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City of Tarnished Angels

L.A. Confidential
Merrick Morton

Woman in the Mirror: Kim Basinger practices her Veronica Lake imitation for Curtis Hanson's smart new period-piece policier, 'L.A. Confidential.'

'L.A. Confidential' taps into a rich vein of Hollywood decadence

By Richard von Busack

CURTIS HANSON'S solid, knowing L.A. Confidential is the smartest and handsomest vintage L.A. movie in 25 years, and the best part of the deal is that it isn't a pseudo-noir. Hanson and his co-scriptwriter, Brian Helgeland, have done everything they can to give their sharp adaptation of James Ellroy's seemingly unfilmable novel the impact of immediacy.

L.A. Confidential doesn't stylize the past; it brings out motifs and problems from the past that are alive in the present. Maybe the fact that the action involves police work makes the film seem relevant today--some institutions change very slowly indeed.

The film, like the novel, spins off of real events in the early 1950s. The filmmakers have accomplished something rare by imagining hitherto untapped (in the movies at least) decadence in Hollywood. There's an L.A. legend about a brothel where the prostitutes were hired as ringers for the stars--as close as the average jerk would get to Mae West. Hanson tops the story with a twist of his own. Look fast at L.A. Confidential's scene at the Fleur de Lys (whose motto is "Anything you want"), and you'll get a glimpse of a Shirley Temple impersonator.

L.A. Confidential is a roman à clef about a police coverup that opens wide as the L.A.P.D. attempts to launder its image. Ellroy's plot is full of surprises, turns and switchbacks centered on a few subjects: a massacre in a cafe and the L.A.P.D.'s former practice (also seen in Mulholland Falls) of beating up out-of-town gangsters who tried to operate in L.A.

The movie's dynamic is fueled by two very opposite cops. The ambitious, mandarin-smooth Ed Exley (Australian Guy Pearce) is the son of a martyred police officer and a real Joe College. He's incorruptible and, naturally, the last to suspect that the L.A.P.D. has been colluding with elements on the wrong side of the law. (Viewers with long memories will remark on how much Pearce looks like that stalwart WASP police poster boy, actor Kent McCord from Jack Webb's TV show Adam 12. Australian actors are now hired for the same reason Canadian actors were hired in the '60s: they all look more American than Americans do.)

To provide a direct contrast to Exley, the film introduces us to a bloodier cop, Bud White (Russell Crowe), who is used as a blunt instrument by his superiors. White is an honest thug who has to learn to think before he's outwitted.

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Get down and dirty with director Curtis Hanson and novelist James Ellroy, the men responsible for the vintage L.A. movie

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THE ENSEMBLE CAST is generally excellent. Danny DeVito, never shorter, plays the editor of the scandal sheet L.A. Confidential. He has a symbiotic deal with the police, fingering candidates for vice-squad arrests in exchange for inside information. James Cromwell (Farmer Hoggett of Babe) enjoys his best part yet as Dudley Smith, a cold devil of a police officer given a thin layer of polish by the Jesuits. Kevin Spacey is hugely funny as the ironical, self-amused police/Hollywood liaison Jack Vincennes. What a Philip Marlowe Spacey would make!

The casting of Kim Basinger is less successful. She displays more depth than usual, maybe just because she's starting to age onscreen. She needs the dose of maturity to deal with the archetypal gold-hearted prostitute role (her character, Lynn Bracken, is supposed to be from Bisby, Ariz., which is really laying it on thick).

But Basinger doesn't have the Veronica Lake look that she's supposed to be living off of--belief must be suspended. (And the filmmakers missed the best angle. They should have considered the plight of a Lake impersonator in the early '50s, some four years after Lake had made Slattery's Hurricane. She'd be as likely to be on the skids as, say, a Jami Gertz impersonator in a modern-day brothel full of movie-star clones.) The Gary Cooperish David Strathairn, cast against type as a wealthy pimp, gives a good demonstration of why he isn't customarily cast against type.

The last third of L.A. Confidential is pitted with the almost reflexive killing off of red herrings, which is forgivable; many movies we think of as classics are also fairly cavalier about who killed whom and where the bodies went and how they got there. To be especially generous, it can be pointed out that floor-clearing killings are also prominent in much of Shakespeare.

So, for almost all of its length, L.A. Confidential is a satisfying, elliptical policier. The movie has a plot you can't get ahead of, set against L.A. locations you haven't ever seen, with a soundtrack of West Coast jazz and edgy '50s pop. Full of fresh retro style, L.A. Confidential enlivens a stale movie scene.


L.A. Confidential (R; 138 min.), directed by Curtis Hanson, written by Brian Helgeland and Hanson, based on the novel by James Ellroy, photographed by Dante Spinotti and starring Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe and Kevin Spacey.

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From the Sept. 18-24, 1997 issue of Metro.

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