L.A. Confidential – Classically Lacking #10

Adapted from the James Ellroy novel of the same name, LA Confidential uses a typically twisted and layered plot of deception, lies, and vice, to study its central cast of characters and their relationship to justice in a city riddled with racial tension and inequality, which means that although set in the 50’s and made in the 90’s, it still speaks to contemporary issues.

But there’s a chain hanging around this movie’s neck.

Kevin Spacey.

This series revolves around the concept of tackling historic art with a modern eye. So, with a modern eye I can look on this movie and see Spacey on the poster and feel revolted.

Should I watch it? Should anyone watch it?

Should we remove all of Spacey’s films from our collections and assign them to the rubbish?

Tempting, perhaps. But no.

This is not Spacey’s film. He is a large presence, for sure. His performance is also excellent. I have no interest in seeing him in any new work, but there is no denying his professional quality. That’s not so important in comparison to the fact that when we look to the credits of this film, we do not see just his name, we see hundreds. Hundreds of individuals who put more effort than we can ever know into making this film what it is.

Should we allow the disgusting actions of one individual to tamper the legacy of a work of art which is the product of a tremendous culminative effort?

It is already done, of course, as no one can watch this film without considering him and remembering what has been done, but should we completely remove an entire work from our lexicon for the sake of one bastard?

To erase, without even considering quality, so much work?

It’s a no from me. The separation of art versus artist argument will wage on, but here I do not think it is relevant. This is not Spacey’s creation. Remove him from the equation, no matter how good his performance is, and this film would have still existed. It would probably still be a classic.

But that’s just my opinion and is far more than enough words spent on that crap bag.

So,

LA Confidential is the story of three officers in the LAPD.

Wendell ‘Bud’ White (Russel Crowe) is a ruffian with an eye for justice, whatever the cost. We meet him observing a recently released con beating his wife. Despite the fact his partner is keener to get to the station with the alcohol to fuel their Christmas party than do any actual work, White intervenes and beats the man, handcuffing and leaving him for a patrol car to collect.

Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) is an up and comer, and far more by the book than White. He wants success, but he wants it done the right way. No hush money, no bribes, no unnecessary violence.

He also wears glasses.

It’s a plot point. Trust me.

Jack Vincennes (Spacey) is a narcotics veteran with one foot planted in Hollywood, serving as a technical advisor on a television drama called Badge of Honour. He also serves Sid Hudgens (Danny De Vito) on the side, with collars and tips to plant in his tabloid magazine Hush Hush.

This trio come together at the Christmas Party, where a fight breaks out in the holding cells after a false rumour of two officers having been severely beaten by a gang of Mexicans recently taken into the station circulates. Officers, led by White’s partner Dick Stensland, attack the prisoners, locking Exley in a cell. White engages in the fight to protect his partner, and Vincennes joins when he gets blood on his shirt. The repercussions result in a reorganisation of our central cast. White ends up as an attack dog for his boss (James Cromwell) as he attempts to bully any potential organised crime outfits out of the city. Exley indicts a number of his fellow officers, earning himself Detective Lieutenant rank and a terrible reputation. Vincennes also snitches, but only on officers with their retirements secured and only to protect his role on Badge of Honour.

This is all before the true inciting incident of the picture, which is a massacre at the Nite Owl café which gives Exley his first case, although under the wing of Cromwell’s Captain Smith, but this background information is really what makes this movie so memorable and the sheer depth of the plot means I’d spent far too many words just summarising the damn thing. Suffice to say if you care to learn more, just watch the thing. Spoiler: it’s a damn fine movie.

As I’ve found with so many noirs and neo-noirs, the machinery of the plot, no matter how labyrinthian and impressive, exists only to bring the audience close to its characters, and it is the movement and development of these characters which makes this movie so impressive.

Our central trio are initially drawn in a very rigid way. There is no doubting exactly who these men are. White feels inclined to intervene in the domestic assault but does so in a brutal and unforgiving way. When the aftermath of the holding cell brawl comes, he has no hesitation in handing in his badge and gun rather than ratting out any of his fellow officers. A brute with a heart of gold then, with an inclination towards helping women, and most definitely a believer in the code of honour and silence between officers of the law.  

Exley is the only one in uniform out of our main trio at the beginning of the film, and with his glasses and sharp features is most certainly visually distinct. He states his intentions very clearly to Captain Smith and Vincennes, that he isn’t interested in doing things the old ways, but when the mob locks him hopelessly in the cells you have to wonder if he isn’t fighting a losing battle. But when given the opportunity, Exley climbs on the backs of his colleagues, showing intelligence and intuition in feeding the chiefs exactly what they need to square the incident away whilst getting exactly what he wants in return.

Vincennes clearly has little interest in the law or advancing his position in the force. Badge of Honour is his passion. The most telling moment of this is when in the cells it is a splash of blood on his pristine shirt which sparks him into action, not indignation, a hunger for justice, or even self-preservation – just sheer vanity.  

Over the course of the film, these rigidly defined characters are broken down and melded together. They begin to question themselves, see themselves in the mirror, and think: why did I become a police officer? The answers to these questions force them into action, and three parallel lines slowly begin to converge into a singular arrow pointing in the same direction.

It is structurally brilliant, and for all the style and slick direction, LA Confidential is a masterclass in elegant storytelling. The actual details of the plot, which involve prostitution, plastic surgery, porn, heroin, and of course police corruption, is a tightly woven ball of yarn which is surprisingly well unwound by the end of the film, but even in the most knotty moments of plot it never loses momentum because of it’s tight character arcs which ensures that it is constantly driven forwards and the audience is never too bogged down in the stickiest details of the noir plot.

And on top of all that, what a cast. Yes, there’s that hanging chain, but it’s also got Russel Crowe at his growling, primal best (although his accent did remind me of Tim Allen). Kim Bassinger, who I’ve hardly found room to mention, is alluring and complex and well worth her Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Danny DeVito is a superb sleaze ball. Guy Pearce plays the straight man brilliantly, somehow often being the most hateable character in a room chock full of liars and cheats.

What we’re left with then, is quintessential cinema. Anyone with any interest in noir or neo-noir as a genre has probably already seen this and doesn’t need my recommendation, but LA Confidential has a quality which is beyond genre. It is an exemplary character study which focuses on questions which are still relevant today.

Why do people become police officers?

How much power should they be allowed?

What is justice? And how far should someone go to get it?

After they believe they have solved the Nite Owl case, Exley retrieves a victim of rape who was found at the perpetrators home from hospital. It was her recollection of the time when her rapists left her which finalised the convictions, as it proved they would have had time to leave the house and reach the café in time. But the woman reveals that she has no idea what time they left. In her own words:

‘Would anyone care that they killed a Mexican girl from Boyle Heights if they hadn’t killed those white people at the Nite Owl? I did what I had to do for justice.’

That was her justice and when Exley hears this, he realises that there is still someone out there who hasn’t faced the music and that, despite the medals and accolades he has received, the case must go on. It’s a complex issue, because what it boils down to is Exley being awarded for shooting a black man in an elevator with a shot gun for a crime that he didn’t commit…but he was a criminal. A rapist. And to the victim, Exley is still a hero.

Is that justice?

Is that fair?

Does it matter? As long as the bad guys are in the ground?

The movie isn’t about answers, but questions. Questions which maybe don’t have answers at all.  

And that’s what makes it a classic.  

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