The 1950s-era Los Angeles of L.A. Confidential is Noir Central. Its denizens are tattooed in shadow; the play of light and dark in the streets, the police stations, the morgues, is fetishistic. The postwar L.A. touted in the travelogues and billboards is a boomtown, but what we actually see is unsettling: a city of the future infested by people with only a past.
Like the best noir crime thrillers, L.A. Confidential, directed by Curtis Hanson and loosely based on the 1990 James Ellroy novel, suggests a menace even greater than the one we are presented with. It's been a long time since we've had sordidness this ripe in the movies. Hanson and his cinematographer, Dante Spinotti, understand why we allow ourselves to be taken in by noir -- it sexes up our own worst suspicions about how the world works.
With a cast of more than 100 characters, Ellroy's novel is a sprawling overload of plots and subplots. The overabundance has an obsessive, almost punitive quality, as if the L.A. horror could no longer be contained within the confines of a single narrative. Pulp noir is, almost by definition, a slick genre, but Ellroy's book is a rare thing -- a noir epic. Hanson and his co-screenwriter, Brian Helgeland, have hooked into Ellroy's depraved, moody-blues mindset and tricked out a story line from his welter of happenings. The movie is still a dense thicket of subterfuges and wrong-way turns, but at least it's negotiable.
Besides, confusions are a part of noir. We don't look to these movies for handy resolutions, and the films that wrap things up for us are often the least resonant. Hanson makes this mistake at the end of L.A. Confidential, but otherwise he demonstrates that every safe exit is really a trap door. The result is perhaps the best noir crime movie since Chinatown -- not that, aside from Devil in a Blue Dress, there has been much competition.
Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is a Los Angeles police officer on the make for a higher rank. In a police force rife with corruption, Exley accommodates himself to his image-conscious higher-ups as a do-gooder, a poster boy. When a number of fellow cops brutalize some Mexicans, Exley alone rats -- and wangles a promotion for it. He's not wrong to rat. The cops -- spearheaded by Dick Stensland (Graham Beckel), along with his partner, Bud White (Russell Crowe), and Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) -- behaved like thugs. But Exley uses the ugly incident as an opportunity.
It's to the film's credit that Exley's apple-polishing is given its due, as is the other cops' cynicism and sense of betrayal. We don't see much more of Stensland except his corpse, but White the bully-boy turns soulful and becomes Exley's antagonist.
Vincennes is the most jaded of the cops. Dressed nattily -- he wears his finery the way a lizard wears its skin -- he makes side money setting up Hollywood busts for Sid Hudgeons (Danny DeVito), the yowly editor of a tabloid magazine called Hush-Hush. Vincennes values his sleekness because it camouflages the scumminess of his operation. But he also values the scumminess; it confirms his wisdom about how rotten things are. Vincennes fancies himself a connoisseur of vileness.
What gives Spacey's performance its edge -- its greatness -- is that finally we can see how little this connoisseurship means to him. When Vincennes is given an opportunity to right a wrong he perpetrated -- a Hollywood bust turned murder -- he jumps at it. It's as if the real person, guileless and decent, has melted away the mask. Perhaps the reason Vin-cennes comes across as the most layered of the film's characters is be-cause his take on things -- detached yet impassioned -- matches Curtis Hanson's. Underneath the cool-cucumber flipness, he's terribly engaged.
In place of the standard-issue noir vamp who drives men to their doom, we get Kim Basinger's Lynn Bracken, the whore with the heart of gold. Lynn is a prize filly in the stable of pimp-financier Pierce Patchett (David Strat-hairn), who runs a house of prostitution featuring women surgically altered to look like movie stars. (Such a ring actually existed in Hollywood.) Lynn is the Veronica Lake stand-in, and Bud White falls for her. He lets her know she's better-looking than Veronica Lake; that's how we know he loves her.
Lynn is such an ethereal goddess that you crave some poison in the mix -- something slutty and indefensible. Basinger has the right vanilla parfait look -- she's certainly a pulpmaster's wet dream -- but she's given things to say like, "Bud can't hide the good inside of him." And we're meant to agree.
The scenes with Lynn are cream-filled with good intentions -- the same creaminess that mars the film's ending. In a way, Hanson is a victim of his own success: He's so good at nastiness that sweetness pales in comparison.
Directed by Curtis Hanson. With Kevin Spacey, Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, James Cromwell, David Strathairn, Kim Basinger and Danny DeVito.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.