RETRO REVIEW: “L.A. Confidential” (1997)

It’s tough being a fan of film noir in 2023 – a time when the genre (that’s not exactly a genre) has all but dried up. The influence of film noir is still seen and felt in some movies today. And occasionally we’ll get a new film that fits the somewhat established description of film noir (last year’s superb “Decision to Leave” being the most recent example) – they have a certain style; there’s an element of mystery; they have seedy settings; they’re led by cynical protagonists. But sadly, there’s just not that many of them.

While I enjoy the new neo-noirs that occasionally come down the movie pipeline, rewatching “L.A. Confidential” reminded me of how much I love it when a filmmaker embraces the form to the fullest. “L.A. Confidential” feels like a time capsule movie, both in its style of storytelling and filmmaking. It has most of the markings of the great classic noirs while also having the willingness to tinker with the formula, similar to a film like “Chinatown”. And while I wouldn’t put it on the same level as Polanski’s picture (few movies are), in many ways “L.A. Confidential” follows in the footsteps of that 1974 gem.

“L.A. Confidential” comes from director Curtis Hanson who works from an Oscar-winning screenplay he co-wrote with Brian Helgeland. Their story is based on James Ellroy’s 1990 neo-noir novel of the same name, the third book in his L.A. Quartet series. As it turns out, Ellroy’s work makes for prime movie material as Hanson would show in his smart, sinister, and sultry telling of an L.A. crime story – one rooted in violence, corruption, and betrayal.

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The title is taken from a 1950’s gossip rag called Confidential founded by Robert Harrison. In the movie it’s represented as Hush-Hush magazine which is ran by the sleazy Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito). He’s our opening narrator who introduces us to 1953 Los Angeles and the key players in the story. From there it all unfolds like a pulpy crime novel, but with so many cinematic flourishes that help vividly bring the characters and the setting to life.

Anchored by a stellar cast, “L.A. Confidential” follows three very different LAPD officers navigating rampant mob violence and police corruption. Sergeant Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) is an ambitious, by-the-book officer trying to live up to his late father’s good name on the force. An idealist at heart, Exley is determined to make a difference, even testifying against fellow officers and earning a promotion as a result. Needless to say, it doesn’t earn him many friends at his precinct.

Detective Wendell “Bud” White (Russell Crowe) is a plainclothes officer with an edge. He’s not afraid to rough up men who beat up women (a result of watching his own mother beaten to death by his father), and he has no reservations about strong-arming criminals. He also detests Exley for testifying against his partner, Dick Stensland (Graham Beckel) and getting him kicked off the force. There’s a palpable tension between the two that only intensifies.

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

And then there is Detective Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), an officer in the narcotics division with an affection for the Hollywood spotlight. When not serving as an advisor on the television cop drama “Badge of Honor”, he takes money on the side from Sid Hudgens who tips him off to various celebrity mischief. Vincennes then lets Sid photograph the high-profile arrests for his magazine. Quite the racket.

The three cops are ultimately drawn together by a grisly multiple murder at a coffee shop called The Nite Owl. Among the dead is Dick Stensland. Three young African-American hoods are arrested and charged and the case is quickly closed. But the truth behind the crime is hidden behind a haze of blackmail, scandal, and corruption. As Hanson and Hedgeland’s script thickens, we’re treated to a fittingly brutal and sordid tale. One that takes a well-traveled genre and infuses it with new life. One that drags us deep into the mire of the “City of Angels”. One that keeps us hooked with every crooked twist and every shady double-cross.

It may be 25-years-old, but “L.A. Confidential” still holds up remarkably well today. And despite playing to a well-traveled genre (which I still love to this day), Curtis Hanson gave film noir a jolt that can still be felt today. The flawless ensemble (I haven’t even mentioned the terrific Kim Basinger, James Cromwell, and David Strathairn), the masterfully written story, the vibrant yet gritty vision of 1950s LA – most everything clicks in this fittingly cynical and undeniably seductive period crime thriller that still maintains its style and sizzle.


6 thoughts on “RETRO REVIEW: “L.A. Confidential” (1997)

  1. Great review of a classic film. A perfect example of a director serving the terrific material and genre without personal over-stylising.
    What a cast too!
    The Hanson and the casting director deserved an award for that alone.

    • Thanks so much Paul. You’re so right on every point. I was swept aware by it, just as I was after first seeing it years ago. In fact, I probably enjoyed it more this time around.

  2. This is a film I need to re-watch. It’s such a great film that captures a genre that has been missed. Plus, I think it makes the case for how absolutely underrated Curtis Hanson is as a filmmaker. From 1990’s Bad Influence to In Her Shoes. Honestly, with The Hands That Rocks the Cradle, The River Wild, Wonder Boys, and 8 Mile in between. That is a fucking streak of amazing films. I tend to feel like he gets overlooked when it comes to great filmmakers.

    I remember watching Isabelle Huppert at the Criterion Collection closet as she picked up Samuel Fuller’s White Dog as it was co-written with Hanson as she spoke fondly of him as she did The Bedroom Window that he directed.

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