LA Confidential is the Ultimate Detective Thriller

I love stumbling upon a classic film years after its release. Off the record, on the Q.T., and very hush-hush, L.A. Confidential is a movie I watched a few times when it hit theaters in 1997 but only now fully embraced. Maybe my tastes have changed over time, or perhaps as a kid, I was just an idiot. Either way, I didn’t fully understand Curtis Hanson’s sublime film noir on my first watch.

Then again, I might have been in denial.

In 1997, I was still very much in love with Tinsletown with aspirations to start a movie career. I watched the Oscars, read Entertainment Weekly and People Magazine, and tuned in to late-night TV to catch a glimpse of my favorite superstar on the talk show circuit. Hell, I drove to Los Angeles to see Keanu Reeves on Jay Leno, which provided my first glimpse at the phony facade propped up in front of the entertainment industry.

L.A. Confidential offers a sneak peek into the seedy underbelly of 1950s Hollywood, something I wasn’t ready for then.

The film follows three police officers — ambitious playboy Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), fierce justice seeker Bud White (Russell Crowe), and straight shooter Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) — as they investigate a series of crimes tied to the Los Angeles Police Department.

That is merely the plot on a superficial level.

Boiling under the surface lingers a world decimated by corruption and moral ambiguity, headed by corrupt government officials, police officers, and Hollywood’s elite. The deeper our heroes traverse into the muck, the more they realize they’ve been played for fools by the very society they sought to protect. The opening credits explain as much:

Hanson, who co-wrote with Brian Helgeland, based on James Ellroy’s sprawling novel, tackles heady themes about corruption, power and control, class and social issues, and media influence. The result is a brooding morality tale peppered with snippets of stylized action, sly humor, terrific dialogue (“A hooker cut to look like Lana Turner is still a hooker!”), and robust set pieces. It’s brilliant, albeit insightful, entertainment.

A recent rewatch also conjured this vital thought: Kevin Spacey is/was a damned good actor. Say what you will about Spacey, the man, but the actor effortlessly commands the screen, weaving in and out of scenes with cool and calculated precision. Spacey’s Vincennes practically runs away with the picture.

On that note, Vincennes, I think, functions as the audience surrogate. The bright lights of his ambition hide the murky world lingering in the shadows. In a standout moment from the film, he confronts a moral dilemma as he orchestrates a situation involving an unsuspecting young individual and a corrupt senator (Ron Rifkin) on behalf of his morally dubious Hush-Hush magazine editor friend, Sid (Danny DeVito).

The setup goes south, leading to the kid’s death, a consequence that compels Vincennes to rethink his life’s purpose.”Why did you become a cop?” Exley asks him. A pause. “I don’t remember,” Vincennes solemnly replies.

Spacey is superb in the film, particularly in the back half when he falls into depression. Ellroy even remarked Spacey portrayed “some of the best self-loathing I’ve ever seen on screen.” He’s not wrong. Spacey deserves more recognition for this performance.

As noted by Roger Ebert, “The film’s assumption is that although there’s small harm in free booze and a little graft, there are some things a police officer simply cannot do and look himself in the mirror in the morning.”

Crowe’s Bud White likewise enjoys a unique character arc, morphing from a morally corrupt police officer willing to compromise the rules to attain justice to a righteous detective who takes a firm stand against the systemic corruption that has corrupted the police force. I like how Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) manipulates White throughout the picture, an action that ironically contributes to his change of heart. White isn’t a dumb brute, even if his disdain for wife-beaters often results in mindless violence.

Lying amid his rough demeanor is a lonely man looking for a purpose, something he finds in the arms of Kim Basinger’s equally broken Lynn Bracken. Both characters manage to overcome the attempts of their superiors to manipulate them and, as a result, become stronger individuals together.

Basinger won an Academy Award for her performance, something I didn’t understand in 1997. Yet, perusing a few Reddit boards, one contributor explained that her role requires subtle work viewers may not pick up on first viewing: “There’s Veronica Lake and there’s Lynn Bracken. Then there’s Lynn Bracken with Pearce Patchett, Lynn Bracken with Ed Exley, and finally the real Lynn Bracken with Bud White. They carry themselves differently and even speak differently.” Interesting.

Then there’s Ed Exley, a by-the-book newbie attempting to live up to his father’s name by any means necessary. He carries Vincennes’ ambition and White’s tactical instincts, but only as they pertain to the LAPD. Over time, he realizes that complex shades of gray often obscure justice, and unquestioning loyalty to authority figures may not always yield favorable outcomes.

I love the interrogation scene during which Exley assaults a trio of suspects with his intellect.

Each storyline in the movie L.A. Confidential is so captivating that it could be a standalone film. The way every plot point flows together seamlessly is nothing short of a miracle. When coupled with the not-so-subtle subtext regarding Hollywood’s sleazy culture — at one point, you see a young child resembling Shirley Temple sitting atop an older man’s lap — and the overabundance of political corruption, it’s hard not to view the picture as a potent cautionary tale masterfully revealing the pitfalls that accompany the pursuit of fame and ambition.

It also features one of the all-time great climactic shootouts, which is merely a bonus. Plus, Jerry Goldsmith’s score is a banger.

Now, a more pressing question: did L.A. Confidential deserve the Oscar for Best Picture over Titanic? It’s complicated, but I still say no. Both deserved the statue, but James Cameron’s epic gets a slight edge due to its broader scope and pop culture relevance. Hell, the recent rom-com Anyone But You devotes a lengthy joke to Titanic — nearly 30 years after its release! For that reason, I’d still give the trophy to Cameron, but L.A. Confidential, at the very least, shares the podium.

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