Director: Curtis Hanson
Production: Monarchy Enterprises B.V. and Regency Enterprises; distributed by Warner Brothers; 35mm, Technicolor; DTS/Dolby Digital; running time: 136 minutes; length: 3915 meters (approx. 12836 feet). Released May 14, 1997, France (Cannes Film Festival), September 5, 1997, Canada (Toronto Film Festival), September 19, 1997, U.S.A. Filmed in Hollywood, West Hollywood, and Los Angeles, California; cost: $35,000,000.
Producers: Curtis Hanson, Brian Helgeland, Dan Kolsrud, Arnon Milchan, Michael G. Nathanson, and David L. Wolper; screenplay: Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson, from the novel by James Ellroy; photography: Dante Spinotti; assistant directors: Jim Goldthwait, Heather Kritzer, Linda Montanti, and Drew Ann Rosenberg; editor: Peter Honess; sound: SoundStorm; art director: William Arnold; production designer: Jeannine Oppewall; costume designer: Ruth Myers; music: Jerry Goldsmith.
Cast: Kevin Spacey (Jack Vincennes); Russell Crowe (Bud White); Guy Pearce (Ed Exley); James Cromwell (Dudley Smith); Kim Basinger (Lynn Bracken); Danny DeVito (Sid Hudgeons); David Strathairn (Pierce Patchett); Ron Rifkin (D.A. Ellis Loew); Matt McCoy (Brett Chase); Graham Beckel (Dick Stensland); Amber Smith (Susan Lefferts).
Awards: Oscars for Best Supporting Actress (Kim Basinger) and Best Adapted Screenplay, 1998; Australian Film Institute Best Foreign Film Award, 1998; Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress (Kim Basinger), 1998; London Critics Circle Awards for Director of the Year, Film of the Year, Screenwriter of the Year, and Supporting Actor of the Year (Kevin Spacey), 1998; Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards for Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Screenplay, 1998; National Board of Review Awards (U.S.A.) for Best Director and Best Picture, 1998; National Society of Film Critics Awards (U.S.A.) for Best Director, Best Film, and Best Screenplay, 1998; New York Film Critics Circle Awards for Best Director, Best Film, and Best Screenplay, 1998.
Helgeland, Brian, and Curtis Hanson, L.A. Confidential: The Screenplay, New York, 1997.
Ellroy, James, L.A. Confidential, New York, 1997.
Lane, Anthony, "L.A. Confidential," in The New Yorker, 22 September 1997.
Denby, David, "L.A. Confidential," in New York, 29 September 1997.
Ansen, David, "The Neo-Noir '90s," in Newsweek (New York), 27 October 1997.
Taubin, Amy, "L.A. Lurid," in Sight and Sound (London), November 1997.
Wrathall, John, "L.A. Confidential," in Sight and Sound (London), November 1997.
Lyons, Donald, "L.A. Confidential," in Film Comment (New York), November-December 1997.
Arthur, Paul, "L.A. Confidential," in Cineaste (New York), Summer 1998.
* * *
Prior to the release of L.A. Confidential, director Curtis Hanson spent nearly 30 years learning the movie business, working as an actor, writer, producer, and director. He eventually earned a reputation as a skilled craftsman, as evidenced by lightly regarded but well made genre films such as Bad Influence (1990), The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1992), and The River Wild (1994). Just as the old studio system provided filmmakers with the opportunity to hone their craft, so too did Hanson's time as a director for hire heighten his filmmaking abilities. By the time Hanson took on L.A. Confidential, he was poised to make the leap from workmanlike director to filmmaker par excellence; the result was a film that is widely considered the best neo-noir since Chinatown (1974).
Masterfully adapted from James Ellroy's novel of the same name, L.A. Confidential is set in Los Angeles in 1953. As the opening voice-over narration kicks in we see a montage of gorgeous Southern California shots. The stage for what follows is set by Sid Hudgeons (Danny DeVito), a sleazy tabloid reporter for Hush-Hush magazine: "Life is good in Los Angeles. It's paradise on earth. That's what they tell you anyway. Because they're selling an image. They're selling it through movies, radio and television,. . . You'd think this place was the garden of Eden, but there's trouble in paradise." And indeed there is. The film follows the lives of three Los Angles police officers, Bud White (Russell Crowe), Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), and Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), as they try to unravel the mystery of the Night Owl Cafe massacre, in which several people, including White's former partner Dick Stensland (Graham Beckel), were shot dead during what was ostensibly a robbery gone bad.
The story is a complicated, densely layered mystery that deepens at every turn. The three protagonists are all different personalities with unique motivations, but as they chase down their leads their investigations begin to cross until it becomes clear that each is after the same thing: the search for a "truth" that, when discovered, will also serve as a means for personal redemption. Along the way the story seamlessly blends fiction with historical fact, involving crooked cops, Los Angeles mobster Mickey Cohen, his bodyguard Johnny Stompanato (Lana Turner's real life lover, who her daughter shot and killed), hookers surgically altered to resemble movie stars (Kim Basinger's turn as Lynn Bracken, a luminous Veronica Lake look-alike, won her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress), and Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn), a shadowy businessman loosely based on Walt Disney. But the backdrop for it all, and in many ways the star of the picture, is Hanson's vision of Los Angeles in the 1950s. This isn't the L.A. of our dreams, but Raymond Chandler's L.A., the weary town behind the facade. Beautifully shot by Dante Spinotti, the promise of Los Angeles as a land of milk and honey is exposed as false, just another in a long line of sun drenched Hollywood fabrications. Beginning with the opening montage and including meticulously detailed period recreations such as the Night Owl Cafe, a neighborhood liquor store, and the Frolic Room bar, Hanson's Los Angeles perfectly embodies an American Eden gone awry.
The various individual investigations eventually lead to Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), a L.A.P.D. institution who has all along been orchestrating a behind-the-scenes takeover of the jailed Mickey Cohen's rackets. Vincennes' discovery costs him his life, while White and Exley, who for most of the film are arch-enemies, finally join forces to face down Smith and his men in an apocalyptic gunfight at the hellish Victory Motel. Neo-noirs often try to capture the feel of Classical Hollywood Noirs, which were shot in black and white, but most fall short for either one or both of two reasons: first, the play between shadow and light normally just isn't as effective in color, and, second, most are set in the recent present, while Classical Noir narratives are inextricably rooted in the nuclear paranoia and McCarthyism of America in the late 1940s and early 1950s. L.A. Confidential ingeniously gets around both common shortcomings. Its taking place in 1953 neatly connects it to the Noirs of yesteryear, as does its cinematography; while the daylight scenes are awash in light, giving them a saturated look that contributes to the overall sense of decay, the nighttime scenes are shot in such a way as to highlight the contrast between light and dark. The best example of this technique is the shoot-out at the Victory Motel, during which White and Exley hole up in a dark hotel room in an attempt to fend off Smith's men. As the barrage of gunfire from the outside hits the walls of the room, each succeeding bullethole provides an opening for another shaft of ethereal blue light to pierce the darkness. Although not a movie that influenced an onslaught of neo-noirs in its wake, L.A. Confidential is among the best of its kind.
In addition to being an exemplary genre film, L.A. Confidential is one of the best critically received films ever. In fact, as of 2000, it is the only film in history to have won the best picture and the best director awards from the four major American film critics associations, the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Association of Film Critics, and the National Society of Film Critics. It was also extremely well received internationally, both in theatrical release and on the film festival circuit. Unfortunately, although nominated for nine Academy Awards, L.A. Confidential had the misfortune of being released in the same year as Titanic, the most financially successful film ever. However, even though it was Titanic that walked away with the major awards at the 1998 Oscars, Titanic will be remembered as a well made but maudlin special effects film, while L.A. Confidential will be remembered as a masterpiece of its kind and the film that marked Curtis Hanson as a major Hollywood director.
—Robert C. Sickels