Off The Record, Very Hush Hush: L.A. Confidential (1997, Curtis Hanson)

The years have been kind to Curtis Hanson’s modern neo noir classic, L.A. Confidential. “On the QT, off the record, and very hush- hush” is a line that perfectly describes the movie, and it comes directly from the film’s on off again narrator, Sid Hudgens (a wonderfully sleezy Danny DeVito). Who happens to know some secrets of his own, considering that Sid is a tabloid journalist working with Det. Sgt. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey at the height of his awards period), although at times it seems that Sid is the one calling the shots.

Perhaps because it expertly recreates 1950s Los Angeles, this film is not as dated as other 1990s films from the decade. Or maybe its because L.A. Confidental’s subject matter of police corruption and racial elements ring just as true now as they did back in 1997. Either way, my recent viewing of the film on Netflix reminded me of why this is one of my favorite noir movies.

Also having two young unknown stars at the time benefitted the movie. Guy Pearce’s Ed Exley and Russell Crowe’s Bud White form the dynamic at the film’s heart; they even share the same woman, Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger in an equal parts cunning and understated performance). She was the only one of the acting cast to win an Oscar for her efforts, as the film failed to best the Titanic juggernaut that overtook the 1998 awards. Too bad, since I care more for L.A. Confidential, preferring its flair for quiet, moving scenes interrupted by violence and the seedy dealings of a criminal underbelly.

It helped that two career character actors were also involved in James Cromwell, playing Capt. Dudley Smith with a charm that hides a dark side, and David Strathairn as Pierce Patchett, who operates a call girl ring. If these characters feel as if they are from a book, well the film was based on the novel by the same name. Written by film noir legend James Ellroy, no less.

Despite having Bud as a “good guy,” the film gives each of its main trio of cops serious flaws. Bud has a violent temper, which is best described by Ed with the line “His blood is always up.” Ed himself is described by Smith as being a political animal, and rats out his fellow offices to achieve his own ends of justice and advancing his career. Jack admits to Ed in one scene that he cannot remember why he became a cop, and uses cases to further his own celebrity. Not to mention that all three seem to not have a problem operating outside the law, which is what gets them all into trouble in the first place.

While the film’s famous shootouts are its violent highlights, one scene late at night that is both shocking and ruthless is my preferred moment in the film. It even has the film’s best line: “Don’t start tryin’ to do the right thing, boy-o. You haven’t the practice.” This part ties the epic overdue fight between Bud and Ed that is brutal and feels very real, with both man getting out their aggression and hostile feelings over recent events. Since both men feel betrayed, they end up banding together to find the truth. Even though Ed admits that it will probably cost them everything. 

Having started this essay a year ago and dealing with recent events concerning cops and police brutality, L.A. Confidential is even more relevant than it was back in 1997. Hollywood choose to go for blockbuster spectacle rather than honor a movie that left the audience feeling as if they hand gone through the wars. Maybe that’s why film noirs are out of style today, even though we could use them to shine a light on the darker side of Americana. In fact I think we need them more than ever. 

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