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Saturday, April 26, 2014

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 35 - L.A. Confidential (1997)

L.A. Confidential (1997; Warner Bros.)
Director: Curtis Hanson
Writers: Brian Helgeland,  Curtis Hanson
Starring: Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito, Kim Basinger

Curtis Hanson’s film adaptation of James Ellroy’s novel is an exploration of politics and corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department in the 1950’s.  Focusing on the investigation of a multiple homicide at a diner, the story reveals the investigation of this brutal crime from four perspectives: A sleazy tabloid writer and his LAPD celebrity detective ally, a crooked cop, and a young idealist.  The murders seem to lead in many different directions including a group of teens who abducted an Hispanic girl, a corrupt cop’s illicit dealings and a brothel specializing in celebrity lookalikes.  

Putting a simple label on the plot of L.A. Confidential, I would say it is a study of how corruption leaves death in its wake as it corrupts as many as it can in its path.  It shows us how the few corrupted by power can bleed everyone beneath them for more of that power and how even the most just men can be seduced by the promise of a medal, a photo-op and a prestigious label.  However, the story is much more complex than a simple few sentences can describe.

The interweaving stories are set into motion after a detective named Dick Stensland is identified as a victim in the dining shooting.  Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) is a young cop who wants to keep the investigation on the up and up, but he is constantly in conflict with the violent and trigger happy Bud White (Russell Crowe), Stensland’s former partner.  White finds himself caught up in a part of the investigation leading to an illicit escort service through a romance with a call girl named Lynn (Kim Basinger).  A media-hungry celebrity cop named Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) uses his considerable connections to pull his weight in uncovering who was truly behind the killings.  Misdirections and dead ends abound in the investigation, as the officers are constantly deceived by everyone, including people in their own department.  Ultimately, the investigation leads to answers that get Exley and White in deeper than they had ever expected.

The film benefits from a considerable supporting cast including Danny DeVito, David Strathairn,  James Cromwell, Matt McCoy and Ron Rifkin and while it does tend to meander about quite a bit, it has a solid screenplay.  The branching plotlines tend to veer a little too much at times and there are way too many characters, many of which ultimately have little-to-nothing to do with the actual plot.  Obviously attempting a film Noir style, L.A. Confidential misses many of the key elements of Noir.  The narration is told to us through the perspective of tabloid writer Sid Hudgens, who is not directly involved with any but one of the major characters, so we are not able to get the traditional Film Noir introspection on first impressions of characters and events.  In fact, of the numerous characters in the film, there are several that could have made a better narrator than Hudgens and there would have still been issues with perspective.  

Needless to say, L.A. Confidential is not a perfect film.  It is an entertaining movie though, full of elements you would expect from a mid-20th century mystery film but with much more sex, drugs and violence thrown in the mix.  It has a rough edge to it that makes it cast a shadow over the idealized 1950’s of classic cinema and the performances of Pearce, Spacey and Crowe make up for any plot detours and slow pacing.  It is a solid procedural piece told with an aggressive style and lot of polish.  

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