Confidential was a key magazine of the 1950s, a monthly that sold millions of copies with its seamy exposes of celebrity drugs and sex. I found it on my dad’s night table and read it breathlessly, the stories of reefer parties, multiple divorces, wife-swapping and “leading men” who liked to wear frilly undergarments. The magazine sank in a sea of lawsuits, but it created a genre; the trash tabloids are its direct descendants.
Watching “L.A. Confidential,” I felt some of the same insider thrill that “Confidential” provided: The movie, like the magazine, is based on the belief that there are a million stories in the city, and all of them will raise your eyebrows and curl your hair. The opening is breathlessly narrated by a character named Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), who publishes Hush-Hush magazine and bribes a cop named Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) to set up celebrity arrests; Jack is photographed with his luckless victims, and is famous as the guy who caught Robert Mitchum smoking marijuana.
It’s Christmas Eve, 1953, and Bing Crosby is crooning on the radio as cops pick up cartons of free booze to fuel their holiday parties. Back at the precinct headquarters, we meet three officers who, in their way, represent the choices ahead for the LAPD. Vincennes, star-struck, lives for his job as technical adviser to “Badge of Honor,” a “Dragnet”-style television show. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is an aggressive young cop who is willing to accommodate the department’s relaxed ethics. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is a straight arrow, his rimless glasses making him look a little like a tough accountant–one who works for the FBI, maybe.
Ed is an ambitious careerist who wants to do everything by the book. His captain, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), kindly explains that an officer must be prepared to lie, cheat and steal–all in the name, of course, of being sure the guilty go to jail. Capt. Smith likes to call his men “good lads,” and seems so wise we can almost believe him as he administers little quizzes and explains that advancement depends on being prepared to give the “right answers.” “L.A. Confidential” is immersed in the atmosphere and lore of film noir, but it doesn’t seem like a period picture–it believes its noir values and isn’t just using them for decoration. It’s based on a novel by James Ellroy, that lanky, sardonic poet of Los Angeles sleaze. Its director, Curtis Hanson (“Bad Influence,” “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle”), weaves a labyrinthine plot, but the twists are always clear because the characters are so sharply drawn; we don’t know who’s guilty or innocent, but we know who should be.
The plot involves a series of crimes that take place in the early days of the new year. Associates of Mickey Cohen, the L.A. mob boss, become victims of gangland-style executions. There’s a massacre at an all-night coffee shop; one of the victims is a crooked cop, and three black youths are immediately collared as suspects, although there’s suspicion that someone else is behind the crime.
We meet a millionaire pornographer named Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn). He runs a high-class call girl operation in which aspiring young actresses are given plastic surgery to make them resemble movie stars; one of them is Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), who, it is said, has been “cut” to look like Veronica Lake. Bud White, the Crowe character, tracks her down, thinking she’ll have info about the coffee-shop massacre. (“You’re the first man in months who hasn’t told me I look just like Veronica Lake.”) At this point, perhaps an hour into the movie, I felt inside a Raymond Chandler novel: not only because of the atmosphere and the dialogue, but also because there seemed to be no way all of these characters and events could be drawn together into a plot that made sense. Not that I would have cared; I enjoy film noir for the journey as much as the destination.
But Hanson and his co-writer, Brian Helgeland, do pull the strands together, and along the way there’s an unlikely alliance between two cops who begin as enemies. The film’s assumption is that although there’s small harm in free booze and a little graft, there are some things a police officer simply cannot do and look himself in the mirror in the morning.
The film is steeped in L.A. lore; Ellroy is a student of the city’s mean streets. It captures the town just at that postwar moment when it was beginning to become self-conscious about its myth. Joseph Wambaugh writes in one of his books that he is constantly amazed by the hidden threads that connect the high to the low, the royalty to the vermin, in Los Angeles–where a hooker is only a role from stardom, and vice, as they say, versa.
One of the best scenes takes place in the Formosa Cafe, a restaurant much frequented in the 1940s by unlikely boothfellows. Cops turn up to question Johnny Stompanato, a hood who may know something about the Cohen killings. His date gives them some lip. “A hooker cut to look like Lana Turner is still a hooker,” Exley tells her, but Jack Vincennes knows better: “She is Lana Turner,” he says with vast amusement.
One of the reasons “L.A. Confidential” is so good, why is deserves to be mentioned with “Chinatown,” is that it’s not just plot and atmosphere. There are convincing characters here, not least Kim Basinger’s hooker, whose quiet line, “I thought I was helping you,” is one of the movie’s most revealing moments. Russell Crowe (“Virtuosity” and “Romper Stomper”) and Guy Pearce (“The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”) are two Australian actors who here move convincingly into star-making roles, and Kevin Spacey uses perfect timing to suggest his character’s ability to move between two worlds while betraying both (he has a wonderful scene where he refuses to cooperate with a department investigation–until they threaten his job on the TV show).
Behind everything, setting the moral tone and pulling a lot of the plot threads, is the angular captain, seemingly so helpful. James Cromwell, who was the kindly farmer in “Babe,” has the same benevolent smile in this role, but the eyes are cold, and in his values can be seen, perhaps, the road ahead to Rodney King. “L.A. Confidential” is seductive and beautiful, cynical and twisted, and one of the best films of the year.