An Appreciation – L.A. Confidential
The first is officer Edmund Exley, played by Guy Pearce. With his hair neatly slicked, wearing thin-rimmed glasses and with a sharp jaw line, Pearce creates a perfect character in Exley, the “good cop” with a slightly nerdish appeal. Exley’s father is a legend among the police, and throughout the story Exley finds himself constantly trying to live up to his father’s reputation. The problem is that Exley’s father was a person who was rough around the edges, who would do shady work if it meant achieving the department’s goals. Exley is the opposite of that. He starts off as a straight-arrow officer, doing things by the book regardless of what unwritten code would say otherwise. He never accepts bribes, rarely spends time with other officers outside of work, and lives as though his purpose in life is to close a case. We would think that this kind of characterization of Exley would make him a bit of an uninteresting stiff, but there is more to him than that. His constant pursuit of doing what’s right has helped him quickly advance among the ranks, and as a result he’s become blinded by his own ambition. Gaining a higher status almost became an obsession for him, even to the point of manipulating others to get what he wants. He lost sight of why he first entered the force, which was to catch the criminals who thought they could get away. That’s what makes him far more interesting than your usual cop; he’s a “good cop” who lost sight of what he truly cared about.
The next officer is Jack Vincennes, played by Kevin Spacey in his usual smiling glee. Fresh off of his Academy Award-winning performance in The Usual Suspects (1995), Spacey adds his undeniable charm and wit to the character of Vincennes. Vincennes works as a police consultant on the television series Badge of Honor, where he gives tips and advice to the actors. In his first scene, Vincennes describes to a person how he teaches actor Brett Chase (Matt McCoy) how to be a policeman, and he does so with almost joyful spirit. Moonlighting in the Hollywood scene and rubbing elbows with various stars, Vincennes became entranced with the glamorous life he found himself in. He cares so much about being in that world of nicely tailored suits and shiny jewelry that his actual work as a policeman has taken a back seat. Much of his own investigations involve working with Sid Hudgens himself, with Sid supplying scandalous bits of information and players with dirty hands, and Vincennes supplying the headlining quotes and the collar to his name. This seems to be the perfect marriage of work and play for him, but when he becomes directly responsible for the death of a person—which he could have prevented—Vincennes comes to an internal struggle. While Exley remembers why he first joined the force, Vincennes cannot, and that is why he takes it upon himself to not only solve his own case, but join forces with Exley to solve the Night Owl murders as well.
Perhaps the most interesting of the three officers is Bud White, played by Russell Crowe with a balancing act of machismo and vulnerability. What makes Crowe’s tough cop with a short temper so memorable is that we see beneath his gruff exterior to a character full of doubts and complexities. He has a personal tie to the Night Owl massacre, since Stensland was his former partner. Along with that, he has his own hatred of those who abuse women, and when he learns that one of the other victims of the massacre was a woman he recently ran into and could have helped, his impatience with finishing the case becomes that much more passionate. But the layers go even beyond that. White’s reputation for physically roughing up criminals caught the eye of Dudley Smith, and he uses him to help convince (a.k.a. beat up) unwanted residents of the city to go away. This all results in a character who eagerly wants to do the right thing, even if it means bending or even breaking some of the rules. At the same time, he feels that he is more than just a thug, that he can use his brain instead of his strength to get work done. That’s what makes his relationship with the call girl Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger) so important. An employee of businessman Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn), Bracken is a prostitute made to look like Veronica Lake. She’s perhaps the most important character, adding humanity to a film full of inhuman people. Bracken treats White like more than hired muscle, and he treats her like more than a Veronica Lake lookalike. Their connection feels tangible; White could not keep himself from falling off the edge without her. That’s what makes their relationship so special, but dangerous if anyone were to find out about them.
It’s really an achievement of Hanson to create a story with this many characters and plot threads, and still have it coherent enough for us to fully invest in everything that is happening. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, we could have easily fallen off track and lost our grip with the narrative; that never happens here. Each of the main characters is fleshed out effectively well; we never have to question why a certain character behaves a certain way or what specific detail a scene is focusing on. At the climax, we understand how we arrived regardless of how complex the journey was to get there. Specific mention must be given to the editing and photography of the film. Dante Spinotti, whose name is known through his work with Michael Mann, has a highly stylized yet not overtly noticeable camera here. It moves and is placed beautifully and efficiently, framing his characters representative of the time period but capturing the exact information we need to develop the story. Peter Honess’s editing work was exceptional, cutting between different storylines smoothly. It’s difficult to tell a story with three to four different lead characters and a not-initially-obvious villain, but Honess does it perfectly, never having us linger too long in a scene, and even incorporating a clever use of flashback to help us remember small clues of information. This all results in a product of expert craft and structure, with each part working at the highest level possible for the best possible effect.
L.A. Confidential is the kind of the film that happens when every element that helped make it clicks together in perfect symmetry. While seeing it again in preparation for this article, I found myself not just thinking about it analytically, but being drawn in and held to the screen as if I were seeing it for the first time. Sure, I knew what was going to happen, but I couldn’t help but feel a pure sense of enjoyment while reliving this story. Through the great work both in front of and behind the camera, the makers have a created a modernized film noir that will be remembered for years to come. Its hard edge and mystery, set beneath the bright lights of Tinseltown, makes for a rewarding cinematic experience that does not disappoint with each repeated viewing.