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Non-Review Review: L.A. Confidential

We’re currently blogging as part of the “For the Love of Film Noir” blogathon (hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren) to raise money to help restore the 1950’s film noir The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me). It’s a good cause which’ll help preserve our rich cinematic heritage for the ages, and you can donate by clicking here. Over the course of the event, running from 14th through 21st February, I’m taking a look at the more modern films that have been inspired or shaped by noir.

Over the next week, I’ll be taking a look at the more modern films inspired and descended from film noir. It’s been tough trying to classify them all, to narrow down what I wanted to cover in the seven days that I had. In many cases, I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to successfully link the films back to the original genre. Trust me when I say that I had tonnes of films on my shortlist to look at as part of this event – many of them were on and off the list at various times as I attempted to include a bit of variety or range. However, there was one modern film that was always near the top of list of films that I wanted to cover – L.A. Confidential.

Best Buds?

L.A. Confidential was, for many people, the film that should have won the Best Picture Oscar in 1997, as Titanic swept the boards. Being honest, I’m not sure whether I would have given the award to this lavishly produced period thriller, or whether I would have gone with As Good As It Gets. I suppose that we should all be thankful that I am not trusted to make such decisions. Still, it’s a film that is often overlooked, constructed with a genuine love for the cinema of the forties and the fifties.

Los Angeles seems to be the ideal setting for these sorts of neo-noir films. You’ll notice quite a few of the films I’m looking at will come from there. I am not entirely sure why that is, but I have my theories. Perhaps the “city of angels” is more fascinating if not all those angels have polished halos. Perhaps the bright sun makes it more difficult to see the cess forming in the storm drains. Perhaps its the fact that the film noir aesthetic seems linked to the Western (with its themes of nihilism and fatalism, and narratives about doomed individuals crushed by the world). However, it just seems like a perfect fit.

Spacey is a little short with DeVito...

L.A. Confidential is a loving tribute to these classic films. Set during the golden age of Hollywood, it offers us a look at law enforcement in the city during a time of great change and upheaval. “Los Angeles will finally have the police force it deserves,” an official brags, as the city prepares to enter the new age. Tying in with the planned (but never developed) third act of the proposed Chinatown trilogy, we get to see the opening of the famous Los Angeles freeway that will get drivers from “downtown to the beach in 20 minutes.” Truly we are at the cusp of the modern age.

And yet, beneath the polished exterior, we see some disturbing truths. Police turn a blind eye to the murder of gay men (dismissing them as “homo-cides”) and a lot of department polices stink of racial profiling (against the Latino or African American communities). It’s a world where most police officers need to make compromises in order to get by. The three questions that Captain Dudley Smith asks Ed Exley reveal a lot about the practices of the time. “Would you be willing to plant corroborative evidence on a suspect you knew to be guilty, in order to ensure an indictment?” he asks, as if taking moral philosophy 101. The next question is “Would you be willing to beat a confession out of a suspect you knew to be guilty?” And, finally, “Would you be willing to shoot a hardened criminal in the back, in order to offset the chance that some…lawyer…?”

A nightly dose of Ex(ley)...

The clear implication is that you need to be able to make “those sorts of choices” in order to be a police officer in Los Angeles during the fifties. This is a world where former police officers serve as hired muscle for local crooks, and the only visits from law enforcement that the area’s largest pimp has to fear are those “soliciting for police charities.” The cops serving wilfully turn a blind eye to corruption. After a race riot in the cell block (deemed “Bloody Christmas” by the press), it’s next to impossible to find an officer to testify. “They think silence and integrity are the same thing,” Exley explains.

Our lead characters aren’t necessarily any better. Although Ed Exley isn’t quite as crass or violent as the men who surround him, he’s still “a political animal” who is constantly trying to figure out the best angle to play in his own favour. Bud White earns the respect his Captain for his “adherence to violence as a necessary adjunct to the job.” Both men are haunted by their fathers, and fear turning into them – Bud’s father beat his mother to death; Exley’s father was killed by a random purse snatcher. much like the police force itself, if they are to progress, they must embrace change and come to terms with their pasts. Not necessarily the easiest thing to do.

Trying to mak Vincennes of it all...

Director Curtis Hanson effectively captures the glamour of the period, especially with the creepy undertones. “I use girls who look like movie stars,” a sophisticated pimp explains in his mansion, perfectly underscoring the way that classy and seedy so cleverly intermingle in Hollywood. Jack Vincennes, the cop who advises on the show Badge of Honour, makes sure that his two suspects arrested for marijuana possession both turn to face the camera before he hauls them off. The only way that it could be more grimly fascinating would be if the pair were communists.

Th movie works quite well because it captures the tone of the original films. There’s a sense of class in the design of the film, and it looks like the most fabulous period piece you could imagine. The cast is formidable, serving to introduce mainstream audiences to Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, with Kevin Spacey as reliable as usual here. I’ve always had a soft spot for James Cromwell, who has great fun as Captain Dudley Smith (“Smith with an S”). Most of the attention on the film seems focused around Kim Bassinger as the movie’s sultry femme (although perhaps not quite fatale), Lynn Bracken. I have to confess that I never really saw anything especially interesting in her portrayal of Bracken, but perhaps this is because Bracken is relatively underwritten. I’m not quite sure.

Playing the angles in the city of angels...

The film looks gorgeous, and it captures a lot of the spirit of classic noir (save maybe the ending, which is only a tad more upbeat than usual). If you’re looking for a classy modern noir, you certainly could do a lot worse than this lovely little film.

If you enjoyed this post, please make a donation to the blogathon if you can. All funds go to help restore the classic The Sound of Fury, a very worthwhile cause and a wonderful contribution to make to the arts. Click the image below to donate.

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7 Responses

  1. I think the reason this film isn’t remembered as well as it should be–and I agree with you that it was stunning, more so to me than Titanic–is that it doesn’t show well on TV. Of course, maybe with high-def big screens at home, that will change……

    • I think the pacing is screwed up by ad breaks (even more so than most other films). It doesn’t really flow smoothly from one plot point to the next, and is more about ambience and mood, with clever ideas developed in the background. That sort of thing hurts when cut up into thirty-minute chunks – but seems epic when watched all together.

  2. Many people have regarded Los Angeles as a perfect location for noir since Raymond Chandler set his stories there. The putrid reputation of the Los Angeles Police Department has contributed a lot of flavor.

    • Did the LAPD have a putrid (or, for the time, especially putrid) reputation dating back before the Rodney King (and associated issues) in the nineties? I’m really not up to date on my history, so I’d love to hear more.

      • Darren: Their reputation goes way back. See Clint Eastwood’s “The Changeling,” based on the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, for an example from the 1920s. Look at Luis Valdez’ “Zoot Suit” for an example during the Zoot Suit Riots in the 1940s. There was a long history of graft, corruption, racism, and all sorts of other problems. Perhaps they weren’t worse than the police of departments of other cities, but Los Angeles was so much bigger that there were more opportunities.

      • You make good points. I guess I’d always assumed there were the same sorts of tensions in any city with a large number of ethnicities – Northern Ireland was notorious for a long history of sectarian abuses by law enforcement, so I guess I thought the same principle could have been applied anywhere – but, now that you mention it, I’m actually familiar with most of those exmaples.

  3. Joe: You left out one more movie – Training Day.

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