L.A. Confidential–A Modern Potential

I can only think of a few times in my life that I knew I was watching a classic in the making when sitting in a movie theatre.  Watching L.A. Confidential for the first time was one of those moments.

Released in the autumn of 1997 in the US, Confidential had more intelligence, plot twists and excellent performances than one assumed a film in the crime genre was capable of handling.  It hardly got any advertising space in the papers and only had occasional TV slots, but word of mouth spread.  I saw it twice upon its initial release, first on its opening weekend (in a mostly empty theatre) and a month later (nearly sold out).

It was the type of film that made you want to seek out others who’d seen it, just so you could gush about how great it was.  It almost became a clique-former at parties, where people who had seen it would go off to talk, just to make sure those who hadn’t seen it wouldn’t overhear anything they shouldn’t.  Such actions were in keeping with the spirit of the film, because the whole film is about webs of secrets and deceit.

Set in a turbulent Los Angeles in the early 1950s, the film follows the repercussions of a turf war between gangsters, pimps, drug lords and a corrupt police force.  The action focuses on three police officers: Bud White (Russell Crowe), a tough guy and vigilante against abusers of women, Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), a political hack who is more concerned with image than conformity, and Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), a player in the Hollywood scene who has forgotten why he became a cop.  These three men, who have little in common and less respect for each other, will be thrown together to take on a wave of corruption that seems unstoppable and to right a collection of wrongs that seem to have no end.

James Ellroy, the man responsible for the novel, famously stated that the book was unfilmable due to its multiple plot threads.  And while the film never stops to breathe, cramming in plot and character at a break-neck speed, it is still clear enough to follow, though that clarity doesn’t come until after the final credits roll.

That’s the great thing about the film.  It is so well-structured and complicated that it makes one want to analyse it, just to make sure you did in fact pick up all of the pieces.  I’ve seen the film a few times over the years and still find new threads.  I got the film the first time around, but even on further viewings I found new insights that make me see and understand characters and plot points differently.

And the attention to detail is stunning.  It is easy to believe that it is set in the 1950s with its set pieces, costumes and make-up.  I know Los Angeles well, and I can usually see the seams whenever a film is shot in retro; this, however, looks flawless.  In one fell swoop, it is both authentic and homage to an almost mythical place where many came to realise their dreams; most had them dashed harshly.

One of the film’s initial strengths no longer works.  At the time of release, Pearce and Crowe were virtually unknown.  The thought that their characters would triumph while characters played by known actors ended up dead was quite shocking at the time.  Now, not only do we expect these two actors to be leading men, but they are still playing the same type of character (more so Crowe).  Both may have found greater fame in future roles, but I think that neither has yet been finer than their work here.

But if there is one performance that stands out in a strong ensemble, it has to be Kim Basinger, whose Lynn Bracken ends up being the heart of the film.  Basinger had always played the Southern beauty, always pretty to look at but never an acting force.  Here, she not only proved how excellent she can be but manages to carry the moral compass, coming across as the most sympathetic character.  She rightfully won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress that year, which makes the fact that she has been nothing more than a blip on the acting radar of late all the more heartbreaking.  It really is a loss that Hollywood cannot seem to supply ample roles for women above ‘a certain age’ (but that’s a blog rant in itself for another time).

Ironically, for a film that is about a past era, it feels even more relevant now than when it was first released 12 years ago.  Maybe we as a society have grown up a bit, or perhaps events of the past decade have jaded us, making us as cynical about the world as the majority of the characters in this film.  Maybe we’ll look back and see it as the film that marked the end of the innocence that seemed to permeate much of American cinema in the 1980s and 90s, or it might be an example of a style that Hollywood might have excelled in had it had the guts to be consistently surprising.

Whatever the case, L.A. Confidential is a brilliant film that has not only matured well over the years but has since become the very measuring stick upon which other crime and police dramas find themselves measured against.  It is an unforgettable tour de force on every level, and I have no doubt that it will not only be a remembered film but will also be an iconic cinematic marvel for future generations to study and enjoy.

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