Review: L.A. Confidential (1997)

Review: L.A. Confidential (1997)

This blog post is a part of September’s Genre Guesstimation over at MovieRob’s blog. Thanks for letting me participate!

L.A. CONFIDENTIAL should have won Best Picture for 1997. Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of the James Ellroy novel about corruption and greed is one of my favorite movies ever made, and as such I will be struggling to not turn this post into the Chris Farley Show.

Why do I like this film so much? It really comes down to two things: a terrific ensemble cast and the ability of Hanson and co-screenwriter Brian Helgeland to adapt a mammoth novel into a film that actually works.

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Looking back now, it’s amazing that such a film would have been green-lit with the cast that was selected. Remember, in 1997 Russell Crowe (Wendell “Bud” White) was still a relative unknown aside from his (incredible) performance in ROMPER STOMPER. Likewise, Guy Pierce (Ed Exley) was still a few years removed from his turn in MEMENTO (2000). Add in the fact that both actors, hired to play members of the Los Angeles police force, are Australian, and you have an added variable that makes two of the three main cast choices nothing short of major gambles.

Note: the third casting choice is also problematic, but more in light of recent events. At the time, the choice of Kevin Spacey to play the celebrity detective Jack Vincennes was inspired, and his performance is typically excellent. That said, I understand the difficulty some people will have in watching this film now. I’m not going to weigh in on any of that here, since it all comes down to individual opinions. Instead, I will attempt to keep my focus on things that happen on screen. I respect the readers’ decision either way whether or not they are able/willing to do that themselves.

In addition to the main three, the rest of the cast is equally excellent. Danny DeVito is at his most Danny DeVito-ness as smarmy tabloid reporter Sid Hutchens. James Cromwell walks a fine line between acting almost fatherly at times and supremely menacing at others. David Strathairn is excellent as the mysterious Pierce Patchett. I could go on and on down the list. Ironically, the actor who leaves the smallest impression is the only one who was honored by the Academy. And that’s not to say that Kim Basinger does a poor job, she is actually quite good as well.

However, all of these performances wouldn’t mean much if not for the excellent script (and direction) that they are given. The source novel is an incredibly dense piece of fiction, with dozens of intricate plot lines woven together (for example: the Buzz Meeks plot is MUCH bigger in the book). In their adaptation, Hanson and Helgeland made the crucial decision of jettisoning almost anything that doesn’t involve the trio of Vincennes, White, and Exley.

In recrafting the story in such a way, Hanson and Helgeland also did something rather remarkable: they created a story in which all three of the major protagonists are unlikable—one could even make the case that all three alternately play roles of protagonist and antagonist. Over the course of the film, each does reprehensible things to a degree, yet all manage to come around to a general sense of decency by the end.

Go back to Jersey, sonny. This is the City of the Angels, and you haven’t got any wings.
— Captain Dudley Smith

It’s a testament to the skill in which the screenplay was put together that all three characters are given believable arcs throughout the story. Additionally, the secondary characters all feel real as well. Aside from film noir cliches like the grumpy coroner (who I imagine was purposefully written as such), all are three-dimensional and act in believable ways that add to the film, and the dialogue is chock full of noir-isms that add to the overall feel of the film.

The Music

As with any good film noir, the music in L.A. CONFIDENTIAL plays a crucial role. In fact, the soundtrack here is especially noteworthy in that it relies not only on the score by Jerry Goldsmith, but also on a significant number of soundtrack cues. Both work extremely well in the film, and it’s hard to imagine the movie working as well without either of them.

The opening bars of “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” by Johnny Mercer help set the stage as much as Danny DeVito’s voice-over.

Other stand-out songs like “Hit the Road to Dreamland” by Betty Hutton and “Wheel of Fortune” by Kay Starr are perfectly chosen to carry various montages throughout the film.

Of course, another major player here is the score composed by film legend Jerry Goldsmith. Capturing a feel similar to his classic score to CHINATOWN (1974), Goldsmith’s use of brass elevates the film noir aspect of the movie. His main theme is excellent, though a close listen will reveal an opening melody that is VERY reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein’s ON THE WATERFRONT (1954). It’s best appearance is probably at the end of the film in the cue “The Victor” however these melodic strains appear throughout.

One place where Goldsmith largely separates himself from CHINATOWN is though his use of percussion to drive some of the more violent moments of the film. Nowhere is this more apparent in the “Bloody Christmas” scene, as the tension between police officers and prisoners builds slowly before boiling over.

While its snubbing at the Oscars has probably diminished its reputation among film fans (and the subsequent controversy around one of its stars hasn’t helped), L.A. CONFIDENTIAL is that increasingly rare film that rewards the audience for paying attention. Yes, it has a complex plot, but it’s a plot that makes sense and is well told, thus making it one of the finest examples of film noir in Hollywood history.

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