LA Confidential arrived in 1997 almost entirely without fanfare. A film from a man (Curtis Hanson) probably best known, at that point, for taut melodrama The Hand that Rocks the Cradle – with most of his pre-1997 output easily characterised as forgettable; from a novel by James Ellroy (The Black Dahlia), and starring that guy from Se7en and The Usual Suspects, and released into UK cinemas on Halloween night – not the usual domain of the period crime thriller. The film was made on a far-from-lavish $35 million budget, and the twin leads – Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce – were relatively unknown in North America. It is also one of the finest films of the 1990s.
The film is set in 1950s LA, following Desk Sergeant Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), and the fallout from his willingness to testify against his fellow officers, in exchange for promotion to Detective. Officer Wendell “Bud” White (Russell Crowe), is a cop obsessed with violently punishing woman-beaters. The film’s centrepiece Nite Owl case, a coffee shop massacre, takes the life of his partner – a man fired due to the testimony of Exley. As the unlikely pairing investigate the incident, the level of corruption in the LAPD becomes ever clearer.
The first thought that occurred on this viewing of LA Confidential is its bravery in characterising two leads for whom it is almost impossible to root. Ed Exley is a by-the-book, rule-following LAPD Desk Sergeant, who has made virtually no friends in his seven years with the force, and is quick to turn informant on those breaking the LAPD rule book – a key plot point being his promotion on the strength of this willingness, when those around him will not testify. White is somewhat sympathetic, as he is presented immediately as a protector of vulnerable young women – beating men who employ violence against them. White is, however, both an extremely aggressive man, and his loyalties often misplaced: his antipathy to Exley born out of the willingness of the latter to testify against White’s partner – a man charged, entirely correctly, with the severe beating of an unarmed prisoner. Bud acts at all times before he thinks; thus leaving us with a leading man refusing to engage brain, acting off another leading man refusing to employ heart.
Peripheral characters are equally clouded by ambiguity. Kevin Spacey’s Detective Jack Vincennes displays an easy warmth lacking in the two leads, but his character is both open to bribes and extremely narcissistic, as he embraces celebrity through his role as consultant to TV show Badge of Honor. The character of Lynn Bracken (an Academy Award winning performance from Kim Basinger) is a high class prostitute complicit in the mistreatment of scores of naive young women, but she has warmth, intelligence, and exceptional empathy towards both leads. Exley and White’s boss, Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) makes strong arguments that the detective bureau can only be effective when it is willing to stretch the law to get a necessary result. Early in the film he asks Exley – who is keen to become a detective – whether he will beat a confession out of a person he knows to be guilty, and whether he would plant corroborating evidence on someone – and this is key – he knows to be guilty. Not since, perhaps, Reservoir Dogs had a mainstream Hollywood release so successfully found redemption in the irredeemable and snatched redemption from the outwardly decent.
All the while the film is narrated by Danny Devito’s Sid Hudgens, a writer of prurient gossip (“Off the record, on the QT, and very hush–hush”). This is a masterstroke, as the character never speaks with any pretence of sincerity; when he is telling us all about the glorious Los Angeles, the ability for every working man to own a fabulous home – not to mention the city being protected by the “greatest police force in the World” – it is clear that reality is an open secret. LA Confidential is a world inhibited – with the possible exception of Exley – by characters that know that the city they inhabit is not that of the image sold to the rest of the country and wider-world. That image exists only in lantern-jawed heroes of shows such as Badge of Honor. In that regard, the film is almost heartbreaking, as all of the main players know they are, essentially, inhabiting a fiction, and their job isn’t to make anything better; but rather to massage the image of the city, to manage and to soften the decline. Exley manages that knowledge by living in denial – following the rules and working as though corruption can be ignored or, at a push, rooted out: White manages by violently railing against the injustices of the world, as measured against his own moral code. That the two find common ground and a degree of friendship, is one of the film’s finest achievements.
Hanson continued to work until his untimely death at the age of 71, in 2016, making a range of work, perhaps the most interesting of which being the 2000 Michael Douglas-starring Wonder Boys, but is fair to say that he never rose to these heights again. In 2015, the United States Library of Congress selected LA Confidential for preservation in the National Film Registry, finding it “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”: not bad at all for a small Halloween night noir.