Even though mainly a crime noir and an action flick, Curtis Hanson's "L.A. Confidential" (1997) can also be described as a movie about movies. It may not have much to do with other flicks from this category such as "Sunset Blvd." or "Cinema Paradiso" but it is just that in a unique way. The picture takes place in the 1950s Hollywood and it deals with several characters longing to live that city's dream under their own, peculiar circumstances. Some of them try to dress, act and talk like movie stars, others even date girls who have been cut to look like such (and together they watch the real thing on screen in order to complete the illusion). No wonder when a secondary player is seen with a real star of the screen (Lana Turner), others instantly become confused. I've always found odd that such opposite-looking films like the dim "Heat" and the bright "L.A. Confidential" could both be photographed by the same man (Dante Spinotti). Still, how else could our feature be shot but in the gloriously bright Technicolor that was the staple from the cinematic period it depicts?
"L.A. Confidential" deals with two seemingly independent events: the arrest of mobster Mickey Cohen with the subsequent power vacuum in drug dealing circles, and the investigation surrounding the grisly Nite Owl Murders, a midnight massacre at a local coffee shop that appears to be a simple case of a robbery gone wrong. Four suspects are quickly arrested for the carnage but their guilt feels a bit forced. Once they're shot while trying to escape, the case is declared closed but common links between the two cases gradually emerge. An unknown, shadowy presence works to silence those who come to grips with them.
What best defines James Ellroy's story is an endless flow of characters whose eventual depth and complexities would seem unimaginable at first. This applies particularly to the three main protagonists: Edmund J. Exley (Guy Pearce) feels like the typical kid genius with little awareness of the ways of his world, but soon enough he proves to be a political animal who'll go to surprising lengths to climb the ranks in the force. We are later stunned to discover he's willing to demolish all he's accomplished "with a wrecking ball" in order to finish off the criminal who invoked "Rollo Tomasi," the childhood ghostly figure who murdered his policeman father. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is much more of a cool playboy than an officer and it is quite obvious he's never gotten his clothes dirty in his lifetime. In fact, the only moment early on when he shows some grit comes when a rioting Mexican gets a bloody stain on his impeccable tie and shirt. Bud White (Russell Crowe) appears like a frightening muscle guy with very little brains, whose actions derive from the trauma of having witnessed his mother being murdered by his alcoholic father. Eventually he turns out to be somewhat of a gentle giant, and a fiercely loyal one at that. As the movie progresses, more and more layers are revealed to these characters and none of the three end up being who they first appeared.
Director Curtis Hanson provides each of them with their own pivotal scene where their true natures are revealed, and they are all first-rate. First, there's the flashy sequence where Exley masterfully plays good/bad cop to a group of suspects by himself, putting on display talents no one would expect from someone his age. We also have the subdued image of Vincennes staring profoundly at a $50 bill, a sight that helps us understand that his empty existence comes from having settled for a life of low standards ("Don't start trying to do the right thing, boy-o. You haven't the practice"). Finally there's the incredibly high-pitched moment when White is able to restrain himself from obliterating a despised foe whom in his mind he absolutely had to kill. At last he allows his conduct to be guided by reason and a sharp detective mind that no one previously knew was there. The irony in this unforeseeable, ever-evolving plot is that those of them who initially showed little regard for the law (White and Vincennes ) are now forced to act in its accordance while the one who always followed it strictly (Exley) ends up breaking it in the worst ways. They were first defined by personal ambition, working separately in every imaginable direction and their search for justice turns them into an effective unit composed of previous mortal enemies.
Manipulation is a core theme throughout the movie, with most players at various levels doing whatever necessary to put others in their pockets. There's Pierce Patchett (David Straitharn) whose "Fleur de Lis" call girl service was created for just that purpose. We also have Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito) and his "Hush, hush" tabloid, happily spreading ugly headlines that contrast the squiggly clean face that high ranking police officials desperately try to place on their corrupt force, full of drunks on the take. Behind them all is the revelation of an evil figure whose existence (one of the best surprises the picture has to offer) only becomes clear late in the game and whose awareness of other characters' weaknesses and ambitions, serves to pit them against each other, leaving him only a few loose ends to tie. My favorite moment in the film comes when he makes his essence evident by placing his latest enemy in the path of another player's irrational fury and he casually relishes the moment by uttering the best line of dialogue imaginable: "I wouldn't trade places with Edmund Exley right now for all the whiskey in Ireland."
The main factor that makes "L.A. Confidential" a truly great movie is its remarkable sense of unpredictability. From the ambiguity of the plot to the ever-changing nature of the complicated characters, it's hard for me to come up with another entry where I've spent as much time changing my mind about things previously accepted, be it the nature of the characters, their guilt or innocence and even the very nature of the film. This is the rare film that no two people seem to describe the same way as it is always transforming itself, starting as a period-piece mob story, turning into an intriguing whodunit and ending as a simple love story. When the main case is seemingly solved, we are more than satisfied with its resolution so it's rather unexpected that it leads into a deeper, perverse plot that makes increasing sense. Curiously, there's always a feeling that the picture is working just fine, even during moments when we not quite sure what precisely is going on and we find myself arriving at erroneous conclusions. The individual sequences by themselves are exciting enough to keep you hooked. Think of the great chase scene involving a running suspect inside/outside an elevator, where Exley's bloodied face makes the further display of the outcome unnecessary, and the terrific shootout at the Victory Motel that allows us to buy that a couple of characters could actually outsmart and defeat dozens of vicious enemies with just a few rounds of ammunition. In a feature with this much uncertainty, it's only fitting that such a seedy world should provide two good and sincere people who genuinely fall in love, never mind the fact that one of them is a hustler (Kim Bassinger's Lynn Bracket) and the other a cop who staged a suspect's suicide early on the movie.
"L.A. Confidential" handles more characters and information than just about any other entry in memory, in a level that brings to mind "Inception" (2010). Both are bound to take several viewings before the audience can fully digest all of their details. Incredibly, Christopher Nolan's feature may be the easier one to grasp as it deals with a more straightforward script, including dialogue that works simultaneously as instructions for the viewer. "L.A. Confidential" plays fair with the rules that it sets for itself unlike other contemporary entries with complicated plots such as "The Usual Suspects" (1995) and "Flightplan" (2005). All three cases painted themselves into a corner with premises/twists and turns that made believable resolutions extremely difficult to achieve. Among them, only "Confidential" is able to do so without cheating thanks to a plot that's like a giant puzzle where the countless pieces miraculously fit. The film provides a detailed depiction of the inner functioning of mob circles but it never tries to be realistic about them like Martin Scorsese's works, and it doesn't share their ring of truth. This is not to say that it should have tried to be more like them as it represents the opposite, but equally valid approach. "L.A. Confidential" portrays the grandiose, cinematic version of the genre where characters have to talk as if they are emulating movie stars.