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Deee Essay, Research Paper

L.A. Confidential


Directed by Curtis Hanson.


Kevin Spacey as Jack Vincennes,

Russell Crowe as Bud White,

Guy Pearce as Ed Exley,

Kim Basinger as Lynn Bracken,

James Cromwell as Dudley Smith,

David Strathairn as Pierce Patchett,

Danny DeVito as Sid Hudgeons,

Graham Beckel as Dick Stensland,

Simon Baker Denny as Matt Reynolds,

Gene Wolande as Ray Pinker,

Matt McCoy as Brett Chase,

John Mahon as Police Chief,

Paul Guilfoyle as Mickey Cohen,

Ron Rifkin as D.A. Ellis Loew,

Paolo Seganti as Johnny Stompanato,

Amber Smith as Susan Lefferts,

Gwenda Deacon as Mrs. Lefferts.

Screenplay by Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson.

From the book by by James Ellroy.

L.A. Confidential

has won a

Reviews and Reflections Award

for Outstanding Picture.

Curtis Hanson has won

as Outstanding Director.

Kim Basinger has won

as Outstanding Supporting Actress.

Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson have won

for Outstanding Adapted Screenplay.

Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, and Kevin Spacey have won

for Excellence as Actors.

L.A. Confidential starts as an expos?, told by scandal magazine columnist Sid Hudgeons. It’s stylized, and also stylish, to the point of being a gently funny self-parody. It’s so determinedly immersed in 50’s Los Angeles that we’re always partly enjoying the time travel to this tasty milieu and partly laughing at the film and ourselves for our extravagance.

At the same time, L.A. Confidential is something much more serious, a post-morality play in shades of dark and light. The novel on which it is based is the third volume in James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet, quintessentially expressing the author’s vision, at once bleak and promising. It is a journey to the end of a night of near total destruction. The only thing that’s left afterwards is what the characters are able, of themselves, to salvage. But what they are able to salvage is something of value, a life maybe better than the daydream that they started out to achieve.

Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson have earnestly taken on the job of adapting James Ellroy’s book. It is inevitable that they have simplified it. A book can have a more intricate plot than a film because it is experienced under different circumstances: the reader is able to stretch it out over several days and, when puzzled, can turn the pages back. Even for a novel, the plot of Ellroy’s book is complex, piling up layer upon layer of incident and explanation to build a sense of total apocalypse.

My impression of the strategy Helgeland and Hanson have used is that they have translated the book to a film by stepping its tone back one notch to match more closely to that of the book’s predecessor, The Big Nowhere, the less extreme second volume of Ellroy’s Quartet. Thematically, the main characters undergo instructively different versions of the transformation undergone by Buzz Meeks in that book. The film is still a good dose of genuine Ellroy. Although there are very many changes in plot details (including a complete change in the character of Buzz Meeks) and some of these are drastic, there is no betrayal or sanitizing. I am very impressed. Ellroy himself is on record as saying that he thought the book was “movie-adaptation-proof” until Helgeland and Hanson proved him wrong.

Following a brief introduction, the action takes place within a relatively short period and deals with the LAPD’s investigation of the “Nite Owl Killings.” The plot seems complex as it unfolds chronologically within that period, but becomes quite neat by the film’s end when we have learned all the antecedent events. Comparatively, the book covers a much longer period, Christmas Eve 1950 to April 1958, and although we are afterwards able to explain its plot as well, it is less straightforward. In the book, the explanations turn out to involve the partly coincidental superimposition of the activities of several independent groups of characters.

Sergeant Jack Vincennes, “The Big V,” celebrity cop, advisor to the Badge of Honor television show, has a neat scam going with Sid Hudgeons. Sid leaks information about lawbreakers to Jack, along with some cash. Then Jack lets Sid be present, with photographers, at the resulting arrest. These arrests help Jack’s career and his celebrity status. Correspondingly, they help the circulation of Sid’s magazine Hush Hush.

Early in the picture, Sid and Jack wreck the career of a young movie actor, Matt Reynolds, by arresting him and his girlfriend for felony possession of marijuana. Later, Sid finds out that D.A. Ellis Loew is a homo. Sid needs a bit player to lure Loew into bed so that Jack can arrest him. Matt Reynolds, so airheaded that after his 6-month jolt in the pen he doesn’t even recognize Jack VIncennes as the man who sent him there, agrees to be the patsy. Sid and Jack assure him that if he does well they can help him get a part on Badge of Honor. As Matt goes off to introduce himself to Loew, Sid remarks to Jack about Matt being stupid enough to think that Badge of Honor would even look at him “after he’s been Hush Hush cover boy twice in one year.”

This remark sets Jack to thinking. He sits in The Frolic Room on Hollywood Boulevard pondering the fact that he’s about to complete the destruction of a good natured, if stupid, kid. He decides that he won’t do it. This decision doesn’t seem to have anything to do with morality in the traditional sense, because it doesn’t seem to come from obeying an abstract principle. It’s more concrete than that. Jack’s simply reached a point where he won’t play along. He just can’t see himself doing what he’s been asked to. He goes to find Matt and head him off, but he’s too late. Matt has been murdered.

Officer Bud White is driven by a private demon. When he was 12, he tried to get in the way when his father went after his mother with a bottle. He was tied to a radiator and made to watch while his mother was beaten to death with a tire iron. “Three days until a truant officer found us. They never found the old man.” He’s grown up into a muscle bound machine conditioned to respond negatively to physical attacks on women. He seems to have reached an accommodation with himself and his rather humorless existence, satisfied enough with the results, if not the style, of his obsession and of his work as a policeman.

In the course of his investigation of the Nite Owl Killings, Bud White meets a call girl, Lynn Bracken. She’s part of a stable of high class call girls “cut to look like movie stars,” kept by a man named Pierce Patchett. So far her situation has been easy. “He takes a cut of our earnings and invests it for us. He doesn’t let us use narcotics and he doesn’t abuse us. Can your policeman’s mentality grasp those contradictions?”

Sergeant (later, Detective Lieutenant) Ed Exley seems in some ways like Jack Vincennes, ambitious, fond of the public eye. The difference is that while Vincennes acts like a regular guy, Exley is a prissy loner. Through intelligence, luck, and persistence, he solves the Nite Owl Case, killing the three culprits in a spectacular shootout. His career is now soaring. Later, he finds out that the three he killed, although rapists, are maybe not responsible for the Nite Owl.

Setting out to find the real culprits, Exley comes to ask Jack Vincennes to help him just as Jack is going through some papers dealing with the Matt Reynolds case. This scene is perhaps the central one of the movie, We find out that, just as Exley has a side that is like Jack Vincennes, he also has a side that is like Bud White. He too is driven by a private demon.

Commonly, when we make value judgements about people we speak as if there were a single norm towards which everyone ought to be growing. They’re supposed to succeed in becoming perfect specimens. You can tell whether they do by seeing how well they perform according to a checklist of desired features. We also speak as if people have an outside and an inside, and that on the inside, they’re really either good or bad.

It’s hard to analyze Ellroy’s characters in these terms. For Bud White we’d have to say that he was warped by his early trauma. What his father did to him made him a brute, yet he still has enough inner decency to try to prevent women from being abused. Or?Wait a minute!?is it the opposite? Maybe, he’s a brute by nature and it’s only thanks to the terrible thing that happened to his mother that he has some morality. Neither of these explanations seems to satisfy, because the framework on which they are constructed is inadequate. Bud doesn’t seem to fit into a dichotomy of outside versus inside. Also, the things that make him bad seem more or less identical to the things that make him good: his hatred of violence towards women, his blind persistence. Bud White doesn’t seem to have had any chance at perfection. So, what can he do then, assuming he wants to make a decent adult out of himself? Maybe Bud has to start out from where he is and we have to interpret his current actions against that background instead of comparing them to an abstract, one-size-fits-all standard.

L.A. Confidential is about three men and a woman who find themselves in medias res. They don’t get any single chance to decide forever what they’ll be. They’re already on the wrong side. They don’t seem to be able to separate out their imperfections from their perfections, so their job seems to be to take all of what they’ve got, including their neuroses and the ghosts from their past, and to use it as raw material to continuously reconstruct themselves. They can’t make themselves perfect: the moving finger has already written and moved on. The things that they go through, terrible as they are, do give them a chance to make themselves better.

The phrase ensemble acting is overworked in the vocabulary of movie critics lately. Still, it describes exactly what L.A. Confidential has got. You don’t go away awe-struck with any of the individual actors, but with the group as a whole. Part of what they are successful at is supporting each other and supporting the film itself. You have to think about it in order to realize how excellent they are as individuals. This includes all of the major and many of the minor roles.

James Cromwell is natural, playing a variety of moods with perfect focus. For example, in the scene where he takes the command of the Nite Owl investigation away from Ed Exley.

Kevin Spacey is perhaps at his very best in the scene quoted above, his mood shifting from moment to moment, yet always supporting the several levels of ambiguity involved and cumulatively building up a very complex picture.

Guy Pearce is successful in creating the particular kind of clean-cut, self-serving do-gooder that we had plenty of in the ’50s but that seems to have disappeared. He is able to show us that Exley’s really a poorly fused mixture of two or three different personalities. Pearce’s characterization is very sharp. For example, the sequence of recognition, calculation, and counter-calculation that flickers across his face in a second when the real culprit inadvertently betrays himself by saying the name “Rollo Tomasi.” Pearce contains this flicker so well that we’re amazed at Exley’s self-control, but still he betrays just enough that the culprit sees it.

Bud White is not notable for his subtlety, but this doesn’t mean that Russell Crowe gets a free ride. Most notably, there is a scene where he believes that the woman he loves has betrayed him. He shows a combination of hurt, anger, and willingness to be weak in front of a woman that he’s committed to. Not to mention raw emotional power.

The requirements for an actress to be able to play Lynn Bracken are very high. We first see Bracken as she walks into a liquor store wearing a cape that would look ridiculous on most women, but only looks quietly regal on Kim Basinger. There’s a scene in which Ed Exley confronts Bracken, and Basinger shows herself emotionally stronger and more flexible than he is. She easily defeats him, in more ways than we realize at the time. Throughout, it’s important that Bracken also be tender and vulnerable. Toward the end there is a scene, in which Bracken is hurt and Basinger has just one line in which to convey to us that Bracken knows that she did more injury than she received and she’s sorry for it. Altogether, Kim Basinger richly deserves the Academy Award she won for this role.

Some people who have looked to L.A. Confidential for a period cops-and-robbers movie have had somewhat mixed reactions to what they got from it. For people who are attuned to the problems that James Ellroy is interested in, and who pick up these strands as well, this is a very potent movie.


William P. Coleman.

Joan M. Coleman.

24 February 1998. 14 May 1998.

Related Material on This Site

?Read our essay L.A. Confidential and Racism.

Links for L.A. Confidential, the Novel


From fluxeuropa, a comprehensive and helpful article on the L. A. Quartet as a whole, THE MADHOUSE OF THE SKULL: James Ellroy’s ‘LA Quartet’

?Ellroy Confidentiel / Ellroy Confidential. Available in French or English. Nicely researched and presented.


Yahoo. Top:Arts:Humanities:Literature:Genres:Mystery:Authors:Ellroy, James.

?The Mysterious Home Page. Specific authors: James Ellroy. Links.

?From Tangled Web, Capsules of several Ellroy books.

?From Salon magazine, James Ellroy Interview.

?James Ellroy mailing list. In the body of the message put the following.

subscribe ellroy

?Warner Books.

oAbout James Ellroy

oL.A. Confidential: The Novel

oL.A. Confidential: The Screenplay

Links for L.A. Confidential, the Film


Look up further information about L.A. Confidential in the IMDb.


Read more about L.A. Confidential at Cinema1.

Cinema1 est? disponible tambi?n en espa?ol.


?Get the complete dope at a fan’s L.A. Confidential site.


The Crowe’s Nest.

?Russell: Something to Crowe About.

?A Guy Pearce fan site.


Visit the official New Regency L.A. Confidential site.


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