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L.A. Confidential

L.A. Confidential(1997)

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Synopsis: Beneath the illusion of glamour, Los Angeles of the early 1950s is a corrupt and dangerous place. The Los Angeles Police Department sees--and sometimes participates in--the very worst of it. Some of the characters we encounter: Dudley Smith, the shrewd and streetwise Captain of the L.A.P.D. Ed Exley, the ambitious, clean-nosed and widely despised son of a legendary cop. Bud White, a specialist in domestic abuse cases who is prone to violence himself. Jack Vincennes, the slick consultant for Badge of Honor, a popular police show. Sid Hudgens, the editor for the tabloid publication Hush-Hush. And Lynn Bracken, a ringer for Veronica Lake. When a shooting rampage occurs at a cafe, the investigation leads in all sorts of directions, including the owner of a high-class prostitution ring and possibly someone in the police force itself.

One of the most highly acclaimed dramas of the 1990s, Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential (1997) is based on the 1990 novel of the same title by James Ellroy, arguably the leading crime writer today. Ellroy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, has made the city his special turf, perhaps most spectacularly in the "L.A. Quartet" that includes The Black Dahlia (1987), The Big Nowhere (1988), White Jazz (1992) and this work. As his 1996 memoir My Dark Places details, crime has played a major role in his own life--his mother was murdered when he was ten years old and he spent much of his adolescence and early adult life in trouble with the law. His fiction is distinguished by a terse, punchy prose style that is invariably described as "staccato" and minutely detailed accounts of criminal investigations and police procedures. One of his most interesting earlier novels, The Black Dahlia, is a fictionalized attempt to crack the notorious 1947 murder case that remains officially unsolved to this day. In L.A. Confidential, Ellroy once again uses facts as his starting point, cleverly weaving in real-life people such as the crime boss Meyer Harris "Mickey" Cohen and Lana Turner's boyfriend Johnny Stompanato (who was later stabbed to death by her daughter, Cheryl Crane), locations such as the Frolic Room and the Formosa Caf, and events such as Robert Mitchum's pot bust and the "Bloody Christmas" police abuse case.

At first glance, the source novel would seem difficult to adapt successfully for the screen. It has an exceedingly complex plot, dense with incident and intricate connections between the characters. Ellroy's legendary telegraphic style takes us directly inside the heads of his characters, who more often than not think the most unsavory thoughts; his prose is littered with arcane slang and racial epithets. Ellroy also introduces articles from the tabloid Hush-Hush and various newspapers, as well as police reports. This gives the reader a fragmented but multi-layered perspective on events. For the film, co-screenwriters Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson pared down and radically reshaped the plot to focus on the dynamics between the main characters. So while the film still has a complicated plot and an exceptionally large number of speaking parts (about eighty), it is more of a well-constructed film narrative in the usual sense. The screenwriters also use voice-over narration by Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), editor of Hush-Hush, to help create a unified tone and retain some of the pulpy flavor of Ellroy's style. In interviews, Ellroy has expressed great satisfaction with how the novel was adapted, and Helgeland and Hanson won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Although L.A. Confidential has its share of nighttime scenes and shadows, Dante Spinotti as cinematographer wisely avoids excessive chiaroscuro effects, instead trying to create a realistic atmosphere. His chief source of visual inspiration was the work of Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank, whose 1958 book The Americans offered realistic, at times gritty images from a wide range of American society at that time. In an interview published in the October 1997 issue of American Cinematographer, Spinotti says: "I tried to compose shots as if I were using a still camera. I was constantly asking myself, 'Where would I be if I were holding a Leica?' This is one reason I suggested shooting in the Super 35 widescreen format; I wanted to use spherical lenses, which for me have a look and feel similar to still-photo work." He also took Frank's lead in using "practical" lights such as desk lamps as primary lighting sources, often incorporating them into the composition. While this occasionally results in "burn-outs" and halos around the lights, Spinotti embraced these effects as "enhancing the period and mood."

When L.A. Confidential was released it received the best reviews of Curtis Hanson's career. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times wrote that it "looks to be the definitive noir for this particular time and place," praising Hanson's "command of narrative drive," the film's ensemble acting, and its attention to period detail. Janet Maslin of the New York Times described it as a "vastly entertaining throwback to the Hollywood that did things right." Among its many awards and nominations--too many to list fully here--included Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actress (Kim Basinger), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Dramatic Score, Art Direction, Editing, and Sound. Ultimately only Kim Basinger and the co-screenwriters took home Oscars®, though one can't help but feel that it would have won more awards if it weren't competing with the Titanic juggernaut that year.

Executive Producers: David L. Wolper and Dan Kolsrud
Producers: Arnon Milchan and Michael Nathanson
Director: Curtis Hanson
Screenplay: Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson, based on the novel by James Ellroy
Cinematography: Dante Spinotti
Score: Jerry Goldsmith
Editing: Peter HonessArt Direction: Jeannine Oppewall and Jay R. Hart
Costumes: Ruth Myers
Cast: Guy Pearce (Ed Exley), Russell Crowe (Bud White), Kim Basinger (Lynn Bracken), Kevin Spacey (Jack Vincennes), Danny DeVito (Sid Hudgens), James Cromwell (Dudley Smith), David Strathairn (Pierce Patchett), Amber Smith (Susan Lefferts), Paolo Seganti (Johnny Stompanato), Paul Guilfoyle (Mickey Cohen), Graham Beckel (Dick Stensland).
C-138m. Letterboxed.

by James Steffen

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