L.A. Confidential Directed by Curtis Hanson

Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential

The relationship between television and the movies has always been fraught. Nowadays, it is more than possible to see a movie at home on the day of its initial release.  This has become necessary, not just because of Covid, but also because of our “convenience culture.”  This is an ethos that takes the old saw, “I want what I want when I want it” and adds the coda “and I want it without having to move from my couch.”  The movies have become a parasite on the back of television.  They need to feed on its home audience to survive.

Of course, this wasn’t always true.  In those bygone days when network television was the only video game in town, TV was the parasite.  It fed on genres from the movies then spit them out on the tube.  Coming into the 1950’s, the western was the most popular genre at the movies.  By 1959, nearly 60 percent of all television programming hours were taken up by western series.  People got tired of them.  This rabid at-home indulgence meant that over the next twenty years, big screen westerns would come close to dying out.

Another genre to suffer at the hands of TV overkill was the detective story.  It’s safe to say that with the exception of a few sitcoms, the balance of leftover programming hours was filled by cops and robbers.  These fared even worse than the westerns.  Those horse operas could be about the simplicity of white hat versus black hat. After all, the western had long since fallen into the mythological past. The detective stories were about what was happening outside the viewer’s front door.  It was much harder to mythologize everyday reality.  Stories set in the then-present day demanded nuances that were unnecessary for those stories taking place in the past.  Unfortunately, the only difference between most westerns and detective shows of the period was the one between Stetsons and fedoras.

Like the movie western, the once prevalent detective films have only gone through sporadic resurgences.  There were several in the 1970’s on the heels of Chinatown (Night Moves, The Long Goodbye, Farewell My Lovely), but the genre went back into hibernation for another twenty years.  When it finally did have a short revival in the 1990’s, it was capped by one of the best of the breed, Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (Amazon Link to Movie and Trailer).

In many ways, L.A. Confidential is a throwback to the great detective noirs of the late 1940’s.  Firmly set in the movies’ favorite corrupt metropolis, L.A. Confidential features a labyrinthine plot overstuffed with curves, both dramaturgic and female, and asks us to root for ambivalent protagonists who are both good and bad combined.  In keeping with a more post-modern approach, these characters are also carrying a lot of Freudian baggage.

Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a cop with a violent streak and a near mania for protecting women, an obsession that began when he watched his father beat his mother to death while he was tied to a radiator.  Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is more politician than cop and smarter than Bud, but with no less a father fixation.  In his case, Ed is trying to live up to that man’s over-sized reputation as a great cop killed in the line of duty.  Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is the most experienced, but suffers from an obsession with and for celebrity.  While the other two know why they became cops, Jack has long since forgotten his rationale.  These three officers work under the thumb of Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), a captain with a smooth line of talk and a Napoleon complex who seeks power above all else.  It is safe to say that none of these guys like each other.  What tensions exist between them are kept tightly in check until a mass shooting at the Night Owl Diner forces them to work together to solve an increasingly complex and violent case.

If L.A. Confidential was just another detective movie then its twisting plot and twisted characters would most certainly compel our attention.  It would be just as enjoyable and just as forgettable as last night’s episode of C.S.I. or Law and Order: S.V.U.  L.A. Confidential, though, has significantly more on its mind.  This is a story set in 1952 that was made in 1997 about issues which have only become clearer and more dominant as we enter the 2020s.

As in any great story, the plot of L.A. Confidential is really something of a ruse, a device used to give cover to an examination of something bigger.  In this case, Hanson runs two surprisingly contemporary critiques side by side.  The first is a commentary on the roots of violence within the brotherhood of the police.  Neither condemning nor praising the culture, Hanson and co-screenwriter Brian Helgeland examine the ways in which dealing with violence on a daily basis renders the police numb to its impact.  Once sufficiently lulled, participating in that violence goes from regrettable to “necessary” to natural.  Once remorse is removed, anything can be justified.

On a deeper and even more prescient level, L.A. Confidential examines the ways in which we have become so obsessed with the entertainment that we consume that we no longer have a taste for reality.  Media is both omnipresent and controlling in L.A. Confidential.  Jack finds his ego served as technical adviser to the TV cop show, Badge of Honor, a clear stand-in for Dragnet.  Badge of Honor pretends to be a story of “real cops” but is clearly child’s play compared to the cops in this town. “Hush-Hush,” a rip on the old scandal sheet “Confidential,” is the unholy partner of law enforcement, a rag whose editor Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito) bribes a very willing Jack to make celebrity arrests so that he can publish the sordid details.  Everything in L.A. is media-driven, even vice.  Here, prostitutes are surgically altered and dressed up to look like famous movie stars to satisfy the fantasies of wealthy people who are more excited by knock-offs than the genuine article.  This is a city that lives by the code, “When everything is fake, anything can be rationalized.“  Or, as printed on the matchbook that Jack finds, “Anything you desire.”

The actors have a field day with this jigsaw, each one seizing the pieces offered then fitting them into the next complication.  This is a powerhouse ensemble with special mention going to Kim Basinger.  As Lynn Bracken, a prostitute prized for her resemblance to Veronica Lake, Basinger grounds the film with its only wholly sympathetic and accessible character.  Without her much- needed contribution, L.A. Confidential could easily sink in its own murky waters.

With its driving retro movie score and perfect 1950’s aesthetic, it would be easy to see L.A. Confidential as a descendant of the detective dramas of that period.  To a great degree, of course it is.  More interesting, though, is the way in which it uses their traditional trappings to make comments on our strange desire to accept the fantasies we seek as the realities we want.  This doesn’t just present the 1950’s; it shows us how the media helped to get us from there to here.

And it’s been a hell of a ride.