L.A. Confidential (1997, Curtis Hanson)


The thing that I always immediately think of when I’m reminded of this movie is Kim Basinger’s front door. Good heavens, that is a crazy front door. But never mind that. Noir is a touchy territory, one of many director Curtis Hanson has shown himself capable of handling with unnerving ease. L.A. Confidential is a smart, tight, stylish, smarmy bit of Hollywood-Babylon mythology soaked in 1940s black & white nostalgia but unmistakably the product of ’90s “glory in death” professionalism. It’s built in self-promotion: a slick, cynical movie about slick, cynical Hollywood made by the very people whose bedrooms it’s invading. Beautiful. Just beautiful.

The complex story revolves around a robbery gone wrong, a local celebrity tabloid called Hush Hush, corrupt police and non-corrupt police, and the conflation of law enforcement with the glitter of Tinseltown. The three major roles are filled by Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce and Kevin Spacey; all three are excellent, but Crowe in particular is probably at his best here. Andrew Sarris compared the emotional pain he manages to exhibit in his convincingly brutal, vindictive part to James Cagney in Love Me or Leave Me, and it isn’t a stretch to see the legacy of such a piercing classic beneath the blunt, trashy fog of James Ellroy’s story and novel.

A personal note: this is likely the very last film that I watched enough to just about commit it to memory; I was so taken with it — with the characters, the performances and the mechanics of solving the mystery, and before I had even seen most of the famous films it riffs on — that I watched it three times in a matter of days when it was released on VHS (!). There are a half-dozen or so films I once knew by heart, all dating from childhood or early adolescence, but when I started to watch movies with more regularity and diversified my access to them I inevitably stopped dwelling on particular titles for quite so long. So it’s hard to deny that I feel a certain bias in favor of L.A. Confidential even though I admit that the third act is starting to look goofy as the years pass.

Nevertheless I still think this is pitch-perfect in atmosphere and performances and probably is in some ways the last gasp of a genuine sense of old-world Hollywood sleaze. Of course, Hanson is too infatuated with said sleaze to make it really as lurid as it’s likely supposed to be, but what a blast all the same. The degree to which the film seems conflicted between worship of its imagery and a just undercutting of glamorized crime is more interesting to me than the moral weight attempted by the vast majority of crime dramas. It’s so “movie,” you know? Which is great. (Crowe’s Bud even says something about Technicolor at one point, and note the Bad and the Beautiful marquee.) Jerry Goldsmith’s music in particular sings out as a haunting signal of an expired, creaky but somehow beautiful sensibility. And one particular twist late in the film still gets me, I must say.

[Contains portions of a brief review from 2006.]

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