L.A. CONFIDENTIAL A
USA (140 mi) 1997 ‘Scope d: Curtis Hanson
Palm trees in silhouette against a cherry sky. City lights twinkle. Los Angeles. A place where anything is possible. A place where dreams come true.
In the manner of CHINATOWN (1974), perhaps the ultimate Los Angeles movie, or Robert Altman’s revisionist The Long Goodbye (1973), both tell their stories through anti-heroes, working class stiffs whose eyes are unwillingly opened, where the sordid history of Los Angeles is used as a backdrop. This is another contemporary crime thriller that walks us through the prism of 1940’s film noir classics, as we’re once again investigating the dark underbelly of the city of Angels, an angst-ridden urban world of crooks and detectives fighting over the spoils of criminality, where mob gang turfs run the drug trade, but all that’s up for grabs when they arrest Mickey Cohen on tax evasion charges, exactly like they did Al Capone, where there is a sudden void in who takes over the lucrative business. With mob figures continually getting axed, the public is led to believe there is a gang war taking place with various factions vying for power. But that’s only part of the cover up. In a mass exposé of the corruption within the Los Angeles police department, this film peels back the veneer of respectability, where the public image is one of professionalism, generated by Jack Webb as Sergeant Joe Friday in Dragnet (1951 – 59), one of the most popular police shows in American culture, where not only is the infamous theme song recognizable, but so is the opening narration, “The story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” With this reverence for crime stories ripped from the headlines, or coming directly out of the police blotter, people often mistake this cleaned-up, heavily sanitized version of police work as the real thing. This film proves otherwise. With absolutely brilliant performances by two unknown-at-the-time Australian actors playing LA cops, Guy Pearce is Edmund Exley, the zealously ambitious, overly self-righteous, yet intellectually repressed, thinking man’s cop, a kid following in his father’s footsteps, with a penchant for making headlines, always seeking accolades and glory, and what turns out to be not only the best performance of the year, but arguably his entire career (both performances were overlooked by the Academy), Russell Crowe plays Wendell “Bud” White, the brute with the heart of gold, a thuggish cop with a take-no-prisoners attitude whose bare knuckles prowess gets the better of every man in a physical confrontation, yet has a sweet spot for protecting vulnerable women victimized by domestic assaults, an inherent trait that endears him to the audience, making him the good guy even when he acts like the bad guy.
Securing 9 Academy Award nominations, but winning only two awards, one by Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson for Best Adapted Screenplay, the other by Kim Basinger for Best Supporting Actress, as the film was routed on Oscar night by James Cameron’s TITANIC (1997), winning eleven Academy Awards, tying with BEN HUR (1959) for the most in Academy history, another period film, becoming so exaggerated and over-inflated in the public’s mind, easily one of the most rewarded yet least deserving films of all time, one with little darkness and even less moral ambiguity. This is instead one of the better films about men and the underlying layers of repression, including repressed homosexuality, and how these male testosterone hormones are then unleashed, uncontrolled, onto the unsuspecting public in the form of police brutality, exposing cops who are so macho that they have to beat people to display their masculinity. There’s a lot of sick puppies on display here, disguised by their slick and smooth images put out by “Badge of Honor,” a Dragnet-like TV version of LA cops represented so effectively here by Kevin Spacey as Detective Sergeant Jack Vincennes (modeled after Dean Martin, the epitome of cool), a Narco officer providing technical advisement on the show, suggesting that the LA world of cops is a giant, twisted, sordid world of cover-ups, where the head honcho is Fascist Police Captain Dudley Smith, James Cromwell, so silky smooth and so evil that you’d think he’s an alien about to remove his rubber mask. Danny DeVito is Sid Hudgens, the de facto opening narrator, a dirt bag scum bucket who thrives on setting up celebrity victims, receiving tips from Vincennes, rewarding him with payola and the money shot arrest photo, digging out all the exploitive dirt for his Hush Hush sleaze-rag tabloid, with Kim Basinger as Lynn Bracken, the high-priced Veronica Lake look-alike call girl, while behind the scenes David Strathairn as Pierce Padgett runs the exclusive Fleur-de-Lis call girl market that rakes in the dough, living in one of those designer homes of opulence and luxury, with ex-cops serving as his personal bodyguard, where his wealth allows him to ambitiously aspire for more, building freeways that will make him even more millions. All of these highly developed characters (80 speaking roles) are on display with terrific ensemble acting performances cast in a swirl of atmosphere and intrigue in this 1953 fast-paced Hollywood thriller, a terrific screen adaptation written by Hanson and Helgeland from James Ellroy’s 1990 police novel, condensing eight featured characters in the book, each with and their own storylines, down to three, a trio of all-star cops mired in a labyrinth of graft and corruption in this sunshine version of film noir, where all that’s promised in this sunny Southern California landscape is revealed to be an unadulterated pack of lies. In an introductory opening montage of picture post card idealizations, we hear the sly sarcasm from Sid Hudgens, like a barker at a carnival show, where one can expect to get thoroughly fleeced, giddily counting his money while luring us into a rabbit hole of delusions. Behind these glossy images of paradise and palm trees, there are secrets hidden behind every palm tree.
Come to Los Angeles! The sun shines bright, the beaches are wide and inviting, and the orange groves stretch as far as the eye can see. There are jobs aplenty, and land is cheap. Every working man can have his own house, and inside every house, a happy, all-American family. You can have all this, and who knows... you could even be discovered, become a movie star... or at least see one. Life is good in Los Angeles... it’s paradise on Earth. Ha ha ha ha. That’s what they tell you, anyway.
Beneath the glitz and glamor, the film introduces us to various players within the Los Angeles Police Department, where whatever noble intentions may have led them to join the force has long since faded, as somewhere along the line their career paths crisscrossed with a cesspool of crooked cops and organized crime, where it was no longer about commendable service, just survivors, as the daily grind separates the weak from the strong, where you quickly learn not to rock the boat. Initially we witness the sheer brutality of Officer Bud White, seen early on sitting in his police car witnessing an explosive scene of domestic violence visibly occurring in plain view through someone’s front window, a modest home with lit-up Christmas decorations placed atop the roof. In one fell swoop, White pulls down the decorations in a crash, creating an outdoor diversion before pulverizing the man, who blindly walks outdoors completely stunned, wondering what the hell’s going on, placed under arrest as White makes sure the woman has a safe place to go. Next stop, the liquor store, as White and his partner are picking up the booze for an office party, where he coincidentally runs into Lynn Bracken making a similar run, with Padgett sitting in the car with another woman wearing facial bandages. Asking if she’s all right, Bracken tells him it’s not what he thinks, as she’s recovering from plastic surgery, but it’s nice to know an officer has a woman’s welfare in mind. At the office party, all hell breaks loose, with suspects brought in on a notorious drug case, where a few of the police decide to take measures into their own hands, starting a full-blown riot in the cellblock, all captured in photos on the front pages of the next day’s newspapers, which causes some embarrassment to the department. Enter Edmund Exley, a poster boy for reform and a man with blatant career ambitions to rise in the ranks, who refuses to play by the same corrupt rules and jumps at the chance to rat against his fellow officers, readily providing names of who started the fight to the district attorney, using it as an opportunity for advancement, with several men losing their jobs, where Exley is immediately ostracized as a traitor and treated like a snake in their midst, with no one wanting to go anywhere near him. Answering a call in homicide, which has all but been abandoned, it leads him to a headlines grabbing case, described as the massacre at the Nite Owl Coffee Shop, where a half dozen people were shot and killed, including the girl with bandages seen in the car, then piled up on top of one another in a rear bathroom, with the camera slowly following a trail of blood, all captured in a highly suspenseful atmosphere of dread. This case makes Exley’s career, first in the exemplary manner in which he interrogates the suspects, brilliantly turning one against the other, but after they escape, he goes after them like a man possessed, killing one of them in the process, where he is immediately promoted and commended with a medal of valor, though his actions are the exact opposite of professional, as these men were merely suspects (wrongly accused, it turns out), not convicted criminals.
What works so wonderfully in this film is a kinetic fluidity, showing a dexterity and ease as it moves from scene to scene, with detailed depictions of well-developed characters, who aren’t particularly likeable, but they are completely exposed to viewers as they each have an opportunity to redeem themselves, or fall further into a deepening morass of immorality. The cinematography by Dante Spinotti, who also shot Michael Mann’s HEAT (1995), is brilliant throughout, most of it shot in the full light of day, accentuating realism and period accuracy, like 50’s cars and clothing, also recognizable locations, while the music by Jerry Goldsmith is very period oriented, using his original orchestrations of sophisticated noir moods mixed with cool 50’s jazz along with pop tunes by Dean Martin and Bing Crosby. One of the wittiest scenes in the film involves Exley rousting a Lana Turner look-alike in a bar (The Formosa Café), referring to her as a prostitute, that gets a drink thrown in his face, as she turns out to be the real Lana Turner. Hilarious. This is a very heady project, showing exemplary attention to detail, while the story is nothing less than riveting, continually accumulating new evidence, with Exley second-guessing himself, realizing his initial inclinations on the Nite Owl case were premature, as black suspects were hung out to dry, taking the fall for the real killers who remain at large, and may actually be within the police force itself. One of the most exquisitely written scenes does not come from the book, but is an original addition, yet it becomes the heart of the film. Exley and Vincennes are discussing re-opening the Nite Owl case, which in effect is like an internal affairs investigation, as they’re forced to examine their own interior souls. Exley offers an off-hand explanation for why he became a cop in the first place, attributing it to Rollo Tomasi, suggesting it’s a name he made up as a kid to describe the man who killed his father, yet got away scot free, as his identity was never discovered. Surprisingly, Vincennes has a mysterious reawakening of his inner instincts, suddenly passionate about the case he was working in, knocking on the door of Captain Dudley Smith around midnight, asking him to recollect a case he once oversaw, whose initial response is priceless, spoken with that Irish brogue that beautifully rolls off the tip of his tongue, “Don’t start tryin’ to do the right thing, boy-o. You haven’t the practice.” What happens next is utterly unnerving, capturing the audience completely off-guard, yet in the chaotic shock of the moment, Vincennes amusingly mentions the name of Rollo Tomasi as one of his leads, a name later repeated to Exley by the Captain, a brilliant maneuver that identifies something only Exley could understand. While there’s an acceleration of people that suddenly turn up dead, it isn’t until late in the film that Exley and White intersect, each despising the other early on, holding entirely differing values, yet they need each other if they intend to break this case wide open, exposing cover-ups from the top, though it’s a masterstroke of writing how they eventually come together, as it’s all about a girl, namely Lynn Bracken, the one person who sees White for who he is and willingly embraces him, something Exley finds hard to fathom. But these two guys, once they finally start working together, elevate the film to new heights of inspired filmmaking, adding a new amount of unbridled tension that literally explodes into a final action sequence that does not disappoint, another fabrication that is not in the novel, becoming a literal baptism of fire, a memorable scene that plays out like a fog of war, as a moral line is definitely crossed in the long-dormant search for personal redemption, where violating one’s personal code of ethics to bring about a greater good suddenly falls into play, becoming yet another stepping stone for Exley, who knows deep within himself that he’s faced up to one of those unanswerable challenges in life, something few ever experience, where it’s a miracle that he’s even alive, with White riddled with bullets, alive, but a ghost of his former self. Perhaps only we in the audience know the truth about what happened, having a front row seat to it all, yet all else is eventually expunged from the official record as life goes on, becoming yet another saga in the unending examples where justice is truly blind.
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Life is Corrupt in Los Angeles
essay by Eva Kennedy, June 5, 2012
“Come to Los Angeles! The sun shines bright, the beaches are wide and inviting, and the orange groves stretch as far as the eye can see. There are jobs aplenty, and land is cheap… Life is good in Los Angeles... it’s paradise on Earth.”
Quite the opposite of the appearance of L.A., as described in the opening quote (shown above), L.A. Confidential tells the story of the reality of the dark, corrupt city of Los Angeles, in particular the Los Angeles Police Department, or LAPD. In addition to the corrupt police officers, L.A. contains sleazy reporters who publish pictures of well-known police figures having sex with prostitutes, and crooked pornography thugs who cut prostitutes to make them look like movie stars. In this particular story, Dudley Smith, a police captain, and Pierce Patchett, a prostitution business head, kill the leaders of the heroin ring in order to gain control over the heroin trafficking themselves. Throughout the movie, Dudley Smith murders anyone he thinks knows too much about this business on the side, including his fellow police officers and even partner, Pierce Patchett. He covers all this up of course, making sure that innocent citizens are blamed instead. However, police officers Edmund Exley and Bud White discover his secret, eventually murdering him and his fellow drug ring workers. Throughout the movie, Exley is seen wearing and not wearing his glasses. When wearing these glasses, Exley is able to see the corruption of the LAPD; when not wearing them, he is just another part in it.
Exley is introduced, wearing his glasses, and talking with Captain Smith about his desire to become a part of the detective bureau. Smith asks him, “…Would you be willing to beat a confession out of a suspect you knew to be guilty… Would you be willing to shoot a hardened criminal in the back, in order to offset the chance that some lawyer…” Exley answers no to all of his questions, saying “I don’t need to do it the way you did.” This displays that he can see the corrupt treatment of law breakers, or even innocent citizens, that LAPD partakes in, and he doesn’t want to be one of them. Dudley then says, “At least get rid of the glasses. I can’t think of one Bureau man who wears them.” But Exley doesn’t get rid of them, at least not yet, because he, unlike the other detectives in the bureau, can see the corruption that the other detectives have grown a part of.
Exley takes his glasses of for the first time when he gets promoted to detective. With this newfound title, he feels the power that the other corrupt police officers feel; he feels that he has the ability to walk on water alongside them. In his first case as a detective, the Nite Owl restaurant has a shooting, where all the customers present at the time were shot and killed. It is thought that this was due to a burglary, and there are three black suspects who already hold a police record. Exley, with his glasses off, along with another officer Jack Vincennes, find them in their drug dealer’s house, and shoot and kill the three suspects, along with everyone else inside the house. Without any proved evidence against the suspects, Exley kills them. And he kills all of the other people in the house who were unquestionably innocent. For his actions, Exley is rewarded the medal of valor, the highest bravery award in the LAPD. Exley is rewarded for his corrupt actions of killing every single person in that house. This reward made Exley’s career, it made him a big shot. From this point forward, Exley keeps his glasses off, joining in on the corrupt acts that are a necessity for the famous hot shots of the LAPD.
However, eventually the outcome of the Nite Owl case really bothers Exley. He discovers that the three suspects he convicted and killed weren’t actually responsible for the restaurant murder. With this knowledge, he puts his glasses back on, and talks to Vincennes about his discovered findings. He tells him about Rollo Tomasi, a made up name given to the man that shot Exley’s father and got away with it. He states, “Rollo Tomasi’s the reason I became a cop. I wanted to catch the guys who thought they could get away with it. It’s supposed to be about justice. Then somewhere along the way I lost sight of that.” After he received his medal of valor reward and took off his glasses, Exley turned a blind eye to the corruption of the LAPD, he “lost sight” of it. Exley declares that he wants to solve the Nite Owl case the right way this time, even if it means paying the consequences of shooting and killing innocent men and bystanders. With his glasses on again, he is able to see the corruption again, and wants to do everything in his power to try and stop it.
With his glasses still on, he and fellow police officer, Bud White, discover the truth about the Nite Owl restaurant incident. Captain Dudley Smith was responsible for the shooting. Another police officer, Dick Stensland, was dining at the restaurant at the time, who Smith thought knew too much about his heroin trafficking work, so he shot and killed him, along with everyone else at the restaurant to ensure that no one could know that it was him. With this knowledge, Exley and White start to hunt down Smith and anyone else who may be connected to this case. White asks Exley, “Why are you doing this? The Nite Owl made you. You wanna tear all that down?” And Exley responds, “With a wrecking ball. Wanna help me swing it?” With his glasses, Exley is able to see the disgustingly corrupt nature of Captain Smith, and will not let him get away with his actions any longer. Exley and White finally meet Dudley and his men, and both sides partake in a shooting spree against one another. Exley and White prevail, and it is Exley who shoots Captain Dudley Smith, with his glasses on.
Although Exley shot Smith and his fellow workers because he was determined to end the corruption of the LAPD, Exley turned into a corrupt police officer as well. He shot and killed several people, not even seeing or knowing who they were. He assumed them to be the bad guy, working with Smith, being just as corrupt as he. But that’s just it; he assumed all of it, just like he assumed the Nite Owl suspects to be guilty when they weren’t. Therefore, he stopped wearing his glasses for good. He is now just one in the crowd of corrupt police officers. And unlike White, who chose to leave the police force, Exley chose to stay part of the corruption.
With his glasses, Edmund Exley is able to distinguish between the two sides of L.A.: the sunny appearance and the corrupt reality. He is able to see that the appearance is not at all similar to the reality. However, without his glasses, his understanding of the reality of L.A and the LAPD disappears. With his one-sided view of just the appearance, he becomes a part of the corrupt reality without even realizing it. Exley can be compared to Nick Carraway, in The Great Gatsby. At first, both men can see the corruption in their worlds: Nick can see the corruption present in the East and West Egg, and Exley, in the LAPD. However, then both men get sucked into the corrupt worlds of both New York and Los Angeles. Nick chooses to go to the crazy parties of the rich world, continues hanging out with Daisy, Tom, Jordan, and Gatsby, and even dates a rich, corrupt woman, Jordan. Exley blocks out the corrupt world of the LAPD and becomes a part of it himself. However, eventually Nick is again able to see the corruption and see what it has done to him. Therefore, he leaves the corrupt world, and moves back to the Midwest. Exley, unfortunately, does not have this realization. He stays with the LAPD, joining its corrupt force.