by Daniel Suddes

L.A. Confidential (1997)  Directed by: Curtis Hanson. Screenplay by: Brian Helgeland and Hanson. Based on the Novel by James Ellroy. Produced by: Arnon Milchan, Michael Nathanson, and Hanson. Starring: Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Guy Pearce, James Cromwell, Danny DeVito, and Kim Basinger. Oscar Count: 2 (Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. Also nominated for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Picture, Best Music, Best Editing, and Best Sound)

It was a tall order to adapt James Ellroy’s sprawling novel into a film. Much of the satire has been eliminated, which is the source of criticism amongst Ellory fans. But what is left is more than good enough for an examination of illusions in art and human nature. Each of the three main characters (Bud White, Ed Exley, and Jack Vincennes) each continuously cross the line between hero and villain. I am not really sure if the film wants certain characters to be one or the other. Maybe the point is that Hollywood constantly views life and authority in such blanket statements. But the characters are far too complex and morally bankrupt after years of committing violent acts that they cannot be considered heroes, even if their intentions are good.

Take Bud White, for example. The other two main characters seem to be the same throughout the film, without having their views challenged. White has to transform from the dumb muscle to an actual detective. It is apparent that he hates people who abuse women, for reasons that are not revealed at first. Even so, this seemingly core part of his character is able to be shaken and, by the end of the film, he is practically unrecognizable. Still, he is capable of doing horrific things to people in the name of “justice” (he says so himself after shooting an unarmed man and covering it up). These questions are usually not explored in modern action films. The heroes are allowed to get away with everything because audiences know that they will (gruesomely) kill the bad guy in the end. L.A. Confidential does not justify the characters violent actions. They are a symptom of something far deeper.

The film has also been noted for its technical expertise and knowledge of film noirs of the past. The action scenes in the films (particularly the end shootout) are as violent and visceral as have ever appeared in any film. The camera work is fluid (particularly the night owl scene) as is the opening montage. The film manages to convey the feeling of an old pulp novel. Every scene is quick and staccato, like the language of a Hammett novel.  Yes, it is “violent” but this is because traditional noirs (and the feel good time that the film takes place in) was supposed to be clean and free from trouble.  Seeing the shocking truth is more The creators of Mad Menclearly watched this film with envy and have tried to copy as much of its style as possible. Yes, the film may feel like a TV miniseries, but each scene does play into the other and each moment manages to convey important information that may be missed on first viewing. This is a film that will have to be seen many times to understand the full impact it is trying to convey.

But the film has attracted so much attention since its release because of its human touch.  Each of the many characters in the film (according to IMDB, there are 80 speaking parts in the film) feel complex and layered in a way that few epics can match.  Though Bassinger won one of the film’s only Oscars, every performance in the film deserves recognition.  Indeed, two of the other leads would win the top prize within the next five years (Guy Pearce is still the unfortunate holdout), perhaps because this film left a lasting impression upon all viewers. L.A. Confidential builds a complex character arc for each, with a thoroughly satisfying conclusion.


The best scene in the film is the interrogation scene of the Night Owl suspects. The above video is only a small part of that scene, but the idea is still present.  It demonstrates everything that the audience needs to know about the two main characters. Exley is trying to exude confidence by manipulating the suspect’s minds. White goes for physical violence to get quick (but sometimes undesirable) results. The rest of the film, in terms of the character’s arcs, is built from this scene. Both men try to take the place of the other (with White becoming a detective and Exley trying to assert his masculinity through violence) but both are ultimately unsuccessful. The men are trying to put up a heroic act, but are slowly becoming villains.

Did You Know?: Pierce Patchett’s escort service, where the courtesans have plastic surgery to look like movie stars, may be based on reality. Mickey Rooney mentions such a brothel in his autobiography, as ievidence for this service has ever been found.


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