An Appreciation – L.A. Confidential
“Off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush.”
So says reporter Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito) at the end each of his articles in the tabloid paper Hush-Hush. While Sid works as a supporting character in Curtis Hanson’s masterful crime drama L.A. Confidential (1997), his part is essential in establishing and maintaining the tone and style of the piece. There is a reason why Sid is the main narrator, setting up the story and guiding us through its intricate twists. He is representative of the ever-growing fascination the public has with scandal and sleaze news, especially when it deals with the glitz and glamour of 1950s Hollywood. While that kind of journalism seems to dominate mainstream media today, Sid is a symbol of its birth. In a time when Hollywood and the movie industry were in their so-called “golden age,” this movie peers beneath those layers toward its seedy underbelly in gritty fashion.
The film is one of the great crime movies ever made. Based on the novel by James Ellroy and co-written by Hanson and Brian Helgeland, it tells the story of three cops trying to solve a mystery in each of their own unique ways. One thing to note is the style of the film. I love film noirs, and one of the great accomplishments here is how Hanson takes those influences and infuses them without making things feel overtly stylized. The problem that many modern filmmakers have when creating a modernized version of a film noir is that they copy all of the visual style, but none of the heart that made those movies so special. This movie did it right. All of the texture is there: the suits, fedoras, cigarettes, femme-fatales, smoky rooms inhabited with morally questionable characters. But what sets this apart from the rest is the incredibly high quality of storytelling mixed with a very well-executed focus on characters. While there are many things happening in the movie (there are reportedly 80 different speaking parts), we stay grounded because we understand each of the characters’ motivations.
I say that because the plot of the story is a highly intricate, labyrinthine puzzle of events. At first glance, events in the film may seem episodic and unrelated to one another, but as the film moves forward in its very headstrong pace, we begin to see the strings that connect each to the other. This requires a great deal of contribution from the viewer, who must draw the lines between the dots just as the characters do as well. Even now, I still find myself impressed with how everything seems to fit together into a perfect whole. The story of the film revolves around the Los Angeles police department and their efforts to take down organized crime within the city. In an opening montage, we are introduced by the brief appearance to the mob boss Mickey Cohen (Paul Guilfoyle). After Cohen is arrested and sent to jail, his hold on the drug market is released, sending criminals into a free-for-all for its control. While we don’t even hear Mickey speak, his presence casts a dark shadow throughout the course of the movie.
Steadily, quiet clues and minute details begin to form that could go unnoticed at first watch. A woman who looks like she had her nose broken sitting in the back of a mysterious car; a man who claims himself to be an ex-police officer; prostitutes who have had makeovers to look like movie stars; hoodlums with a car in their garage full of shotguns—all seemingly unrelated, but somehow connected by some devious means. They all circle the main crime of the film, which is the killing of a number of people in the late night café The Night Owl. A gruesome scene which also included the death of a recently released but respected officer Dick Stensland (Graham Beckel), the crime becomes priority number one by the department, which must close the case or be smeared by the media and lose the confidence of the people in the city. Already tainted by the recent beatings of Mexican prisoners on Christmas Eve, the department—headed by lead officer Dudley Smith (James Cromwell)—takes an almost personal vendetta against those that committed the Night Owl Murders. When the case is laid out for participating officers, the entire room becomes filled wall-to-wall with those eager to do what needs to be done, by any means necessary.
It is at this point where the film takes a unique turn towards being something special. Each man in the department wants to solve the crime and seek justice for those that committed it, but each has their own moral code and acts according to that. That’s where we see the film become more nuanced, in the way that each officer operates within the framework of their own personality, trying to do what they feel is right but working together with those who have their own idea of what that means. An important element at play is the camaraderie (or lack thereof) of the men who work in the department. Many of them feel that there is a bond within their group that should not be broken. When one person knows that their partner has their back and would not rat them out, you feel like you can get away with just about anything. During the assault on Christmas Eve, the story would not have gotten out if it wasn’t for a photographer who caught them in act. This idea of “togetherness” is important within the department—they must take care of their own to help protect the city. The problem is, that same idea can lead to corruption. When no one is willing to testify against their own, the police department can become just as dangerous (maybe even more so) than the very criminals they are hunting. Anyone who would be willing to expose that very corruption would put themselves directly in harm’s way. Luckily, by the end of the film, we end up with three of them.