features, and it is fascinating to watch these men evolve, grapple with their own personalities and then overcome their mutual resentment just enough to cooperate, without ever giving up on who they are. Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce were relative unknowns but quickly establish a strong screen presence. Spacey is the perfect fit for the role of Vincennes, the cop possessing a perfect understanding of what Los Angeles is all about: show business and personal promotion first, everything else for sale.

Further adding to the potent mix of masculinity are Dudley Smith as the uncompromising police captain and Pierce Patchett as the shadowy businessman with a side business. Smith and Patchett are power brokers in a city intoxicated by power and sex, and they have long since learned that bending the rules under the veneer of respectability is the way to get things done.

Even minor characters prove to be important. Sleazy narrator Sid Hudgens stages and reports on arrests in equal measure, less interested in the news and much more interested in serving up scandalous headlines and photos. Former police officer Buzz Meeks and the disgraced Dick Stensland leave the force but don't leave the criminal world too far. Tough, big but dim, they both find themselves over their heads as the crime wave intensifies.

Not exactly a femme fatale but more of a willing victim with the irresistible weapon of seductiveness, Lynn Bracken is the one woman in a plot dominated by aggressive men. Kim Basinger is surprisingly effective combining unconstrained sexuality with vulnerability and was rewarded with the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award.

While it is a challenge to keep track of the many characters and plot complexities, the payoff is immense. As the threads come together, the film soars to heights of proficiency, the bodies are uncovered, the conspiracies revealed, the criminals and crime fighters emerge from the shadows and collide in an exhilarating climax.

The cinematography by Dante Spinotti captures a Los Angeles still growing into itself, baking under the sun, selling an image manufactured by the Hollywood dream factory but also consumed by corruption at every level. An evocative, jazz-infused Jerry Goldsmith score perfectly complements the ambiance.

Under the harsh sunshine and in the West Coast heat, L.A. Confidential is dark, moody, and magically compelling.

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