By John H. Foote
The words of a dying man become his killers undoing, another man’s clue into evil, and the dying man’s last knowing laugh that he has exposed a murderer.
At the year end critics awards in 1997, one film swept the Best Picture and Best Director (Curtis Hanson) honours, and it was not Titanic (1997) which sailed to a record tying eleven Academy Awards.
The Best Picture Awards from the LA Film Critics Association, National Society of Film Critics, and the New York Film Critics honoured LA Confidential (1997), based on James Ellroy’s massive cop drama set in the fifties. Curtis Hanson won a slew of critics awards for the film as Best Director, a DGA nomination and one of nine Oscar nominations the film received. It would win just two, for Screenplay Adaptation and Supporting Actress.
The film was hailed by film critics, one of the most acclaimed American films of all time, yet shockingly was a box office failure, never finding its groove with audiences. To me that is stunning, because it is simply a smashing entertainment, a dense noir filled with remarkable performances and taut, perfect direction. It was a perfect merging of director with a subject matter, cast and story, a lightning strike that sometimes takes place through film history. Hanson made good films after this, the best being Wonder Boys (2000), but never again found the golden touch he had with this superb crime epic. His passing last year was a great loss, a wonderful director gone too soon.
LA Confidential (1997) was a genuine cinematic masterpiece, truly flawless in every way, in very aspect, top to bottom.
Set in the fifties, the picture is a sprawling, labyrinth of a film pitting the police against crime that reaches into the very halls of the police department. Hanson was brilliant in making Los Angeles as much a character in the film as any of the actors and actresses cast in the picture, from the neon lights of the movie houses and diners, the rain-soaked streets, the palm trees spurting up in the ghetto regions, encounters with Hollywood stars, the film is a grand epic about crime and Hollywood in Los Angeles in the fifties.
The city of angels is the city of dreams as wide eyed innocents arrive looking for stardom, fame, wealth and will find nothing but despair. Under the bright lights and glamour of the city exists a cruel under belly, a vicious world of crime where innocents are swallowed whole.
With crime boss Mickey Cohen going away to prison for tax evasion, his criminal empire comes up for grabs. The police department, under the watchful eye of Captain Dudley (James Cromwell), wait for the take over War to begin, and when it does it is in a diner called the Night Owl, where a massacre takes place. The massive story converges of course brining all the strands together, going places you did not expect, and no single character is what or who they seem.
The performances are, uniformly superb, though of course there are standouts. Kevin Spacey seems to channel the Dean Martin cool as Detective Jack Vincennes, that confidence that Martin oozed, a crooked cop who is also technical advisor to a popular TV show, which he lives for because of the star status it allows him. As he gets further into the corruption, and an innocent young man’s blood is on his hands, he remembers why he became a cop and why it mattered to him. His fate is alarming, shocking but the rueful smile he gives as he utters the name “Rollo Tomasi” tells us he knows he has solved the case from the grave. I loathe what Spacey is as a person, a bull queer, a bully, a sexual predator, but the man does the finest work of his career here.
Russell Crowe is outstanding as Bud White, a burly, violent cop with a keen sense of protecting women, it is an obsession with him. Used by Dudley he will team up with Exley (Guy Pearce) to bring down the corruption within the department. Pearce too is brilliant as a by the book young man who comes to realize sometimes you have to think like a criminal to get the bad guy. It was the beginning of both their careers really, though well known in their native Australia, they were not nearly as known in America. Crowe would of course go on to win an Oscar for Best Actor, as well as two other nominations while Pearce would emerge a reliable leading man and character actor.
Kim Basinger won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her sad eyed, winsome performance as a hooker working for a pimp who runs women that go through plastic surgery to look like movie stars. She is the small-town girl, who came to town resembling Veronica Lake but never made it in the movies. Sad, even ashamed, she falls hard for Bud, each aware of what the other is, the love is real just the same.
James Cromwell gives a sublime performance as an arrogant police captain involved in nefarious business including killing cops and drugs, his smug look almost daring the younger men to catch him, to bring him down. The performance reminded audiences of this extraordinary actors range, as there is no trace of the gentle pig farmer from Babe (1995) here.
Curtis Hanson captures to perfection the glitz of fifties Hollywood, but also the sleaze just below the surface as one world, that of celebrity collides with crime. Lurid, often haunting, the picture is among the greatest to emerge from Hollywood in the history of film.
The film has a lovely moment set in a club where Exley and Vincennes come upon mobster Johnny Stompamano, sitting with a prostitute who resembles Lana Turner. What Exley does not realize is it is indeed Turner sitting with the mobster, who in a few years would be killed by Turners daughter. Exley insults the star, while Vincennes quietly smiles at the mistake, identifying Turner, making clear it is indeed Lana Turner. Lovely moment, as art imitates life.
Hanson does a magnificent job making clear the lurid aspects under the lights of Hollywood, the rot and ugliness which exists under the beauty and glamour. The production design of the film, the costumes, cinematography and score help to plunge us back to the fifties.
A movie masterpiece.
For me it is criminal that Titanic (1997) became the Academy’s go to film in 1997, because in falling over themselves to honour a big studio film, they missed the chance to award a great film and gifted director. Titanic (1997) has moments of ghostly beauty, but is not near the film LA Confidential (1997) is.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.