‘L.A. Confidential’ retrospective: At 25, still the best neo-noir film of the latter 20th century
Kids today are so spoiled, with their Moonlights and Parasites and Nomadlands and CODAs winning Best Picture at the Oscars. Life seems so just and fair these days, for those who look to the Oscars to validate artistry over commercialism. If you ask anyone today to name the worst Best Picture snub of their lifetime, chances are most will point to the great disaster of 2005, when the melodramatic, shoulder-shrugging, forgettable Crash beat out Ang Lee’s poignant and gorgeous (but way too gay, apparently) Brokeback Mountain for the top prize, a turn of events which still prompts wails and gnashing of teeth. But, for those of us with a little more seasoning and can look back just a little further, there is no arguing that, by far, the biggest example of the Oscar for Best Picture going to the wrong film was in—no, not 1998, when Shakespeare in Love won over Saving Private Ryan, although I am with you there–1997, when the box office juggernaut Titanic won (pretty handily, I might add) over not only As Good As It Gets, which was only one of seven films in history to win both Best Actor and Best Actress, but over a gritty film noir set in Los Angeles in the ‘50s, called L.A. Confidential.
Starring two relatively unknown Australian actors and directed by a relative outsider (at least compared to James Cameron or James L. Brooks), L.A. Confidential had no chance going up against the beast of Titanic, a film that demolished all records in 1997, becoming a cultural phenomenon steamrolling everything in sight, including anything that tried to compete with it on an Oscar ballot (it won eleven of the fourteen Oscars it was up for). But, with the gift of time and perspective, most can now agree that Titanic’s utter domination at the Oscars was a classic example of voters being caught up in the swell and, if they had to do it all again, there is hope that their ballot would reflect artistry over box office, as there is little doubt, then and still now, twenty-five years later, that L.A. Confidential, one of the best films of the twentieth century, would take home the prize it so justly deserved.
But, alas, life and the Oscars are not fair, so L.A. Confidential, which did win for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress, joined the elite shortlist of “Best Pictures that didn’t win,” which includes Citizen Kane, Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Network, Cabaret, Dr. Strangelove, It’s A Wonderful Life, and The Wizard of Oz, not bad company indeed.
Director Curtis Hanson’s three films prior to L.A. Confidential had been the high-profile pulpy thrillers Bad Influence (1990), The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992) and The River Wild (1994); all three movies about psychotic villains tormenting nice, ordinary people. Hanson seemed to be planting himself firmly into being a genre director, and doing a pretty good job of it. So, when it was announced that Hanson would be directing and adapting for the screen (along with Brian Helgeland) a James Ellroy novel, most were probably expecting something in the same vein, strictly in the thriller genre, featuring heightened melodrama and beautiful bad guys. But a funny thing happened when Hanson and Helgeland got together. Ellroy’s novel L.A. Confidential transformed into something much deeper, much more complex and vastly more captivating than any standard genre picture, and the result became a film classic, one that now, twenty-five years later, is widely considered to be one of the best, if not the best, film of the ‘90s.
L.A. Confidential takes place in 1950s Los Angeles, and focuses on a Los Angeles Police Department that is rotting from the inside, rife with corruption, racism and brutality. Following a massacre at the Nite Owl coffee shop, three LAPD detectives unravel a massive cover-up and follow the evidence to reveal just how deep the corruption goes. Soaked in crime-noir atmosphere, the film also pays homage to the cultural, social and political moods of the time, as well as offering a less-than-glamorous perspective of Hollywood’s heyday, with starlets and scandals as cheaply and readily available as hookers and drugs.
According to Rotten Tomatoes’s current rating of 99%, L.A. Confidential is almost perfect. While I’m not sure where it could be missing that one percent, it’s probably better suited to the film to fall short of perfection, because L.A. Confidential is, in fact, a film about bucking the system and it would love nothing more than being certified as a cult classic. But L.A. Confidential is so much more than a cult classic. It is a crime noir thriller based on a best-selling author’s book, backed by a major studio (Warner Bros) and featuring some of the most gifted artists behind the scenes, including Oscar-winning composer Jerry Goldsmith and noted cinematographer Dante Spinotti.
Still, the studio had some issues with Hanson’s choice to cast two relatively unknown (at least in the United States) actors from Australia and New Zealand in the leading roles of detectives Ed Exley and Bud White, Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe. At the time, Pearce had only been seen by American audiences as flamboyant drag performer Adam/Felicia in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and Crowe was still an unknown Australian actor, although his performances in the Australian indie films Romper Stomper and The Sum of Us had gotten the young actor significant buzz. It wasn’t until American actor Kevin Spacey, fresh off his Oscar win for Best Supporting Actor in The Usual Suspects the year before, was cast as the third cop, did the studio breathe a little easier.
It certainly is difficult now to heap praise on a film that stars Kevin Spacey, but, at the time, Spacey was red hot and considered one of the finest actors of his generation. His performance as the smarmy, ethically challenged LA cop Jack Vincennes in L.A. Confidential is a master class in charming sleaze, a study of a character drowning in his own moral bankruptcy. It feels ironic now, considering the current real-life accusations against Spacey of sexual assault, to imagine Spacey playing anything other than a scumbag, but he still managed to imbue Vincennes with a tragic sorrow, embodying the film’s central themes of seeing the truth and facing the consequences of your actions.
While Spacey’s performance is notable in the film, when one thinks back to L.A. Confidential, there is no denying it is the performances turned in by Pearce and Crowe that serve as its twin towers. There is a rawness, a ruthless energy in each performance that still, to this day, stands among the finest of both lauded actor’s careers.
As the ambitious yet green Edmund Exley, Guy Pearce commands the screen with his intensity. Exley’s lack of social skills are made up for by his fearlessness, masking an underlying insecurity and desperate need to prove himself as more than the son of a legendary cop. Pearce plays Exley like a bull in a china shop, overeager and sometimes foolish in his choices. When the opportunity to solve the Nite Owl massacre is available, Exley grabs it, even though he is jumping into waters way too deep. The genius in Pearce’s performance is how he walks the fine line between insecure and overconfident, showing Exley’s inner battle between doing the right thing and achieving that notoriety he so desperately craves while coming oh so close to sinking in the quicksand of his own ambition.
As for Bud White, played by Russell Crowe, he is the complete opposite of Exley, a jaded, fading cop who had given up on himself years earlier. Bud is going through the motions now, serving as the muscle for his boss, played by James Cromwell, beating confessions out of suspects. But one thing Bud has never lost is his sense of loyalty and when his partner is murdered and Bud believes his death is somehow tied to the Nite Owl case, Bud is motivated to get to the bottom of it and revive that one last shred inside his hollow soul that still believes in being a cop.
When Bud starts pulling on the threads linked to the Nite Owl and to his partner’s killing, it leads him to Lynn Bracken, a high-priced prostitute who has had surgery designed to make her look like Veronica Lake in order to appeal to a very exclusive clientele. Bud is not only instantly attracted to Lynn, but her plight ignites Bud’s deeply-held promise to protect women. Even though Lynn insists she doesn’t need Bud’s protection, he still makes it his personal mission to keep an eye on her, and as their relationship develops, Bud’s hard edges start to soften and as the ice melts, he is re-awakened to his desire to be a cop again and joins Exley in following the Nite Owl leads, no matter where they may lead.
Crowe, who would memorably go on to have a massive career in Hollywood, earning a Best Actor Oscar in 2000 for his performance in Gladiator, is at his absolute best as Bud White, a blunt object with feelings. Much like Jack Vincennes, Bud has all but given up on himself, but Crowe is able to tap into Bud’s core of humanity and awaken it, ostensibly because of Lynn, but, more convincingly, because he comes to realize why he became a cop in the first place and stubbornly refuses to turn his back on it.
What works so well in the chemistry between Pearce and Crowe in this film is how their characters’ mutual stubbornness feed and complement each other. At first wanting to kill each other, both Bud and Ed quickly realize their yin to the other’s yang and decide to work together to fight a bigger evil. Selfish, stubborn reasons abound for each of them, but, together, they put it all aside to remind themselves why they fell in love with the job in the first place. Being a cop fills a gaping hole for both of them, and they understand that about each other.
For Crowe, the scenes he shares with Kim Basinger, who plays Lynn, are dynamic and delicate, and it is here where Bud becomes his truest, most honest self, and it is here where the film seeks its soul. Without the relationship between Bud and Lynn, L.A. Confidential would be just another violent, neo-noir thriller about cops, but in the relationship, the character of Bud White is developed into so much more and, in Crowe’s performance, the film rises above genre.
Basinger won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Lynn, an award that feels, in hindsight, more an honor for the film than for her performance, although she is really good. Also good is Danny DeVito as Sid Hudgens, the editor of a celebrity scandal rag, who loves to publish stories about movie stars getting busted. Sid is a product of his environment and understands that he has to work within the system to beat it, which is why he cozies up to the LAPD, and pays Jack to be his tipster. Sid is the embodiment of the cynicism of the time and the town and DeVito nails it in the best performance of his career. There is also a dynamic performance turned in by the always unsung and always underappreciated David Strathairn, who plays a morally bankrupt (who isn’t) but well-dressed pimp to the stars.
James Cromwell had a lot to do to overcome the persona he crafted in his star-making turn as the sweet and quiet farmer in the blockbuster family film Babe in 1995, for which he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, which is why his casting as the corrupt police captain Dudley Smith was so pivotal, both for the actor and for the film. Cromwell is perfect as he puts on the face to the public of the good cop living up to the obligation to protect the city from crime while secretly commanding a brigade of bad cops who railroad innocent suspects. Cromwell’s Smith makes for a perfect villain and even though he continues to have a long and prosperous career, it’s hard to imagine his role in L.A. Confidential being topped.
And then there’s the artistry of L.A. Confidential. When most conjure up images and moments from the film, they most likely involve some of Dante Spinotti’s gorgeous cinematography and Jeannine Oppewall’s evocative production design, re-creating 1950s Los Angeles with an elegance and an underlying seediness that reflects the duality of the city. It’s no surprise both were nominated for Academy Awards, as was composer Jerry Goldsmith for his brilliant score, which took inspiration from the classic Leonard Bernstein score from On the Waterfront. Goldsmith’s jazz-infused compositions serve as the perfect background, blended with just enough melancholy and darkly mysterious echoes to transport the audience into the exact right mood, place and time.
As for the late writer/director/producer Curtis Hanson, he delivered a near-perfect film in L.A. Confidential, and his well-deserved Oscar win for co-writing the adapted screenplay still stands to this day as one of the most deserving wins in Oscar history. Hanson and Helgeland’s script for L.A. Confidential made everything else possible, from the performances to the artistry, and his direction glued it all together, finding the right tone, bringing out all the nuance and delivering an entertaining and ridiculously well-made film.
L.A. Confidential was certainly a success, it made a significant profit at the box office, was nominated for nine Oscars, winning two, and launched the careers of two gifted actors, in addition to being universally lauded as one of the greatest films of the last century. But, for some reason, it still feels under-appreciated, and, as more time goes by and films from the ‘90s fall victim to recency bias, it behooves every film lover to keep L.A. Confidential alive, to keep making sure new generations of film lovers discover it, and appreciate the monumental cinematic achievement it is.
Warner Bros released L.A. Confidential on September 19, 1997. It is currently available to rent on Apple TV and stream on Roku Premium.