Like the best noir crime thrillers, L.A. Confidential, directed by Curtis Hanson and very 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. If you stand back from its jumbled panorama, it comes together like one of those compressed 3-D images that suddenly snap into focus if you stare at them long enough.
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.
The assumption in noir has always been that appearances are not deceiving. If you're fat, you're gross; if you're a woman, you're no good; if you're rich, you're sleazy. It's a reactionary genre--or it would be except for the strain of sentimentality that runs through it. (Think of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe--the white knight of the dark streets.)
The key to L.A. Confidential--what makes it different--is that just about everybody in it isn't what he or she seems. Sometimes the characters are even worse than you imagined; sometimes they show off a valor and a rue that spin you around. The mysteries to be solved in L.A. Confidential aren't only whodunits. The flip-flops of character are mysteries, too. We never are sure how people will act in this film, and that unease is part of its texture. It keeps us off-balance until the end.
Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), when we first see him, is a Los Angeles police officer on the make for a higher rank. College-educated, the son of a decorated cop killed on the job, Exley, with his wire-rimmed glasses and pursed, polished features, is almost comically straight-arrow. But there's a connivance built into his uprightness, which he uses as leverage to get what he wants. 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 his fellow cops brutalize some Mexicans brought to the police station on Christmas Eve, Exley alone rats on his comrades--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 racist thugs. But Exley uses the ugly incident as an opportunity, knowing full well he'll be shunned, or worse, by his fellow officers. He doesn't care; he doesn't really want to be liked by them anyway.
It's to the film's credit that Exley's apple-polishing is given its due. So is the cynicism and sense of betrayal from the other cops. We don't see much more of Stensland except his corpse, but White the bully boy turns soulful and becomes Exley's antagonist. Taken up by Captain Dudley Smith (the marvelous James Cromwell) as a strong arm on crime raids, White inevitably is drawn into a collision course with the golden boy. It's as if he and Exley were fated to square off.
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 De Vito), the yowly editor of a tabloid magazine called Hush-Hush. Vincennes also works as an advisor to the television series Badge of Honor, which portrays the L.A.P.D. as shining warriors. He 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 the vile.