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L.A. Confidential review
Image: Warner Brothers

Film

L.A. Confidential: The Neo-Noir Tale of Good Cops, Bad Cops, and Really, Really Bad Cops

Off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush…

L.A. Confidential at 25

L.A. Confidential, which arrived on screens 25 years ago this week, is one of the best cop films, L.A. films, and 1950s-set films. It’s also the best movie most of its cast and crew have ever been associated with. 

The plot, in the fine film noir tradition, is complex as hell, but ultimately doesn’t matter as much as the character and atmosphere. 

It’s 1953, mobster Mickey Cohen has just gone off to jail, and the people from inside and outside of town who aspire to take over his rackets keep ending up dead. Police are investigating, but there’s an air of corruption that goes well beyond the LAPD, and into Hollywood as well. The plot is set off by a massacre at an all-night diner, which kills off a recently fired cop. 

Adapted from James Ellroy’s novel by writer Brian Helgeland and director Curtis Hanson. It’s the best movie the late Hanson ever directed, and he made some good ones,. It also sports a fine Jerry Goldsmith score. 

There are many kinds of cops in L.A. Confidential. Ed Exley (Guy Peace) is a white knight, the proverbial Son of a Great Man, eager to expose cop corruption even if it makes him enemies throughout the LAPD. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a brutal rage case, but one with a conscience that slowly emerges throughout the film. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a fame whore, who’s less concerned with police work than with his job as the “technical adviser” on a Dragnet-like TV show. And Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) is corrupt to the core and willing to kill to avoid exposure. 

L.A. Confidential
Image: Warner Brothers

All of the cops, save Smith, will have their worldview somewhat adjusted over the course of the film, while their alliances will shift. That nuance — as well as a half-dozen classic scenes — is the best thing about L.A. Confidential. 

The other key character is a sex worker who looks like Veronica Lake (played by Kim Basinger, who does not particularly look like Veronica Lake. She’s set up as the traditional femme fatale, but there’s not really anything ‘ fatale’ about her. She succeeds mostly at out-talking her male counterparts. 

Also figuring in the plot are the operator of her escort service (David Strathairn), a sleazy tabloid photographer (Danny DeVito), and the closeted district attorney (Ron Rifkin.) It greatly helps the film that almost everybody in it is a fantastic actor. 

L.A. Confidential represented the Hollywood breakout for the two Australian actors, Pierce and Crowe, and the film led to several years of superstardom for Crowe, while Pierce has earned steady work all of the time since even starring in significant movies like Memento. 

L.A. Confidential

We will never see Kevin Spacey in a movie again, for very good reasons, but this was one of his best performances, delivered right between his two Oscar wins (for The Usual Suspects two years earlier and American Beauty two years later.) And Cromwell, as the villain, is absolutely chilling. 

L.A. Confidential was nominated for nine Oscars, although it was beaten out for most of them by the Titanic juggernaut that year. Kim Basinger won the movie’s only Oscar, despite giving the fifth or sixth-best performance. 

Yes, the movie’s epilogue is completely unnecessary, serving only to have Russell Crowe give a speech explaining the bad guys’ entire evil plot. As was pointed out by William Goldman, when he used to do an annual Premiere magazine column laying out all of the failures of the Best Picture nominees, the movie should have ended five minutes earlier with Exley holding up his badge as the police cars arrive, a striking image that was on one of the movie’s posters. 

Even so, there were a lot of great movies released in the fall of 1997, but L.A. Confidential may be the best of them. 

Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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