My Favourite Films #21: L.A. Confidential

Screw this.

I’ve been trying to write about how awesome this movie is for two days! Writing a synopsis is impossible because there’s a whole lot going on. So instead, I’m doing it list style. If you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I’m talking about, if you haven’t stop reading right this second- go stream, download or buy this movie because I don’t want to spoil it for you.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you L.A. Confidential, victim of  one of the greatest Oscars injustices of all time- This lost to Titanic, despite being 10 times the film.

la con pos

1. The Plot Thickens, and then thickens some more

The story is genius, a twisted journey into the seedy underbelly of LA that lurked beneath the sunny idyllic image Hollywood’s Golden Age tried to create. Racial tensions, police brutality, corruption, blackmail, vice, organized crime, murder- this movie has a whole lot going on.

It’s hard to sum it up simply, although bless the IMDb for giving it a go:

As corruption grows in 1950s LA, three policemen – the straight-laced, the brutal, and the sleazy – investigate a series of murders with their own brand of justice.

And that’s pretty much it, but it’s far more than that- the three policemen go beyond their stereotypes and are played by three actors at the top of their game. Each man is shown to be a mix of the heroic and flawed, none is wholly good and each is tormented by their failings and weaknesses.

  • Straight-laced Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is the son of a well respected copper killed in the line of duty. Exley objects to the violence and scene-rigging that goes on and shops other cops for brutality. However, part of this is his own ambition for success and to surpass his father. He loses sight of the reason he became a cop for a time but realizes in the end.
  • Brutal Bud White (Russell Crowe) wants to be a detective working cases, but his reputation as a brutish thug means he is reduced to being nothing more than a heavy to intimidate thugs. He displays a fierce hatred of woman beaters leads to explosive outbursts of temper. After smelling a rat after a high profile killing he starts putting the clues together, surprising many with his brains. He also shows sensitivity and sweetness in his relationship with Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), a prostitute connected to the case who he quickly falls in love with. Throughout he still struggles with his temper.
  • Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), is a charming but sleazy narcotics officer who moonlights as an adviser for a cop TV show, and also arranges high profile busts with Sid Hudgens (Danny Devito), an unscrupulous tabloid editor. With pay offs and the glare of the spotlight Jack struggles to remember why he became a cop in the first place. Smart and with good instincts, Jack starts to have a crisis of conscience following the murder of a young actor involved in a blackmail scheme Jack engineered. His guilt over this leads him to work with Exley as they attempt to solve two cases.

As they investigate the murders, alone and in shifting sides they are forced to deal with betrayal, the corrupt system and fight for their survival. Allegiances are formed and they come to see the strengths of the others, despite their differences in approach and personal feelings for one another.

The bodies pile up as they sink deeper into a sea of corruption and intrigue.

2. Grit and Glamour

What the movie does brilliantly is capture both sides of the 1950s LA- the flashy glamour of Hollywood and the violent, grubby criminal underworld. The two cross paths with alarming regularity- a Hollywood actress is seen drinking with a mob heavy, Jack goes from a big studio party to a seedy motel murder scene and while most of the characters wear sharp suits and drive gleaming cars, these soon become bloodied and damaged.

There’s the poverty line grind of the ghettos to contrast with the opulence of the mansions. Director Curtis Hanson makes it all look sumptuous and cool, which makes the brutal bursts of violence all the more powerful. There’s no filters or slo-mo here, all the action is fast placed and bloody. It’s a masterclass in switching tones without jarring.

And the film captures the sense that even deep into the 20th century there’s still a sense of it being the Wild West, with the cops playing fast and loose with the rules and gun fight erupting with alarming regularity. One moment that highlights how dodgy the LAPD handled things is when White rescues a girl held as a prostitute. He fires on an unarmed man then produces a piece from his belt and fires at the door he’s come through to make it look like a clean shoot.

3. Guy Pearce

It’s hard to pick which one of the lead performances is the best so I’ll focus on all three, but let’s kick off with Pearce as Exley.

Pearce manages to capture the character’s irritating qualities of ruthless ambition and political maneuvering, and his “college boy” persona grates. However, the script is much cleverer than that and as the movie proceeds we see that much of this ambition is a man trying to get out of the shadow of a successful father, and that deep down Exley is decent.

He’s the only cop who wants to testify against the officers involved in the incident of police brutality which kicks off the film, and later on he’s willing to undo the case that made his name and earned the respect of his fellow officers when he realizes it’s been a stitch up.

Early on, a superior officer states that Exley has “the eye for human weakness, but not the stomach” and Pearce ensures that even after he gets out in the field and a little tougher, the violence never comes as easily for Ed as it does for the other characters. However, in a way this is the character’s more likable traits, he’s not vicious in a physical sense, even if he is coldly calculating during scenes like the interrogation.

Pearce takes what could be an annoying character and makes him human and flawed enough to keep the audience on side. It’s the story of a man who starts off honest, loses focus and becomes ambitious, before finally coming good and recognizing where he has been wrong in the past.

Pearce as Exley, not as clean cut as he appears

Pearce as Exley, not as clean cut as he appears

4. Kevin Spacey

Of the central three, Spacey’s Vincennes is probably the easiest to understand and least important, but Spacey still delivers a fantastic performance. Spacey manages to make Jack the right mix of sleaze and charm, he’s dodgy as hell but you can’t help but like the guy. Jack’s jaded and selfish, but he shows he has some sort of morality, and a great player of the game.

Spacey’s best work is in underplaying Jack’s crisis of conscience, able to put a face to one of the schmucks he plays for a blackmailing scheme he feels bad and tries to call it off, only to find the man dead. Other actors would have had Jack crack, but he stays in character perfectly, a look of disappointment and regret and the rest is all done rather quietly.

Jack Vincennes (Spacey) slick but sleazy

Jack Vincennes (Spacey) slick but sleazy

5. Russell Crowe

Spacey and Pearce are both on fine form, but for sheer raw intensity neither can match Russell Crowe’s beast-like performance as Bud White. Crowe completely convinces as a guy who would easily mess you up, there’s a constant sense of tension in the early scenes, as though Bud is constantly trying to control his raging inner demons.

Crowe carries himself like a brawler or prize fight, there’s no swagger to him just a sense of ruthless determination and violence. He rushes bull like into situations, driven not by the law but by his emotions and personal sense of justice.

Raw intensity- Crowe as White

Raw intensity- Crowe as White

While he handles the intensity and violence well, Crowe also deserves praise for capturing the characters softer side. The scenes where the direct and imposing White appears completely thrown when dealing with Lynn, and slowly lowers his guard and shows a gentle side which is rather sweet.

Crowe also delivers the film’s most heartbreaking moment. Hoping to get rid of him and Exley in one fell swoop, Lynn has slept with Exley, it being caught on camera. After seeing the photos a heartbroken White goes to Lynn’s. There’s a lot at play in this scene- it highlights White’s insecurities that he’s not as good as Exley, there’s the betrayal by the only person he’s relaxed around. Standing in the rain he ignores Lynn’s request to come inside, and then his temper flashes again and he hits her.

It’s a horrible moment, with White right up the line of becoming what he hates, and after striking her to the floor he raises his fist and Crowe does this wonderful, low key expression where White realizes what he’s done and in just a moment you sense the heartbreak transforming into self loathing for raising his hand to a woman. Bud just stands there before walking into the rain, totally broken.

It’s a testimony to Crowe’s ability that he can do so much with just a subtle change in expression, and no matter how many times I see the flick it always effects me. White’s hatred of himself outweighs any anger towards Lynn or even Exley, although he still goes after the other officer before working out that he’s been set up.

6. Black Humour

Despite the grimness of the subject matter there are flashes of jet black gallows humour throughout. From the lurid, sarky narration provided by Devito’s Hudgens or little lines thrown away in the face of death. There’s a particularly funny and human scene where Exley mistakes an actress for one of the prostitutes made to look like Hollywood stars, only for Vincennes to point out she’s the real deal. The duo leave the bar and then sitting in the car dissolve into giggles over Exley’s mistake.

7. Kim Basinger

Basinger won the best supporting actress at the Oscars for her role as Lynn, the hooker who looks like Veronica Lake. She’s got no shortage of sass and holds her own in the verbal sparring, throwing both White and Exley off their game. Basinger captures the character’s jaded cynicism as well as the glimmer of almost naive desire for a normal life, which she may finally get a chance of with Bud.

Her interplay with Crowe is charming, with both shaking off their seedy day jobs to act like a pair of teenagers in love. Their scenes together are lovely, moments of tenderness in the rest of the film’s canvass of violence and sin.

Basinger is perfectly cast in the looks department because she has an almost radiant quality in the film, gliding into the lives of the detectives, her beauty completely at odds with everything else. She draws the eye to her in every scene and it’s easy to see why the characters fall for her.

la con basinger

8. Re-watchability

I’ve seen this movie a half a dozen times, but every time I flick over and find it on TV I’ll sit down and watch and get sucked in totally. That is the mark of a great movie.

Any thoughts? You know what to do.

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One Comment on “My Favourite Films #21: L.A. Confidential”

  1. […] is that I couldn’t help be reminded of two other, superior, movies- The Untouchables and LA Confidential. Those movies had the same glamourous gangster look and tough policing, but invested far more in […]


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