Monday, May 05, 2008

PERSONAL FAVES: L.A. Confidential

James Ellroy's peerless crime fiction has found a very haphazard reflection on the big screen. James B Harris's 'Cop', starring James Woods, was a fair-to-middling take on 'Blood on the Moon'. Jason Freeland's 'Brown's Requiem' was a reasonably faithful but curiously characterless adaption of Ellroy's frenzied first novel. 'The Black Dahlia', the first book in the L.A. Quartet and Ellroy's breakthrough, was originally slated as a David Fincher project, and with the 'Seven' and 'Fight Club' helmer calling the shots could well have been a masterpiece; after much prevarication, though, Brian de Palma took up the reins and the result was a miscast, muddled, histrionic mess.

On the small screen, Ellroy's short story 'Since I Don't Have You' was effectively realised as part of the 'Fallen Angels' series, whilst a pilot was shot for a projected 'L.A. Confidential' mini-series starring Kiefer Sutherland and Melissa George but was never developed further. Ellroy has written directly for the screen with 'Dark Blue' and 'Street Kings', though in both cases other scribes were brought in for re-writes - to such a degree on the former that Ellroy has disowned it.

Of the much discussed and delayed 'White Jazz' - due to go before the cameras first with John Cusack and Nick Nolte in the lead roles, then with George Clooney, and at time of writing still trawling the lower the circles, Dante-like, of development hell - I'll believe it when I'm standing in the foyer at Cineworld clutching a ticket for it and I'm not holding my breath till then.

Which just leaves Curtis Hanson's 'L.A. Confidential'.* Two things demand to be pointed out from the start - and the one shouldn't retract from the other:

(1) 'L.A. Confidential' is merely a palimpsest of Ellroy's novel, incorporating incident from roughly the first third and even then diverging crucially in several respects (matters pertaining to Dudley Smith, matters pertaining to Buzz Meeks, and all that "Rollo Tomasi" business).

(2) 'L.A. Confidential' is one of the best mainstream American films of the 90s.

In respect of (1), it's impossible to compress a tautly written 500 page novel into a two and a quarter hour movie. As truncated from its source material as Hanson and Brian Helgeland's script is, even the briefest synopsis runs something like this:

Following the beating of some Mexicans arrested in connection with an assault on two police officers, the Chief of Police (John Mahon), Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) and District Attorney Ellis Lowe (Ron Rifkin) undertake an official investigation. Implicated are Officer Bud White (Russell Crowe), his partner Dick Stensland (Graham Beckel) and Sgt Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), a cop who enjoys celebrity status through his work as technical advisor on a TV cop show. Ambitious Sgt Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) rats out all concerned in return for swift promotion, pushing particularly for White's indictment. When White refuses to testify against Stensland to take the heat off himself, he is suspended. Smith promptly re-appoints White to work directly under him, strongarming organised crime suspects in a series of interrogations that pretty much define the term "police brutality".

Vincennes, buckling to departmental pressure rather than be kicked off the TV show, begrudgingly rats out "a few old-timers" and accepts a temporary transfer to Vice. A pornography cases puts him onto an exclusive club called Fleur le Lys, operated by the ultra-wealthy, ultra-well-connected Piers Morhouse Patchett (David Strathairn), who has the goods on various city officials courtesy of a stable of call girls "cut [ie. had plastic surgery] to look like movie stars".

Meanwhile, Vincennes' main source of information, tabloid writer Sid Hudgens (Danny de Vito) intimates that a sexual scandal involving Lowe and a pretty-boy B-movie actor is on the cards. Still, the big news in Hudgens's scandal sheet is the systematic (and still unsolved) hits on former associates of the now-incarcerated mob boss Mickey Cohen (Paul Guilfoyle).

Exley and White are brought into conflict (White is already harbouring a grudge at Stensland's dismissal) after Stensland is found dead, one of several victims in a coffee shop massacre. Another victim, Sue Lefferts (Amber Smith), was one of Patchett's girls. Smith pulls rank on Exley to take charge of the case, but when the arrest of a number of black suspects leads to more questions - and their subsequent escape explodes into violence - Exley almost unintentionally steals the glory. The suspects dead, the case is closed. But something still bothers White. His own investigation leads him to Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), the Veronica Lake lookalike in Patchett's little stable.

With Smith suspicious at White's increasingly erratic behaviour, and with Exley instructing Vincennes to keep tabs on him, White finds himself in deeper than he expected, particularly when revelations about his former partner come to the fore ...

In other words, there's quite a lot going on! (The novel's about twenty times more complex, btw.)

Regarding (2), these are just a few reasons why 'L.A. Confidential' came out of nowhere ten years ago and completely blew me away, and why it's been on the personal faves list ever since:

There was nothing in Hanson's filmography ('The Bedroom Window', 'The Hand That Rocks the Cradle') to indicate that he'd make the quantum leap to a film as stylish, gripping, intriguing, multi-layered and downright well-directed as 'L.A. Confidential'. And with the exception of his excellent Michael Chabon adaptation 'Wonder Boys', he's done nothing to touch it since.

It made a major player of Russell Crowe and put Guy Pearce on the map (ironic that Ellroy's fiction is so quintessentially American and the lead roles in 'L.A. Confidential' went to Australian actors). James Cromwell is absolutely spot-on perfect as Dudley Smith. Kim Basinger has never been better; her Oscar was well-deserved. As for Kevin Spacey, well ... the man basically spent the 90s on a roll: 'Glengarry Glen Ross', 'Swimming with Sharks', 'The Usual Suspects', 'Seven'. With 'L.A. Confidential', it was easy to be glib: hey, it's another great Kevin Spacey performance.

Dante Spinotti's cinematography and Jeannine Oppewall's production design create a stylish evocation of 50s L.A. The period soundtrack is terrific, kicking off with 'Accentuate the Positive' and including Kay Starr's evergreen 'Wheel of Fortune'.

The pace never flags despite the large amounts of exposition necessary to clarify the various plot details. The action scenes are particularly well edited, and the climactic shoot-out - although wildly divergent from the novel - is tense and exciting.

Maybe one day someone will mine the rich vein of McCarthy-era witch hunts, Hollywood B-movies, corrupt ambition and ambiguous sexuality rife in Ellroy's jaw-dropping 'Black Dahlia' follow-up 'The Big Nowhere' - done properly, it could be another film of the calibre of 'L.A. Confidential'. But until then, Hanson and co. still carry the badge and gun on behalf of Ellroy's dark staccato prose.

*I'm not taking into account here films about James Ellroy - such as 'Feast of Death' and 'James Ellroy: Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction'. These are different beasts entirely, and quite possibly the subject of future posts.

No comments: