Reviews

LA Confidential: Special Edition

4

No need to stay hush-hush about this modern masterpieceā€¦

 

James Ellroy is chortling. His agent has just sold the movie rights to his novel, LA Confidential, and Ellroy can’t believe his luck. “I laughed like hell because we thought this fucker was movie-adaptation proof,” remembers the crime writer of the momentous occasion. “It was big, it was bad, it was bereft of sympathetic characters. It was un-constrainable, uncontainable and un-adaptable.”

Ellroy was bang on the money – at least as far as Warner Bros were concerned. When Curtis Hanson arrived at the studio with a completed screenplay, it might as well have had “pass” stamped all over it. It was period, multi-character and film noir – a genre that hadn’t made a dime at the box office since the ’40s. Warners said “No, no, no”. But Hanson didn’t listen. He found an investor who was willing to bankroll it and LA Confidential became a studio/indie hybrid. “This movie,” recalls producer Michael Nathanson, “was willed to get made against all odds.”

Dark city, dark hearts

It’s criminal that it’s taken 12 years for LA Confidential to receive a Special Edition. The film’s a modern masterpiece. Don’t just take our word for it, either – eminent American critic Andrew Sarris agrees: “It has the size and scope of a classic,” he decrees on the mash-up yak track shared with almost everyone in the cast and crew (but not Hanson). “It’s the Citizen Kane of American noir movies.”

It’s also the best Ellroy adaptation to date. Skillfully filleting the novel – a book its hardboiled author modestly calls “the single most ambitious historical crime novel ever” – the screenwriters ripped out every page that didn’t feature one of the three main cops. “We wanted to preserve the people not the plot,” confesses Brian Helgeland, who co-wrote with Hanson, in one of the many excellent Making Of featurettes on the second disc. Even the exacting Ellroy was amazed with the result – the beast had been tamed.

The film isn’t neo-noir but retro-noir – a throwback that doesn’t want to dissect the films that inspired it, just recreate them. It scratches beneath the glamorous surface of ’50s LA to reveal the sewer beneath, filled with gangsters, tarts and Danny DeVito’s tabloid muckraker (“Off the record, on the QT and very hush-hush”).

The police aren’t much holier: thuggish bruiser Bud White (Russell Crowe), careerclimber Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) and slick Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), a movie star among cops. Each is morally compromised in different ways. Early audition tapes show how effortlessly the two Aussie actors, then unknowns, slotted into their parts. Crowe’s wounded bear anti-hero burns into the memory, bouts of violence giving way to childlike tenderness with Kim Basinger’s femme fatale hooker. Pearce’s mannered Exley reveals new layers with each viewing, as square-jawed honesty peels back to reveal a man teetering on the brink of moral cowardice.

In contrast, Spacey’s Vincennes is an old hand, a cop thoroughly corrupted by working in Hollywood as a consultant on TV show Badge Of Honor. Like everyone here, he grows and develops, which is why his fate still shocks. It’s brilliantly played, the actor’s subtle misdirection (that spilled coffee) blinding us to the danger. It’s a scene worth dying for. “I couldn’t believe the way that you see the light go out in his eyes,” recalls Hanson. A behind-the-scenes featurette reveals the actor’s trick.

Whatvever you desire

In August last year, Los Angeles Times writers voted LA Confidential the best film set in the city in the last 25 years. Good call. It easily files alongside Chinatown, Mulholland Dr and The Player, capturing the city’s vibe perfectly. “One of my favourite themes is the difference between image and reality,” says Hanson. It’s all here – movies blending with reality as hookers are cut to look like screen sirens.

LA Confidential is a hall of mirrors, a film reflecting a time and place that itself was a fractured reflection of the movies. It’s there the moment Basinger’s superbly realised femme fatale, a high-class prostitute styled after actress VeronicaLake, slinks across the floor. She’s both an echo of every great noir siren and yet her own woman.

The joy of LA Confidential lies in its storytelling’s effortless zip, the depth of its characters. Its art lies in how it invites us into a world, Hanson’s meaty production design doing much the same as Ellroy’s muscular prose. This is a world that envelops you like a trenchcoat. It’s not as easy to do as it looks. Check out the ill-judged pilot episode of a planned LA Confidential TV series bundled on the second disc, where Keifer Sutherland’s Jack Vincennes is adrift among threadbare sets. It seems wrong – tacky and plastic instead of lived-in and authentic. Proof that if you really want to see the demons haunting the City of Angels, there’s only one place to look.

Jamie Russell

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