What About It?
(For a full summary of the film, scroll down to "What Happens?")
L.A. Confidential is a movie all about make believe and the insidious nature of corruption. The choice of 1950's Los Angeles is a perfect place to tell that story. Everyone in this movie's L.A. is spellbound by the glamour of the city, and of the movies that take place there. The rarefied air breathed by the Hollywood types is consumed by osmosis, by all who live there, including the police department. Except for the color, L.A. Confidential feels like a film noir, in the best sense of the phrase. These characters all have hidden agendas. The color, however, is put to great use, showing us an impossibly bright city of impossibly well dressed people. Here though, the shiny people look tired, as if the shine is only possible because of the secrets they keep. No character is squeaky clean, but there are certainly degrees.
Director Curtis Hanson makes full use of the contrast between sunshine and corruption. The scene where Bud beats a man who was beating his wife after pulling down the out of place looking Christmas lights is a perfect example. There is no wintertime here. The weather is always perfect, no matter how grimy the citizens are. The movie is full of top notch actors, but their dynamics are balanced perfectly, so that even the smallest parts feel indispensible. He gives us a city with an inpossible shine on the surface, but only rot and corruption beneath. It's no suprise here that call girls are altered to look like movie stars, or that cops would rather make money from TV than do what they're supposed to. The film moves from place to character seamlessly and the period aspect never gets in the way of character or story. The plot made of many moving parts, all the twists and turns of a good noir, but they come together naturally in the end. Hanson is certainly helped a lot by James Ellroy's brilliant script, which has all the smart dialogue and snappy patter of a classic noir while keeping the complicated story as clear as it needs to be at any given time.
Kevin Spacey's Jack Vincennes is the best representation of what the city does to a cop. His fellow officers call him "Hollywood Jack" indicating his preference in duties. Jack plays the game more than he does a job, but he does arrest people, even if in the most headline worthy way. His friendship with Sid Hudgens (Danny Devito,) is a natural fit. Hudgens and Vincennes both make their living, manipulating the filth beneath the veneer, while both adopting a devotion to their own superficiality. Ultimately Vincennes is more of a tool for Hudgens than the other way around, as it's SId who gets the dirt, and includes Jack to get the story. Jack doesn't mind for the most part, as he likes being celebrated. He does however, retain some morality, and his hard worked at superficiality starts to wear when the simple minded actor, Reynolds is brutally murdered during one of their set ups. Even so Jack doesn't rush into action, and if Exley hadn't appeared with a speech about justice, we wonder how much energy he would've put into investigating the murder, if any at all. When Exley asks why he became a cop, Vincennes just doesn't remember. Jack sees his corruption as harmless. he arrests people that break the law, and certainly using an informant to get busts is within procedure. So Jack's real grey area is his motivation. He doesn't care about the busts but the headlines and his own minor celebrity. Yet,, being a cop still means something to him and given the chance to get help looking into a senseless murder, he seems inspired, as if he would have done the right thing all along if he'd only had a little nudge. Of course it isn't that easy. As Dudley tells him "Don't start trying to do the right thing, boyo. You haven't had the practice." But there is something selfless in Jack, however small, and he manages to help Exley with his dying breath. Spacey is perfect as Vincennes a man of overall weak conviction, but nonetheless pretty good at his job. He gives his charcter a great presence in support of Crowe and Pearce's characters.
Devito is perfectly sleazy as tabloid reporter, Sid Hutchens, a man who has little loyalty or friendship, but knows how to make partnerships work. Hutchens is a man who is quite used to being reviled and doesn't seem to mind very much. He makes his living of the misery and secrets of others and has no illusions about this Los Angeles. David Strathairn is also great, as another element of LA corruption. He makes his living off the darker urges of the city as well, but unlike Hutchens, he has no defense but money. Appropriately for the city, he presents himself as a smart businessman, rather than a shady criminal. Corruption abounds in L.A. and it's telling that at the beginning of the film, the crime orgnization once in control has already been taken off the board, but it doesn't feel any cleaner. Police Captain Dudley Smith is much worse and more ambitious than Mickey C. ever was, having a plan to take a piece out of all crime in the city. James Cromwell is perfectly cast for the role, portraying a believable fatherly mentor to Exley, and on the other hand a patient and ruthless schemer, who would sacrifice anyone to achieve his goals. The revelation that he is the guy behind it all is only effective because of his convincing performance both ways. Kim Basinger also fits very well as a jaded but still secretly sincere call girl who believes in true love, and is tired of pretending to be Veronica Lake and wishing she could be who she was before. Both Crowe and Pierce give spectacular performances, each playing and their interplay with each other and with Basinger is terrific. Their progression from enemes to allies to friends comes through believably. L.A. Confidential relies a lot on chemistry. How the actors relate to each other is paid careful attention.
The heart of the film though is the relationship between Crowe's Bud White and Pearce's Edmund Exley, two cops of completely different kinds, who each for their own reasons are tired of pretending to be cops. Crowe gives us a character known and feared for brute force, who has grown into his own reputation. Bud doesn't see himself as an animal however, wanting justification for his brutality. Unlike Vincennes, Bud knows how he got started, with his own father. Lynn notices "you have a thing for helping women, don't you?" and this is clearly true of Bud. He enjoys beating me who beat women and others who "deserve it." but the years of being dumb muscle are not sitting well with him as he is very observant and not as stupid as people take him for. He accepts violence but has a hard time with not being justified. We see that part of his conflict is that the is closer to his own father than he would like, and when he hits Lynn, he realizes that he is himself, the thing he hates most in the world. When he drops his grudge against Exley in order to solve the case, we see that he is perfectly able to reason and put aside his anger given enough time. His telling Exley to talk to Lynn is another sign that he isn't the unthinking brute he's taken to be.
Exley is a thinking cop and insists on going "by the book" He doesn't seem as concerned about morality as with his own prospects for advancement. He's a "politician" respected by even Dudley Smith, who is quite the politician himself. Dudley seems to serve as a sort of father figure to him, being the closest tie Exley has to his father, as Dudley had been on the force with him. Exley appears to be a do gooder, but his interests come through as strategic and selfish. He has no problem testifying against his fellow officers for the chance of career advancement, not due to outrage but opportunity. He insists however that he won't bend the rules by planting evidence, or taking shortcuts, traits which Dudley, tellingly believes a detective needs to have. Exley needs to live up to his father, who was a celebrated cop. His rigidity makes him very unpopular, but he's a departure from the average movie straight arrow, in that he doesn't care who takes pay off money, he just doesn't want it for himself. Pearce's thinker is the perfect contrast to Crowe's brute. And Exley, like Bud White is underestimated due to his defining characteristic. It's assumed because of Exley's brain, that he won't get his hands dirty, just as Bud is assumed to be dumb, because of his physical advantages. Both judgments prove to be wrong, moreso when they join forces.
Both White and Exley are driven by the shadows of their fathers. Exley's father was a hero, while White's was a monster, and so both of them deal with the legacies in appropriate ways. Exley needs to be a better cop, while White needs to be a better man. Both men however, have their fathers in them. WHite's struggle with his violent tendencies is not an easy one and we see that he doesn't have a handle on it completely, breaking his own code of "if they deserve it" and striking Lynn when he feels betrayed. We don't know if he's done this before, but we see that it causes him shame. Exley also has some difficulty, as his motivation for becoming a cop was to catch the "Rollo Tomasi's" of the world, yet ended up getting so involved in surpassing his father's record that he forgot about "Rollo Tomasi" Neither man could be totally pure and withstand the corruption all around in the police station. It could be assumed that Dudley had been influencing arrests and convictions for some time, but neither man was aware. The department corruption was simply overlooked as "small stuff" minor pay offs, and planting evidence when they knew a guy was guilty. It's only the serious errors in Dudley's frame up over the Nite Owl case that cause the two men to start paying attention.
Even then, it takes them some time (and a tip, due to Vincennes' last words) to suspect Dudley. Once they look into it, it becomes obvious that the department was full of corruption all along, they had just never noticed. Exley has his Rollo Tomasi and White has a chance to be a "real cop." The face off, however, is decided by Dudley, who makes the mistake both White and Exley deal with daily, that of underestimating them. Exley gets an exaggerated example to prove that he can use the methods Dudley faulted him for not having, shooting Dudley in the back rather than seeing him get off without charges. Bud ends up in a situation he wouldn't have imagined, being taken care off by a woman, rather than saving women, as well as the knowledge that he finally did some real police work. Exley proves able to dive back into police politics, knowing he didn't forget about Rollo Tomasi. As Lynn says "Some men get the world, others get ex hookers and a trip to Arizona." but both of them get what they wanted, and we get a very dark world, where not quite everything is totally corrupt.
L.A. Confidential is an interesting film, in that it deals with "the line" a cop crosses to become corrupt differently than most. We're introduced to characters who crossed it years ago without even noticing, not because of some big event, but just because they got caught up in day to day life. THis is best illustrated by Vincennes forgetting why he became a cop, but we see it illustrated in all of them, Bud, Edmund, Jack and even Dudley. None of them decided to be "dirty" cops, they just got caught up in the city and forgot why they were doing their jobs to begin with. It's a hopeful film in that despite all that, some goodness remains. Jack, Bud and Edmund seem reborn when they finally decide to do the right thing. For Jack, it proves too little, too late, although his gesture is of use. For Edmund and Bud, some redemption is possible. Perhaps this is due to the greater standard the two live by, the standard of their absent fathers which defines them even well into their adult careers. More than a simple cop story, we see the moment the two of them recognize the legacies they carry, confront them, and finally make their peace, before really entering their own lives. Because they faced this together they find a sense of brotherhood that it's likely neither thought possible.
When Exley says "Thanks for the push." we know that he's considered the trap he'd fallen into and how difficult it was to leave. And, after the last shootout, the sleazy shine of L.A. which was so prominent in the beginning, seems like nothing anymore, as we're more invested by then, in characters that no longer have the need for those trappings, choosing their own reality over the fantasy so readily provided. L.A. is changing with them. Here corruption is not one choice but a gradual shifting of priorities that's just a normal part of daily life. Most days wouldn't require a choice to be a good cop but we just happen to witness a day that does and that White and Exley are able to see the choice.
Sid Hudgens (Danny Devito,) a sleazy reporter for Hush Hush magazine, narrates the opening to changing scenes from 1950's Los Angeles.
"You'd think this place was the garden of Eden, but there's trouble in paradise, and his name is Myer Harris Cohen (Paul Guilfoyle,) Mickey C. to his fans, local L.A. color to the nth degree and his number one bodyguard, Johnny Stompanato (Paolo Seganti.) Mickey C.'s the head of organized crime in these parts. He runs dope, rackets, and prostitution. He kills a dozen people a year, and the dapper little gent does it in style. And every time his picture's plastered on the front page, it's a black eye for the image of Los Angeles, because how can organized crime exist in a city with the best police force in the world?"
We see Mickey C. arrested for tax evasion and Sid muses that soon enough someone will move in to take over for him.