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L.A. Confidential is a 1997 feature film based on the 1990 crime fiction novel of the same title by James Ellroy, the third in his L.A. Quartet novel cycle. Both the book and the film tell the story about a group of Los Angeles police in the 1950s, and police corruption bumping up against Hollywoodmarker celebrity. The film adaptation was produced and directed by Curtis Hanson and co-written by Hanson and Brian Helgeland.

At the time, both Australian actors Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce were relatively unknown in North America, and one of the film's backers, Arnon Milchan, was worried about the lack of established stars in the lead roles. However, he supported Hanson's casting decisions and this gave the director the confidence to approach Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger, and Danny DeVito.

Critically acclaimed, the film holds a 99% rating at Rotten Tomatoes with 73 out of 74 reviews positive, as well as an aggregated rating of 90% based on 28 reviews on Metacritic. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won two, Basinger for Best Actress in a Supporting Role and Hanson and Helgeland for Best Screenplay - Adapted.

Plot

Set against the backdrop of the glamor, grit and noir of early 1950s Los Angelesmarker, the film revolves around three Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers caught up in corruption, sex, lies, and murder following a multiple murder at the Nite Owl coffee shop. The story expands to encompass organized crime, political corruption, heroin, pornography, prostitution, tabloid journalism and institutional racism, which result in a huge body count. The novel's title refers to the infamous 1950s scandal magazine Confidential, portrayed fictionally as Hush-Hush (although a tabloid magazine called Hush-Hush also existed in the 1950s.)

Sergeant Edmund Exley (Pearce), the son of a legendary LAPD Inspector, is a brilliant officer in his own right, determined to outdo his father. Ed's intelligence, his education, his glasses, his insistence on following regulations, and his cold demeanor all contribute to his social isolation from other officers. He increases this resentment after volunteering to testify against other cops in an infamous police brutality case (the Bloody Christmas incident) early on, insisting on a promotion to Detective Lieutenant (which he receives) against the advice of Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). The captain believed that Exley's honesty and actions as a "snitch" would interfere with his ability to supervise detectives. Exley was motivated by the murder of his father by "Rollo Tomasi", a sense of justice, and his personal ambition.

Officer Wendell "Bud" White (Crowe) is a violent 6-foot-tall brute and the most feared man in the LAPD. His plainclothes partner Dick Stensland was convicted and expelled from the force following a fictional version of the Bloody Christmas scandal as a scapegoat by Chief of Detectives Thad Green; and by Exley's testimony. After these events, Bud vows revenge against Exley. His ties to the Nite Owl case become personal after Stensland is found to be one of the murder victims at the Nite Owl. He has a violent obsession with woman-beaters, counterbalanced by his tenderness towards the victims. His temper often overpowers his thought, and he is perceived as a mindless thug. He is sought out by Capt. Dudley Smith for a black bag job intimidating out-of-town criminals trying to set up in Los Angeles after Mickey Cohen's conviction and incarceration.

Sergeant Jack Vincennes (Spacey) is a slick and likable Hollywoodmarker cop who works as the technical advisor of Badge of Honor, a popular Dragnet-type TV show. Vincennes is also connected with Sid Hudgeons (DeVito) of Hush-Hush magazine. Vincennes receives kickbacks for making celebrity arrests, often orchestrated, involving narcotics, that will attract even more readers to the magazine—and more fame and profit to him. When a young actor winds up dead during one of these schemes, a guilt ridden Vincennes is determined to find who did it.

At different intervals the three men investigate the Nite Owl and concurrent events which in turn begin to reveal deep indications of corruption all around them. Ed Exley pursues absolute justice in the Nite Owl slayings, all the while trying to live up to his family's prestigious name. Bud White pursues Nite Owl victim Susan Lefferts, which leads him to Lynn Bracken (Basinger), a Veronica Lake look-alike and call-girl with pivotal ties to the case he and Exley are independently investigating. Meanwhile, Jack Vincennes follows up on a pornography racket that leads to ties to both the Nite Owl and Bracken's handler Pierce Patchett, operator of "Fleur-de-Lis", a call-girl service that runs prostitutes altered by plastic surgery to look like movie stars. All three men's fates are intertwined. A dramatic showdown occurs with powerful and corrupt forces within the city's political leadership and the department.

Cast

Main
Actor Role
Kevin Spacey Det. Sgt. Jack Vincennes
Russell Crowe Officer Wendell "Bud" White
Guy Pearce Det. Lt. Edmund Jennings "Ed" Exley
Kim Basinger Lynn Bracken
James Cromwell Capt. Dudley Liam Smith
Danny DeVito Sid Hudgens
David Strathairn Pierce Morehouse Patchett
Ron Rifkin LA Dist. Atty. Ellis Loew
Supporting
Actor Role
Graham Beckel Det. Richard Alex "Dick" Stensland
Paul Guilfoyle Meyer Harris "Mickey" Cohen
Matt McCoy Brett Chase
Paolo Seganti Johnny Stompanato
Simon Baker Matt Reynolds
Darrell Sandeen former detective Leland 'Buzz' Meeks


Production

Origins

Curtis Hanson had read half a dozen of James Ellroy's books before he read L.A. Confidential and was drawn to its characters, not the plot. He said, "What hooked me on them was that, as I met them, one after the other, I didn't like them - but as I continued reading, I started to care about them." Ellroy's novel also made Hanson think about L.A. and provided him with an opportunity to "set a movie at a point in time when the whole dream of Los Angeles, from that apparently golden era of the '20s and '30s, was being bulldozed." Screenwriter Brian Helgeland was originally signed to Warner Brothers to write a Viking film with director Uli Edel and then worked on an unproduced modern-day King Arthur story. Helgeland was a long-time fan of Ellroy's novels. When he heard that Warner Bros. had acquired the rights to Confidential in 1990, he lobbied to script the film. However, at the time, the studio was only talking to well-known screenwriters. When he finally did get a meeting, it was canceled two days before it was to occur.

Helgeland found that Hanson had been hired to direct and met with him while the filmmaker was making The River Wild. They found that they not only shared a love for Ellroy's fiction but also agreed on how to adapt Confidential into a film. According to Helgeland, they had "to remove every scene from the book that didn't have the three main cops in it, and then to work from those scenes out." According to Hanson, he "wanted the audience to be challenged but at the same time I didn't want them to get lost". They worked on the script together for two years, with Hanson turning down jobs and Helgeland writing seven drafts for free. The two men also got Ellroy's approval of their approach. He had seen Hanson's films, The Bedroom Window and Bad Influence and found him to be "a competent and interesting storyteller", but was not convinced that his book would be made into a film until he talked to the director. He later said, "They preserved the basic integrity of the book and its main theme...Brian and Curtis took a work of fiction that had eight plotlines, reduced those to three, and retained the dramatic force of three men working out their destiny."

Warner Bros. executive Bill Gerber showed the script to Michael Nathansan, CEO of New Regency Productions, which had a deal with the studio. Nathanson loved it, but they had to get the approval from the owner of New Regency, Arnold Milchan. Hanson prepared a presentation that consisted of 15 vintage postcards and pictures of L.A. mounted on poster-boards and made his pitch to Milchan. The pictures consisted of orange groves, beaches, tract homes in the San Fernando Valleymarker, and the opening of the Hollywood Freeway to symbolize the image of prosperity sold to the public.

Then, Hanson showed the darker side of Ellroy's novel with the cover of scandal rag, Confidential and the famous shot of Robert Mitchum coming out of jail after his marijuana bust. He also had photographs of jazz musicians of the time: Zoot Sims, Gerry Mulligan, and Chet Baker to represent the music people listened to. Hanson emphasized that the period detail would be in the background and the characters in the foreground. Milchan was impressed with his presentation and agreed to finance it.

Casting

Hanson had seen Russell Crowe in Romper Stomper and found him "repulsive and scary but captivating". The actor had read Ellroy's The Black Dahlia but not L.A. Confidential. When he read the script, Crowe was drawn to Bud White's "self-righteous moral crusade". Crowe fit the visual preconception of Bud. Hanson put the actor on tape doing a few scenes from the script and showed it to the film's producers, who agreed to cast him as Bud. Guy Pearce auditioned like countless other actors and Hanson felt that he "was very much what I had in mind for Ed Exley". The director purposely did not watch the actor in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert afraid that it might taint his decision. As he did with Crowe, Hanson taped Pearce and showed it to the producers, who agreed he should be cast as Exley. Pearce did not like Exley when he first read the screenplay and remarked, "I was pretty quick to judge him and dislike him for being so self-righteous ... But I liked how honest he became about himself. I knew I could grow to respect and understand him".

Milchan was against casting "two Australians" in the American period piece (as Pearce wryly commented in a later interview, he is English, while Crowe is a New Zealandermarker). Besides their ethnic heritage, both Crowe and Pearce were relative unknowns in North America and Milchan was equally worried about the lack of movie stars in the lead roles.

However, Milchan supported Hanson's casting decisions and this gave the director the confidence to approach Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito and Kevin Spacey. Hanson cast Crowe and Pearce because he wanted to "replicate my experience of the book. You don't like any of these characters at first, but the deeper you get into their story, the more you begin to sympathize with them. I didn't want actors audiences knew and already liked."

Hanson felt that the character of Jack Vincennes was "a movie star among cops" and thought of Spacey with his "movie star charisma", casting him specifically against type. The director was confident that the actor "could play the man behind that veneer, the man who also lost his soul", and when he gave him the script, he told him to think of Dean Martin while in the role. Hanson cast Basinger because he felt that she "was the character to me. What beauty today could project the glamor of Hollywood's golden age?"

Pre-production

To give his cast and crew points and counterpoints to capture L.A. in the 1950s, he held a "mini-film festival", showing one film a week: The Bad and the Beautiful because it epitomized the glamorous Hollywood look; In a Lonely Place, because it showed the ugly side of Hollywood glamor; Don Siegel's The Lineup and Private Hell 36, "for their lean and efficient style"; and Kiss Me Deadly, because it was "so rooted in the futuristic 50s: the atomic age". Hanson and the film's cinematographer Dante Spinotti agreed that the film would be shot widescreen and watched two Cinemascope films from the period: Douglas Sirk's The Tarnished Angels and Vincente Minnelli's Some Came Running.

Before filming took place, Hanson brought Crowe and Pearce to L.A. for two months to immerse them in the city and the time period. He also got them dialect coaches, showed them vintage police training films and had them meet real cops. Pearce found the contemporary police force had changed too much to be useful research material and disliked the police officer he rode around with because he was racist. The actor found the police films more valuable "because there was a real sort of stiffness, a woodenness about these people" that he felt Exley had as well. Crowe studied Sterling Hayden in Stanley Kubrick's crime film, The Killing "for that beefy manliness that came out of World War II." For six weeks, Crowe, Pearce, Hanson and Helgeland conducted rehearsals, which consisted of their discussing each scene in the script. As other actors were cast they would join in.

Principal photography

Hanson did not want the film to be an exercise in nostalgia and had Spinotti shoot it like a contemporary film and use more naturalistic lighting than in a classic film noir. He told Spinotti and the film's production designer Jeannine Oppewall to pay great attention to period detail but to then "put it all in the background".

Music

Jerry Goldsmith's score for the film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Dramatic Score, but lost to James Horner's score for Best Picture Titanic.

Reaction

The film was screened at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival. According to Hanson, Warner Brothers did not want it shown at Cannes, because they felt that there was an "anti-studio bias ... So why go and come home a loser?" However, Hanson wanted to debut the film at a high profile, international venue like Cannes. He and other producers bypassed the studio and sent a print directly to the festival's selection committee, which loved it. Ellroy saw the film and said, "I understood in 40 minutes or so that it is a work of art on its own level. It was amazing to see the physical incarnation of the characters".

Box office

L.A. Confidential was released on September 19, 1997 in 769 theaters, grossing $5.2 million on its opening weekend. On October 3, it was given an expanded release in 1,625 theaters. It went on to make $64.6 million in North America and $61.6 million in the rest of the world, for a worldwide total of $126.2 million.

Critical reaction

Overall, L.A. Confidential scored very well with critics, presently sporting a 99% "Certified Fresh" approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes with 77 out of 78 reviews positive. Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and described it as "seductive and beautiful, cynical and twisted, and one of the best films of the year". Later, he included it as one of his "Great Movies" and described it as "film noir, and so it is, but it is more: Unusually for a crime film, it deals with the psychology of the characters ... It contains all the elements of police action, but in a sharply clipped, more economical style; the action exists not for itself but to provide an arena for the personalities". In her review for the New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "Mr. Spacey is at his insinuating best, languid and debonair, in a much more offbeat performance than this film could have drawn from a more conventional star. And the two Australian actors, tightly wound Mr. Pearce and fiery, brawny Mr. Crowe, qualify as revelations". Desson Howe, in his review for the Washington Post, praised the cast: "Pearce makes a wonderful prude who gets progressively tougher and more jaded. New Zealand-born Crowe has a unique and sexy toughness; imagine Mickey Rourke without the attitude. Although she's playing a stock character, Basinger exudes a sort of chaste sultriness. Spacey is always enjoyable".

In his review for the Globe and Mail, Liam Lacey wrote, "The big star is Los Angeles itself. Like Roman Polanski's depiction of Los Angeles in the thirties in Chinatown, the atmosphere and detailed production design are a rich gel where the strands of narrative form". USA Today gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four, praising the screenplay: "it appears as if screenwriters Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson have pulled off a miracle in keeping multiple stories straight. Have they ever. Ellroy's novel has four extra layers of plot and three times as many characters ... the writers have trimmed unwieldy muscle, not just fat, and gotten away with it". In his review for Newsweek, David Ansen wrote, L.A. Confidential asks the audience to raise its level a bit, too - you actually have to pay attention to follow the double-crossing intricacies of the plot. The reward for your work is dark and dirty fun". Richard Schickel, in his review for Time, wrote, "It's a movie of shadows and half lights, the best approximation of the old black-and-white noir look anyone has yet managed on color stock. But it's no idle exercise in style. The film's look suggests how deep the tradition of police corruption runs".

In his review for the New York Observer, Andrew Sarris wrote, "Mr. Crowe strikes the deepest registers with the tortured character of Bud White, a part that has had less cut out of it from the book than either Mr. Spacey's or Mr. Pearce's ... but Mr. Crowe at moments reminded me of James Cagney's poignant performance in Charles Vidor's Love Me or Leave Me (1955), and I can think of no higher praise". Kenneth Turan, in his review for Los Angeles Times, wrote, "The only potential audience drawback L.A. Confidential has is its reliance on unsettling bursts of violence, both bloody shootings and intense physical beatings that give the picture a palpable air of menace. Overriding that, finally, is the film's complete command of its material". In his review for The Independent, Ryan Gilbey wrote, "In fact, it's a very well made and intelligent picture, assembled with an attention to detail, both in plot and characterisation, that you might have feared was all but extinct in mainstream American cinema". Richard Williams, in his review for The Guardian, wrote, "L.A. Confidential gets just about everything right. The light, the architecture, the slang, the music ... A wonderful Lana Turner joke. A sense, above all, of damaged people arriving to make new lives and getting seduced by the scent of night-blooming jasmine, the perfume of corruption".

Awards

L.A. Confidential was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won two, Kim Basinger for Best Actress in a Supporting Role and Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland for Best Screenplay - Adapted. It was also nominated for Best Picture, Director, Art Direction, Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Score and Sound. Kim Basinger tied for the Best Supporting Actress with Gloria Stuart from Titanic at the 4th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards.

Time ranked L.A. Confidential the best film of 1997. The National Society of Film Critics also ranked it the best film of the year and Curtis Hanson was voted Best Director. The New York Film Critics Circle also voted L.A. Confidential as best film of 1997 in addition to ranking Hanson as best director and he and Brian Helgeland with the best screenplay. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Board of Review also voted L.A. Confidential as the best film of 1997. As a result, L.A. Confidential is only the second film in history (along with Schindler's List) to obtain the distinction of sweeping the "Big Four" critics awards.

It was also voted as the best film set in Los Angeles in the last 25 years by a group of Los Angeles Times writers and editors with two criteria: "The movie had to communicate some inherent truth about the L.A. experience, and only one film per director was allowed on the list".

DVD

A Two-Disc Special Edition was released on DVD and Blu-ray on September 23, 2008.

Book vs. movie

The L.A. Confidential movie shares a general plotline and characters with the book it is based on, but is greatly condensed. Several characters' roles are changed or exchanged with other characters, and a great deal of the complex story surrounding the Nite Owl killings in the book is deleted or only referenced in passing. Many of the book's memorable lines are used in the movie, though many are attributed to different characters or in different situations than original. And while there are dozens of major plot and character differences between the book and the movie, the screenplay nonetheless manages to exact the same overall style of the book while at the same time eliminating a number of slurs and colloqialisms used in the book which are not generally considered acceptable in mainstream cinema. Of note, almost all of the movie characters used greatly resemble their descriptions in the book, aside from Sid Hudgens, who in the book is described as a tall, wiry man, while in the movie he is portrayed by Danny DeVito.

Although the differences are too many to list entirely, they include:

  • The movie takes place over a matter of a few weeks or months, while the book takes place over almost a decade period.
  • While the movie ends with a shootout at the Victory Motel between Dudley Smith, Bruening, Carlisle, Bud White, Ed Exley, and others, the book begins with a shootout in a different motel between Buzz Meeks and Dudley Smith's men.
  • Leland "Buzz" Meeks is killed at the beginning of the book in said shootout, but in the movie he is killed later and placed under the Lefferts' house. In the book, the body under Lefferts' house is that of Duke Cathcart.
  • In the movie, Duke Cathcart is killed at the Nite Owl. In the book, Duke Cathcart is killed by an impersonator named Dean van Gelder who is trying to take over his hooker and pornography business. van Gelder is killed at the Nite Owl.
  • In the movie, D.A. Lowe is set up for blackmail with Matt Reynolds in a gay tryst, with Reynolds killed subsequently. In the book, it is Lowe's opponent in the D.A. election who is set up with a juvenile prostitute to ruin his chances of election.
  • The notable movie scene where Bud White hangs Lowe from the window of his office does not take place in the book.
  • In the Christmas party dance scene in the movie, Jack Vincennes is dancing with "Karen" and nothing further is seen of her. In the book, Karen eventually marries Jack.
  • In the movie, Deuce Perkins is cast as a Mickey Cohen drug lieutenant and killed almost immediately. In the book, Perkins is an opium-smoking musician who kills juvenile prostitutes in a brutal fashion and is heavily involved in the entire story.
  • In the movie, the lead suspect in the Nite Owl killing is Ray Collins. In the book his name is "Sugar" Ray Coates.
  • Inez Soto plays a bit part in the movie, while she plays a major role in the book. The romantic relationship between Ed and Inez is also absent, along with her personal relationship with Bud White.
  • The movie eliminates almost the entire storyline involving Ed Exley's father Preston and his (faulty) solving of the murder of "Wee Willie Wennerholm" by Loren Atherton - which is then linked to several gruesome killings in the book that are all related to "Fleur-de-lis", Pierce Patchett, and Dudley Smith.
  • In the movie, the two-man shooter teams killing Cohen's lieutenants are Dudley Smith's men Bruening and Carlisle. In the book, it is a three-man shooter team consisting of Lee Vachss, Abe Teitelbaum, and Johnny Stompanato acting on behalf of Dudley Smith, with Deuce Perkins as their driver.
  • In the movie, Jack Vincennes is killed by Dudley Smith. In the book, Vincennes is killed by an escaping convict during an assault upon the "Q" Train transferring inmates. This scene, deleted from the movie, is also where Bud White is badly injured toward the end of the story (in the movie, it is in a shootout at the Victory Motel).
  • While the high-class pornographic magazines are one of the central plots of the book that tie almost all of the characters and sub-plots together, they are only a minor sub-plot in the movie.
  • Exley's story about "Rollo Tomasi" killing his father in the movie is not present in the book. Preston Exley, his father, is a significant character in the book and eventually dies via suicide.
  • Dudley Smith is killed by Exley at the end of the movie. In the book, he is the only "bad guy" left standing at the end and continues as an LAPD Captain - although Exley promises to Bud White that he will kill him at some future time.
  • The well-known scene where Exley calls Lana Turner a "two-bit hooker" in the movie, shown often in advertisements at the time of release, is not present in the book. In the book, Lana Turner is talked about in far more graphic terms, especially by Mickey Cohen.


References

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Further reading



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