This is a particularly heinous entry into my Never Seen collection, since there’s never been anything to suggest I wouldn’t absolutely adore the film. Alien 3 has a bad reputation, and I always got the impression I’d seen all of A Fish Called Wanda’s funny bits in snippets (nearly right), but L.A. Confidential is a critically acclaimed neo-noir with a couple of my favourite actors either well in their prime, or at least at their breakthrough – either way, they are all in their element.
The film opens in 1950s Los Angeles after the fall of druglord Mickey Cohen, with tabloid journalists soaking up the Hollywood glamour of the crime world as it collides with the violence (and often corruption) of the police department. The film focuses on three of the city’s finest: Guy Pearce’s Edmund Exley, strictly by-the-books but a fantastic interrogator, with ambitions of living up to the legacy of his father, a legendary LAPD detective; Russell Crowe’s Bud White, a brutish officer with a very short temper, but one with a deep-seeded mission to protect women from the abuses so prevalent in their society; and Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), a cucumber-cool narcotics detective with celebrity status due to his involvement with a television cop show, and his relationship with Danny DeVito’s tabloid journo, who bribes him for headline-news busts.
After a racially-aggravated incident which saw White and Vincennes demoted, and White’s partner Dick Hensland sacked due to testimony from Exley (who was then promoted), the men are thrust into a bloody multiple homicide, one of the victims being Hensland. White, recognising one of the other victims, is led to a shady millionaire (David Strathairn) that runs a celebrity-lookalike call-girl agency, and one of his call girls, Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger). Meanwhile, Exley leads an operation (with Vincennes in tow) and on a tip catches a trio of black males – the important bit here being catches, not kills. When the men lead the police to a rape victim who lies about the men’s whereabouts at the time of the killings, Exley discovers secrets that the police department would rather have put down than brought to justice.
It’s a typical noir in many places – Basinger’s femme fatale, a grisly murder, corruption and backstabbing – but its strength lies in its execution, and the performances from the lead characters. Crowe has done the angry shtick enough (on film and in real life) that it’s become something of a type for him, but I’ve never see him do it better here. The vulnerability in his eyes that is often hidden behind his violent tirades maintains the audience’s sympathies, even in the first hour when he’s often at complete odds with the apparent protagonist, Exley. Or maybe it’s because Pearce injects the right amount of smarm into his performance to not make Exley seem completely heroic either; I remember reading that James Ellroy, author of the source novel, thought the film made him far too noble a character. He may strive for proper justice, as in the murder case, but he’s perfectly happy to twist the truth if he gets a promotion out of it.
These two characters spend most of the movie at odds – White hating Exley for snitching on his partner, Exley finding White’s violent nature unacceptable. The first hour is dedicated to the characters investigating the case in their own ways, and while the case is “solved” when the runaway suspects are shot down by Exley, there’s a bitter taste to the victory. But then, with a few choice words from the rape victim, a glance at a photograph and a made-up name, the second hour turns everything on its head. Exley discovers the suspects, while guilty of another crime, didn’t commit the murder; White notices his partner was dating a call-girl associate of Lynn’s, which leads him to a body underneath the late call-girl’s house; and Exley tells Vincennes that his quest for justice is fuelled by “Rollo Tomasi”, the name he made up for his father’s unidentified killer, and a symbol for the guys who get away with it. The body White finds is revealed to be an ex-cop, Leland Meeks, an old partner of Hensland, who seemed to be involved in a drug deal of some sort.
This has been the film so far, swimming in plot twists and new discoveries, and to carry this to the end risks an anti-climax – I’m recalling De Palma’s The Black Dahlia, another Ellroy adaptation, as a recent example. But L.A. Confidential’s final act takes all of the built-up rage and momentum of the film and lets it run wild. Vincennes visits Captain Dudley Smith (a wonderfully slimy James Cromwell) with the information, who turns around to shoots him to silence him, for he is the mastermind, etc etc. Vincennes’s last act is a name – “Rollo Tomasi”, as he dies smirking. Smith, thinking this is some other witness, takes the information to Exley. Unearthing information that links Smith with the drug operations of Meeks and Stensland, and also the murders, Exley and White team up in the face of Smith’s coverups. It’s a thrilling sequence, but it’s suffice to say, they succeed. However, the higher-ups decide to cover up Smith’s dealings so not to ruin the department’s reputation – and Exley takes advantage.
The film isn’t a flashy affair – the visual tabloid sections with DeVito’s narration* offering the most stylised sequences, the rest of the film shying away from the cinematic fancies that can distract from the narrative – The Black Dahlia again being a good example. Not that the visuals were dark and gritty; it looked absolutely stunning, always framed to unshowy perfectly – there’s a scene where Vincennes makes sure photographers capture a bust with a film premiere in the background. Overall, it’s a thoroughly satisfying film in a genre that often strives for the bittersweet, even if it doesn’t quite exert the notions of true justice that Exley was chasing. I could’ve gone a whole other film with the partnered White and Exley, such an entertaining duo when they come together. Indeed, when White is shot during the climax I’d expected him to have died, but it’s revealed he survived, and leaves for Arizona with Lynn. A cheap thrill to bring him back (as anyone who’s seen Kiss Kiss Bang Bang will understand) but one that contrasts all the brutal deaths that went before it, leaving the film on an amusingly feelgood conclusion.
* Danny DeVito should narrate everything.