Gangster films have many things in common, but gangster films set in sunny Los Angeles have a special flavour of their own. It doesn’t matter if the main characters are gun-totting criminals or crooked cops, if the setting is Tinseltown then celebrity culture will be a factor. In the Curtis Hanson directed L.A Confidential (1997) a cop moonlights as an advisor for a popular TV show about cops, a publisher of a tabloid magazine sets up celebrity arrests, and a pimp has a group of prostitutes surgically altered to look like Hollywood actresses. Throw in a femme fatale into the mix and you have one delicious piece of film noir.
If I recall well this was a movie I saw on HBO with my parents a few years after it came out while we were living in South America. The content matter was somewhat mature for my age at the time, but if anything I had more trouble following the storyline since this is an over two-hour movie with lots of characters, plot twists, and betrayals. Like The Dude said, there are a lotta ins, lotta outs, a lotta what-have-yous. However I did understand this was a very morally grey story featuring characters doing bad things for slightly good reasons.
Based on a book by James Ellroy, the story focuses on essentially three main characters and many other supporting characters in 1950s Los Angeles. First off you have the by-the-book cop, sergeant Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), who wants to live up to his father’s reputation even if it means going after other cops. This goes against the way of Wendell “Bud” White (Russell Crowe) who has a habit of beating or killing suspects, especially if they hurt women. Then you have the wildcard, sergeant Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) who doesn’t mind becoming a celebrity with flashy cases and works on a TV show in his spare time. On the side Vincennes also gives information to Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), who publishes a celebrity tabloid called Hush-Hush, in order to be in the spotlight.
The three cops end up getting involved in thick web of corruption and murder involving the criminal empire of gangster Mickey Cohen (Paul Guilfoyle), a prostitute (Kim Basinger) who is made to look like actress Veronica Lake, and corruption within their own department. It is all set off by a massive shootout at a café called the Nite Owl, a very noir name for an establishment. Exley catches up with the supposed killers, earning him the nickname “Shotgun” Ed in the process and making him a hero in the department. However things are of course much more complicated than what they seem.
For their own separate reasons, Exley, White, and Vincennes dig deeper into the case, and start to uncover lies, corruption, and rotting corpses. There is solid character development along the way, from the idealistic Exley realizing things aren’t always black and white, to Vincennes deciding to do some actual police work. There is a good scene between the two when Exley asks Vincennes why he decided to become a cop. The man honestly can’t remember. They also talk about Rollo Tomasi, the name Exley gave to his father’s unknown killer, which later becomes a major plot point that helps identify the movie’s surprise villain.
Amid all the shootings and twists, there is also time for a love triangle of sorts between the violent White, the straight arrow Exley, and the sultry Veronica Lake lookalike Lynn Bracken. This is one of Basinger’s most memorable roles, which has her playing a woman who knows she is beautiful and doesn’t have a hard time making men fall for her. When interacting with White and Exley she says exactly the right thing to get the same result even though she is dealing with two very different cops.
With its very thick script, written by Hanson and Brian Helgeland, L.A Confidential can be revisited multiple times in order to fully understand who was doing what and who was lying to whom at what time. It is also very interesting to see it again 20 years later as it was the big Hollywood breakthrough for Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, but sadly bittersweet since Hanson died last year. As far legacies go, directing a classic in the L.A noir genre is not bad at all.