Warning: This post contains spoilers about this movie. If you haven’t seen it, please be warned before reading ahead.
About three-fourths into L.A. Confidential, the character of Det. Sgt. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is fatally shot by Capt. Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). The scene comes without much warning and happens so fast, you realize the guts on director, Curtis Hanson, and his co-writer, Brian Helgeland, to kill off this character so early in the movie. Spacey, at the time, was rising high following his Oscar win for The Usual Suspects and several other high-profile movies throughout the 1990s. It’s just the kind of thing that wasn’t done in a movie like this.
The character of Capt. Smith had been slimey and corrupt throughout the movie but you were just wondering if it was a means to an end, i.e. that he’d have a character arc where he would become more honest. Cromwell, himself, had a character resurgence following an Oscar nomination for Babe. He lost to Spacey. You could look at it as Cromwell getting a little revenge on Spacey. Regardess, what Hanson and Helgeland are doing here is telling the audience that anything is possible.
In the book of the same novel for which the movie is based, Vincennes does die, so anyone going in who had read the book knew it was possible he would die. But the movie doesn’t follow the novel precisely. The novel was written by James Ellroy as part of his L.A. Quartet books and it ended on a cliffhanger with Smith, corrupt and getting away with things, until the next novel White Jazz.
The beauty part of Confidential is that it’s self-contained into one story as it follows three different LAPD officers who aren’t as corrupt as Smith but are no way Eagle Scouts. Vincennes is a narcotics officer and a hotshot who has found his way as a technical advisor on the hit TV show Badge of Honor starring Brett Chase (Matt McCoy) who more or less worships him as an older brother. Vincennes loves the limelight too as it brings him the clout and pizzazz to dress way nicer than the other officers.
Vincennes also works tandem with sleazy Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), an immoral and unscrupulous tabloid journalist who will sell cannabis to a rising Hollywood star then tip Vincennes off so he can make the arrest an hour late. Hudgens also tips Vincennes $50 and whatever extra money for the uniformed officers and booking officers. This is set about 15 years before the Miranda case, so the police function basically as a goon squad shaking down anyone they feel like with impunity.
The movie begins on Christmas Eve as Officer Wendell “Bud” White (Russell Crowe) stops to provoke and then arrest a domestic abuser. White, a victim and survivor of domestic abuse when he was a child when it was more accepted and people looked the other way, is quick to have a short fuse whenever he sees a woman being roughed up or even when he sees a woman with a black eye. This is the case when he notices a young Sue Lefferts (Amber Smith) sitting in the back of a car next to the older Pierce Patchett (the always great David Straitharn) outside a liquor store.
When he asks her if she is okay, Patchett sicks his bodyguard Leland “Buzz” Meeks (Darrell Sandeen) on him, but White is quicker and checks his wallet only to discover he was a former cop. And his partner, Richard “Stens” Stensland (Graham Beckel), both recognize each other but don’t say anything. Sue and Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), who White briefly talked with in the liquor store, both assure him it’s not a case of domestic abuse before going on their way.
The third officer is Sgt. Edmund J. Exley (Guy Pearce), a 30-year-old pulling duty as watch commander. He’s the son of a legendary officer who was killed in the line of duty. Exley wants to be more clean-cut and honest, even though Smith tells him that’s not possible if he wants to be a detective. Exley has just passed his lieutenant exam and Smith advises him to stay as a uniformed officer. When Vincennes brings a young Hollywood celeb, Matt Reynolds (Simon Baker) in on a drug bust, he tries to pass a $10 bill from Hudgens to Exley who refuses to take the payoff.
Stens and White have brought several bottles of liqour to the police station as the officers are having a party. Unfortunately, a couple of other officers were assaulted earlier that night and the suspects are some Mexican-Americans. When they are brought into the station, Stens leads the other officers down to the holding cells to beat them up as Exley, White and Vincennes all try to stop it. Exley is thrown into a cell where he can only watch helplessly. White tries to stop Stens but one of the Mexicans insults him causing White to lash out and Vincennes hits back when one of the Mexican gets blood on his clothes.
To make matters worse, a reporter and photographer were at the station earlier doing a fluff story on LAPD officers working Christmas Eve and manage to take a picture of the fighting for the front pages. One thing Hanson and Helgeland show here is the racism that was present. The white inmates in the holding cell watch with sadistic glee and even cheer on the officers who probably arrested them hours earlier. The incident is based on the Bloody Christmas incident on Dec. 25, 1951 in which five Mexican-Americans and two white people were beaten up by about 50 officers for about an hour and a half in the morning. Here the events take place on Dec. 24, 1952.
With the public pressure on them, the police chief (John Mahon) along with D.A. Ellis Loew (Ron Rifkin) can’t get many to testify even though they tell White that he can get off the hook by snitching on Stens, but White refuses and is suspended. Exley agrees, even though Smith says people will despise him and tells the chief he wants to be promoted to detective lieutenant in return. He also tells them to make Vincennes testify against officers who have secured their pensions so when they are forced to resign, it won’t hurt them. And Exley says they should use his role as technical advisor on Badge of Honor as a bargaining chip, which Vincennes agrees to do as he will be transferred to vice following a brief suspension.
With White and Stens facing possible criminal charges, Exley settles into his role as the new detective lieutenant and responds late one night to a homicide at The Nite Owl, a 24-hour coffee shop. Several people have been shot and killed in a robbery. Smith arrives and takes control from Exley telling him he can handle interrogations. When they discover that Stens was one of those killed, White also recognizes Sue as one of the vicitms. A comment is made that people thought she was Rita Hayworth at first.
As a task force is formed, Exley and Vincennes team up to track down a lead. White blows off his assigned partner and tracks down Patchett, who says that Sue had undergone cosmetic surgery to look like Rita Hayworth as he manages high-profile call girls who look like famous movie stars. Lynn Bracken has been modeled to look like Veronica Lake. However, upon interviewing both Patchett and then Lynn, neither one says they know anything about the Nite Owl case.
Through a contact, Vincennes and Exley are able to find three black petty criminals, Raymond “Sugar Ray” Collins (Jeremiah Birkett), Louis Fontaine (Salim Grant) and Ty Jones (Karr Washington) who have been discovered with shotguns in a car outside their residence. Two other officers, Michael Breuninng (Tomas Arana) and William Carlisle (Michael McLeery), have just arrived prior. Exley pulls rank and said they are all making the arrest together.
Back at the station during interrogation, Louis, the meekest of the trio, breaks down and lets it slip that they kidnapped a woman to rape, but he didn’t mean to hurt her. This leads them to a house where they find a Mexican woman, Inez Soto (Marisol Padilla Sanchez). Already angry and having threatened Ty at the station, Smith lets White go in first where he shoots an unspecting black man eating cereal in his underwear. White plants a gun to make it look like self-defense but Exley still has concerns that something isn’t right.
Yet, in the commotion, Sugar Ray, Louis and Ty have escaped but Exley suspects they went to a dealer Sugar Ray told him about. With Carlisle as back-up they track them down but Carlisle gets fatally shot by the dealer when he shoots Louis. Exley manages to kill Ty and Sugar Ray finally earning him some respect among the older detectives who nickname him “Shotgun Ed.” With Inez telling authorities that Sugar Ray, Louis and Ty referred to several time as “Three Negros” left around the time to go to the Nite Owl, the case is considered close.
Exley gets an award. Vincennes is transferred back to narcotics where he can continue to pursue missing heroin belonging to mobster Mickey Cohen (Paul Guilfoyle) that has been stolen with Cohen’s lieutenants being gunned down. Vincennes also returns to working on the set of Badge of Honor. And White gets closer to Lynn to the point where they develop a relationship and White opens up to her about his past. Yet both White and Exley feel that the Nite Owl isn’t solved. White tells Lynn somethings off but he’s not smart enough and he’s usually only used as muscle.
When Exley goes to help Inez be released from the hospital, she admits she lied because she didn’t think anyone would care about a Mexican-American being kidnapped, raped and assaulted unless the same people killed white people at the Nite Owl. And Exley and White each conduct their own investigation reopening the case which lead them back to the deaths of the mobsters, who were believed to have been committed by Stens and Meeks working for Smith, who was their old supervisor. Smith also has been using White to beat up Italian mobsters at a dilapidated Victory Motel on the outskirts of town.
And the detectives discover more corruption with the help of Vincennes who wants justice for Matt Reynolds who was killed when he was supposed to be having sex with Loew, a closeted homosexual. Hudgens had set it up to bust Loew but things didn’t work out that way. The corruption goes further as it involves Patchett and a high-ranking LA Council member (Jim Metzler) who was a client of Lynn’s.
What still amazes me is how Hanson and Helgeland wrap it all together that it works. What seems like a bunch of ancillary characters in the first act have strong connections to the final climax in one way or another. Along with real-life Cohen, they even add one of his bodyguards, Johnny Stompantao (Paolo Sagenti), into the plot. Stompanato would have a tumultous relationship with Hollywood celebrity Lana Turner (Brenda Bakke) who Exley mistakes for one of Patchett’s workers in a brief needed bit of comic relief.
When the movie opened, both Crowe and Pearce were unknown Australian actors and the people behind it were banking on Spacey’s star power as well as Basinger, as this was her first movie since 1994’s The Getaway. Her Oscar win was well earned. She portrays a retro look to an era in which actresses like Veronica Lake were seen as mythical figures rather than actors exploited by a system. Seeing how it’s Crowe and Pearce who really have to carry the movie and they are both great in their roles, they show their abilities as future leading men. Their accents are better than people who were born and raised in southern California.
The supporting cast is perfect. DeVito has too much fun in the role. He’s played these sleazy characters before it’s second nature. Cromwell has the hardest job of busting down the image of the kind rancher he played in Babe. I liked that Smith, who still has hints of an Irish accent, has a hard-on for the fitness of the officers. When he talks about both Stens and Meeks, he makes a comment about their physical fitness exams. It’s one of those quirks that make him more three-dimensional. And it’s possible there were high-ranking officers like him on the LAPD during the era. Pearce has said the officer he rode with came off as too racist and that was in the mid-1990s.
Speaking of which, this is the era of William H. Parker as the chief of the LAPD. It’s well known among many circles and people that Parker enticed many law enforcement officers from the south and other cities familiar with Jim Crow and segregation laws to join. Parker was well known for his racism. It’s probably for legal reason they cast Mahon as the police chief and gave him no name. Daryl Gates, who was the chief of LAPD from 1978 to 1992, does appear in a cameo at the end.
History isn’t always the prettiest, which is what Confidential shows. However, Hanson and Helgeland, unlike other filmmakers and writers, aren’t hung up on breaking down this Republican myth of the 1950s. Hanson has said he didn’t want it to look like other movies set during this era and Dante Spinotti, as director of photography, shoots it in a way that makes it look contemporary for 1997. The production design by Jeannine Oppewall and the costumes and set decoration aren’t too flashy. You can tell with some movies they’re trying to go out of their way to present an era in all its glamour. This movie works because a lot of things are usually in the background with little emphasis.
Unfrotunately, Confidential went up against the juggernaut that was Titanic at the 1998 Academy Awards and even though it was nominated for nine awards, it only won two. Basinger won Best Supporting Actress and Hanson and Helgeland picked up an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Titanic won for Best Sound, Best Orginal Dramatic Score, Best Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Director and Best Picture, all of which Confidential was nominated.
Reportedly there have been two attempts to turn L.A. Confidential into a series with the first in 2003 and the second in 2019. There was even talks of a sequel taking place in the 1970s with Chadwick Boseman set to join Crowe and Pearce reprising their roles. Helgeland said he wrote the idea with Ellroy and it was pitched to Warner Bros., who distributed Confidential, but the idea was turned down. Boseman passed away in 2020 and Hanson passed away in 2016.
Sometimes, some movies don’t need sequels or anyone else to rework them. On Rotten Tomatoes, Confidential has 99 percent of fresh ratings with 161 reviews being positive. Some movies just work too well that any change up is dangerous. While public opinion of Spacey has changed and as well as police since 1997, L.A. Confidential seems to show that even in the City of Angels, the worst people are in need of redemption.
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