This Distracted Globe random header image

This Is the Kind of Movie That Should Not Be Made

March 30th, 2009 · 10 Comments

L.A. Confidential (1997)
Screenplay by Brian Helgeland & Curtis Hanson. Based on the novel by James Ellroy
Directed by Curtis Hanson
Produced by Regency Enterprises
Running time: 138 minutes

L.A. Confidential 1997 poster L.A. Confidential 1997 poster

What the *&#! Is This About?
In Los Angeles of the early 1950s, Officer Bud White (Russell Crowe) stops on his way to deliver his fellow cops booze for a Christmas party. He visits a recently paroled wife beater and settles the thug’s latest domestic assault out of court. Sgt. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is introduced at a cast party for the TV program Badge of Honor, for which he serves as a technical advisor. He’s approached by Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), publisher of gossip rag L.A. Confidential, who offers the detective $100 to bust a starlet for marijuana possession so Hudgens will have fresh scandal to print. Sgt. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) serves as watch commander at Hollywood station. Exley’s ambition is to make detective, but Lt. Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) counsels his protégé, “You’re a political animal. You have the eye for human weakness, but not the stomach.”

When four Mexicans assault two officers, several drunken cops – including White’s partner Dick Stensland (Graham Beckel) – drag the suspects out of their cells and beat them. The incident makes the front page under the headline “Bloody Christmas.” Exley volunteers to testify to a grand jury against White and Stensland, winning the promotion he eagerly covets. Lt. Smith gets White off the hook so the capable officer can serve on a special detail to strong-arm organized crime from moving in on L.A. The bodies of gangsters start piling up all over the city. Vincennes is demoted to vice for his role in the brawl and told the only way to get his job at narcotics back is to make a major case. He investigates a mysterious escort service known as “Fleur-De-Lis.”

L.A. Confidential 1997 Guy Pearce

Exley – despised as a rat by the cops he now works with – rushes to the scene of a massacre, six victims shotgunned at the Nite Owl Coffeeshop. One of the victims is Dick Stensland. Lt. Smith takes authority of the case, but allows Exley to serve as his second in command. Meanwhile, White has become infatuated with the mysterious Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), a call girl who’s been made up to look like Veronica Lake. Her manager (David Strathairn) is a millionaire investor with ties throughout the city. The Night Owl Massacre is pinned on three Black youths, but Exley begins to doubt they were responsible. The investigations of White, Vincennes and Exley soon intersect. In each case, the trail leads them back to the LAPD.

Who Should Be Held Responsible?

Published in 1989, L.A. Confidential was the third volume of what novelist James Ellroy was referring to as “an epic pop history of my smog bound fatherland.” At 500 pages, over 100 characters, a timeline that spanned eight years and a labyrinth of a plot that unfolded in the minds of its three protagonists, when Ellroy’s publisher Otto Penzler notified him that Warner Bros. had purchased the film rights, the men broke into hysterical laughter. Ellroy wrote, “I figured some movie biz fuckhead would option the book. I figured he’d blow smoke up my ass about what a great film it would make. Movieland self-delusion was a major theme of the novel. It was only fitting that I should profit from its exercise. I knew my book was movie-adaptation-proof. The motherfucker was uncompressible, uncontainable and unequivocally bereft of sympathetic characters. It was unsavory, unapologetically dark, untamable and altogether untranslatable to the screen.”

L.A. Confidential 1997

One of Ellroy’s fans was a screenwriter named Brian Helgeland. “The weird thing was, I had gotten a hold of these pulpy novels he’d done in like ’88 or something like that. I just tore through these things and I thought they were just great. Then when The Big Nowhere came out, I bought that right away and I read somewhere he was going to be signing it at some L.A. bookstore. I’d never gone to any book signings, but I was like, it’s Ellroy. I gotta go see him. It was really depressing because there were like, eight people there, this was probably in like ’89 or so. So I talked to him for like half an hour, until he probably started to think I was a deranged fan or something like that, and he told me how he was going to write books that could never be made into movies. And I was like, ‘Cool, cool.’” When Helgeland heard that Warner Bros. had purchased the screen rights to L.A. Confidential, the screenwriter began a yearlong lobbying effort for the job of adapting the book. Helgeland was ultimately notified that the job had gone to someone else.

Curtis Hanson had toiled in Hollywood for close to twenty years as a screenwriter and director for hire. His latest film – The River Wild – starred Meryl Streep and was considered a step up in prestige. Hanson was thinking about his next project. “I’d always been interested in L.A. fiction from growing up here, authors like James M. Cain, Nathaniel West, Raymond Chandler. When I read L.A. Confidential, I just got hooked on the characters, got caught up emotionally in their individual struggles with their personal demons. I wanted to capture that in a movie. Also, I found that the way I felt about the characters was near to the way I felt about the city of Los Angeles. I’d always wanted to make a movie about L.A., to deal with this city at that magic moment in the ‘50s when the dream of L.A. was being bulldozed to make way for all the people that were coming here in pursuit of the very dream that was being destroyed. So I got really excited about it as a movie project and made a deal to write and direct it.”

L.A. Confidential 1997 Kim Basinger

Undeterred, Helgeland’s manager Missy Malkin got her client a lunch meeting with Curtis Hanson. Helgeland wrote, “We met in an old bungalow on the Universal lot that had been pink slipped – scheduled to be torn down to make way for the Jurassic Park portion of the studio tour. I thought this was a good sign, as much of the L.A. we would need to bring to life had suffered a similar fate.” Helgeland and Hanson discovered that they both shared a passion for Ellroy’s fiction, and thought they had the key to adapting L.A. Confidential. Hanson added, “If Bud, Ed or Jack wasn’t involved in a scene, it went by the board. Some were too good to let go of: the shootout at the abandoned auto court in San Berdoo that begins the novel, for example. We took it, moved it and let two of our trio take part.” It would take Helgeland & Hanson ten drafts and three years to complete their adaptation.

Meanwhile, the signals being sent from Warner Bros. were less than supportive. Hanson recalled, “The immediate strikes against it: Period, number one. Which of course every financier is afraid of, you know, on a commercial level, is that a contemporary audience won’t connect with the past. Multi-character, number two. Why are there three guys? Could you get rid of Ed Exley and Jack Vincennes, so that the movie is built around Bud White and then we could have a big star play Bud White? And I responded by saying how important Ed Exley was and why, and I was then cut off and they said, ‘Well what about getting rid of Bud White then and Jack Vincennes and build it all around Ed Exley, and then we could have a big star play Ed Exley.’ And number three, that it was in this period of film noir, which they’re extremely negative about because noir movies almost never do well, commercially. As you go through the history of the noirs made over the last few decades, very few of them did well enough to even earn their money back.”

L.A. Confidential 1997

Seeking a financier, Hanson turned to Regency Enterprises, whose head of production Michael Nathanson had long been an advocate of the filmmaker. Nathanson later recalled, “As years progressed, and I went on and became the president and chief operating officer of MGM, the irony was that if I had come into my office to say, ‘Will you make L.A. Confidential?’ I would have said, ‘No.’ This movie got willed to get made against incredible odds and against a business environment that said, ‘This is the kind of movie that should not be made.’” Nathanson set a meeting between Hanson and the principal of New Regency, Arnon Milchan. Instead of showing the producer a script, Hanson presented his elaborate vision of L.A. Confidential. Hanson recalled, “Arnon said, ‘Let’s go.’ Depending on the casting, depending on the budget, I’m in. So I had a sort of tentative blinking green light, let us say. And now we had to get the cast.”

New Regency suggested Hanson work with a casting director they knew well named Mali Finn. Hanson stated, “I wanted unknowns for Bud White and Ed Exley because with unknowns, the audience wouldn’t know who they liked, who they didn’t like, who would live, who would die. Anything could happen. I wanted these characters to be discovered, the way you discover characters in a novel. Your feelings evolve as you go along.” An Australian actor Hanson had seen in a movie called Romper Stomper flew to L.A. to read through some scenes, one of which Hanson decided to tape and show to Arnon Milchan and Michael Nathanson. After getting approval to cast Russell Crowe as Bud White, Hanson chose another virtual unknown – Guy Pearce – to play Ed Exley. The fact that Pearce also happened to be Australian was not immediately relayed by Hanson to his financiers.

L.A. Confidential 1997 Kevin Spacey

For the role of Jack Vincennes, Hanson understood he needed someone audiences would be familiar with. Kevin Spacey met with the director to talk about the role and recalled, “I said to him, ‘All right, if it was really the 1950s and you were really directing this movie, who would you cast as Jack Vincennes?’ I kind of expected he would have said, like, William Holden. But he didn’t. He said, ‘Dean Martin.’ I thought, Dean Martin. And he said, ‘Well, watch Some Came Running. Watch Rio Bravo again, and you’ll see the quality that I’m talking about. It is a man who on the surface has all this ring-a-ding, you know, he’s slick and he’s cool and he’s on top of it but just underneath the surface is a man who’s going through changes and going through a moral eruption and that will ultimately lead him to the place where he realizes he can no longer behave the way he’s behaved.”

Hanson & Helgeland had held off paying a courtesy call to James Ellroy. The author recalled, “I had heard that Hanson was involved throughout the process and was impressed with the fact that he didn’t contact me. When he and Brian Helgeland had gone through seven drafts of the script they let me read what they had. I found it interesting and compelling and a good job of retaining the essential narrative integrity of my book, i.e. the dramatic lives of the three main characters. From that point on Hanson and I became friendly and I became an informal consultant. Chiefly, Curtis would call me up and ask me questions pertaining to L.A. in the ‘50s and the police corps then. ‘Do you turn left off the rotunda at City Hall to get to the detective bureau in 1953?’ Things like that.”

L.A. Confidential 1997

On a budget of roughly $35 million, L.A. Confidential commenced shooting May 1996 in Los Angeles. Producer Michael Nathanson remembered, “I think we had eighty something locations, in sixty-five days? Something like that. And we were all over greater Los Angeles. And we were shooting lots of nights. There was inclement weather, both written – where we created a few times – and there was inclement weather we ran into and tried to make it work for the movie. And we would go from Baldwin Hills to Pasadena to Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles.” Pockets of 1950s architecture were found still standing in Elysian Park. Pierce Patchett’s home was located in Los Feliz, where architect Richard Neutra’s Lovell Health House permitted filming on their grounds for the first time ever. In Hollywood, the Formosa Café and the Frolic Room were both utilized as locations.

Editor Peter Honess may have been one of the first to realize just how great L.A. Confidential was going to be. “It’s such a well crafted piece of filmmaking, from A to Z, actually. And I thought it was terribly brave of Curtis Hanson to cast Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe – two virtually unknown actors in the States – to play very American roles. I thought actually that their accents are really good. It also gave the audience an opportunity to see a film that you cannot make about modern times. You had to set it in another period because of the racism, because of the language, because of the bigotry of some of the characters in the piece, and that’s fascinating too, because it actually seems like it is of the modern era, but it isn’t, and I don’t think you could make a film about the social situation now of the way of L.A. Confidential. And it was just a very well crafted piece.”

L.A. Confidential 1997 Danny DeVito

Following enthusiastic reception at the Cannes and Toronto Film Festivals, L.A. Confidential opened September 1997 in the U.S. With the possible exception of The Sweet Hereafter, it received the best reviews of any film released that year. Janet Maslin, the New York Times: “Curtis Hanson’s resplendently wicked L.A. Confidential is a tough, gorgeous, vastly entertaining throwback to the Hollywood that did things right. As such, it enthusiastically breaks most rules of studio filmmaking today.” David Ansen, Newsweek: “You have to pay close attention to follow the double-crossing intricacies of the plot, but the reward for your work is dark and dirty fun.” Todd McCarthy, Variety: “L.A. Confidential serves as an almost overwhelming reminder of the pleasures of deeply involving narratives in the old Hollywood sense … This picture restores the primacy of the dramatic line, which tends to make the violence even more startling when it comes.”

The Academy Awards returned nine nominations, but in a year that featured the highest grossing motion picture of all time, Hollywood saw fit to honor Titanic instead. Kim Basinger (Best Supporting Actress) and Helgeland & Hanson (Best Adapted Screenplay) were the only L.A. Confidential nominees to receive Oscars. The awards consideration did nudge the film to box office of $64.6 million in the U.S. and $61 million overseas. Naming the 25 best Los Angeles based movies of the last quarter century, the staff of the L.A. Times ranked L.A. Confidential #1 on their list in August 2008. Curtis Hanson mused, “The movie truly started with L.A. I wanted to capture the city of my childhood memories. And I wanted to take a hard look at the dark side – the booming economy, the exploding population, the corruption and racism – as well as certain problems that are still with us. I wanted to capture the spirit of this place. The optimism and energy was real. It still is.”

L.A. Confidential 1997 Russell Crowe Kim Basinger

Why Should I Care?
The fact that a brooding, politically incorrect, character driven murder mystery set in 1953 was made without any real movie stars and proved a terrific success would be worthy of praise in itself, but the best news for movie lovers is that more than a decade after it reaped all those rave reviews, L.A. Confidential has actually appreciated in value as a screen classic. You don’t realize what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone, and after a couple of so-called Best Pictures have proven to be little more than hocus pocus Hollywood bullshit – Titanic had a better grip on reality than Crash did – James Ellroy’s complex, gratuitously violent and ceaselessly entertaining detective yarn stands out as prime rib among the fast food, what Hollywood filmmaking can aspire to be.

Top to bottom, the craftsmen behind L.A. Confidential are operating at the top of their game. In collaboration with cinematographer Dante Spinotti, production designer Jeannine Oppewall and costume designer Ruth Myers, Curtis Hanson went to great lengths to avoid the stereotypical look and feel of mysteries set in the ‘30s or ‘40s, opting instead to recreate a postwar Los Angeles that was looking ahead to its future. Scenes burst with vitality, as well as complexity. Helgeland & Hanson’s colorful adaptation sidesteps nearly every known cliché of the detective genre, moving at breakneck pace from a sleazy journalist to freeway construction to an uptight detective questioning Johnny Stompanato & Lana Turner to an LAPD hit squad. Somewhere in there, the portrait of a metropolis takes shape in all its glamour and deceit. Jerry Goldsmith composed the robust, brooding musical score.

© Joe Valdez

L.A. Confidential 1997

Where Are You Getting This *&#!

L.A. Confidential: The Screenplay. By Brian Helgeland & Curtis Hanson. Warner Books (1997)

“Curtis Hanson” By Alex Simon. Venice Magazine, 1997 September

“Helgeland the Happy Heretic”
By Rob Blackwelder. Splicedwire, 2001 April 17

Endangered Species: Writers Talk About Their Craft
. By Lawrence Grobel. Da Capo Press (2001)

“Hollywood’s James Ellroy Enigma”
By Scott Timberg. Los Angeles Times, 6 April 2008

“The Top 25 of the Last 25: L.A. Is A Complicated City, But They Got It” Los Angeles Times, 31 August 2008

L.A. Confidential (Two Disc Special Edition)
. Warner Home Video (2008)

Tags: Based on novel · Crooked officer · Femme fatale · Gangsters and hoodlums · Interrogation · Murder mystery · Prostitute · Shootout · Surprise after end credits

10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Burbanked // Jun 5, 2008 at 7:39 pm

    I don’t own LA CONFIDENTIAL, yet every time I think about it I remember how damn much I love it. It’s such a great, sprawling film that functions so well on so many levels, yet it never loses a viewer who doesn’t mind actually paying attention.

    Next payday I’m going to go out and buy this.

  • 2 Bill Courtney // Jun 5, 2008 at 11:19 pm

    Yes indeed a great film. I have watched it several times and never tired of studying the characters and their motives. No one in the film is “sinless” and some are simply less corrupt or down right evil than the others.

    I usually do not like Guy Pearce really but this role was suited for him. He seems to me to be more of a supporting actor, really, yet he he led the cast, long with Russell Crowe and Kevin Spacey excellently.

    The film is rather dark and yet ends on a surprisingly upbeat note. I love classic noir films for their character studies and insights into the dark part of the human soul, usually the dark parts of the protagonists, as the bad guys are clearly beyond redemption usually (though not always). In many noir films the lost soul finds himself (or herself, though the femme fatales of classic noir are just plain bad) in the last moments of the film. I include classic boxing films in this category, such as Requiem for a Heavy Weight.

    I wish I could review a film like you! Well, I guess it takes a little practice. Looks like you have been doing it a while. Great movie.

  • 3 Daniel // Jun 6, 2008 at 9:29 am

    Another movie in need of a revisit by me. I don’t know if I saw it again after the theater viewing. Maybe a few clips here and there. I do remember the very grisly bathroom/murder scene at the cafe. I always think of Crowe and Pearce in this but forget that people like Devito, Strathairn and even Spacey played important roles.

    Too bad we don’t see many movies like this these days. I thought The Black Dahlia was terrible – but that’s just me.

  • 4 sir jorge // Jun 6, 2008 at 10:19 am

    definitely an interesting film, and overlooked by a lot of people

  • 5 AR // Jun 6, 2008 at 12:24 pm

    A great movie. We actually watched it in my college film noir class, and much like Chinatown or The Grifters, it fits in well with classic noir without being merely an homage. My boyfriend actually claimed for some years he disliked it, but when we watched it again a year or two back he completely recanted.

  • 6 Marilyn // Jun 6, 2008 at 1:08 pm

    Seeing this film was magic for me. I was in Palm Springs when it opened, and seeing an upscale site of the California Dream gave me a whole different perspective on the film. I’ve seen it a couple of times since then, and I always feel like I’m back in that golden desert.

  • 7 A.J. MacReady // Feb 7, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    Hey Joe – I just got this on DVD (the newer Collector’s Edition) for Christmas and have had the pleasure of showing it to 3 (!!!) people who never caught it. All of them loved it unreservedly. For my tastes, this is not just one of the best movies of the 90’s, but perhaps one of the finest film noir/crime dramas ever committed to celluloid. Absolutely nothing is out of place; not a line of dialogue or single frame of film is wasted. Dangerously close to perfect. You’ve given a fine write up that demands both thanks and congratulations.

  • 8 J.D. // Apr 1, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    Being a huge fan of Ellroy’s prose, especially his L.A. Quartet, I was very happy with this adaptation, which is still the best of all the ones that have been done (I had high hopes for De Palma’s take on THE BLACK DAHLIA – what a wasted opportunity). Helgeland and Hanson were very smart in what the cut out and kept in and still managed to preserve the spirit of the book. Very tricky with Ellroy but they somehow managed to pull it off.

    I think that was also really stands out in this film is the casting… esp. the three leads. What a great mix Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe and Kevin Spacey make — all firing on all cylinders. And with the supporting cast, they cast actors who kinda look like they belong in that period.

    I also thought that James Cromwell was amazing as Dudley Smith… his performance and the way he carries himself was exactly how I pictured it while reading the novel.

    Anyways, excellent article on this great film.

  • 9 the communicatrix // Apr 5, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    I always cringe a little before reading a critique or analysis of one of my favorite works of art.

    Except, of course, when I’m on Joe Valdez’s website.

    Another exceptional addition to the canon. A beautiful fusion of context, analysis and praise. Lavish, sexy and tight, just like the film.

    Damn, you write a fine blog!

  • 10 Joe Valdez // Apr 6, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    Alan: In 2008, Warner Bros. replaced bare-bones disc that had been on the market for a decade with a two-disc special edition offering a terrific audio commentary with all the creative talent sans Curtis Hanson, who appears in the documentary providing his insights into the making of the film. It’s really a must-own DVD. I’m glad I’m not the only one who loves this movie.

    Bill: Guy Pearce is probably one of my favorite actors. It doesn’t seem like he works that much, but at least he hasn’t taken the type of roles a Colin Farrell has no conscience accepting. I agree with you that no one walks away clean in this movie; the temptation to wield your power as a means to an end is too great in this story.

    Daniel: The casting is really the biggest marvel of the film for me. The grislier aspects of James Ellroy – who at times is guilty of going into Scarface territory with severed limbs and what not – was toned down and for the best, I think. I still haven’t seen Black Dahlia but from what I read, the collaboration with Brian DePalma did not work.

    Jorge: Thanks for commenting, as always. I’m impressed you’ve seen all of these films and seem to enjoy them as much as I do.

    AR: I can’t think of a better contemporary movie to show to a film class. The artistry isn’t in the camera angles or lighting or technique, but the storytelling. That’s great that your boyfriend recanted. I wonder what he noticed the second time that he missed the first. Thanks for reminding me how good The Grifters was as well.

    Marilyn: What a cool place to see this movie at. I often think of the line from Chinatown – “Los Angeles is a desert community” – explains so much about the legacy and workings of the city, so it was appropriate you watched L.A. Confidential in Palm Springs. Water and real estate certainly define Los Angeles. Thanks for your vividly written comment.

    A.J.: It’s hard to believe there are people who have seen Titanic four or five times and still haven’t seen L.A. Confidential once. Thanks for helping me spread the word.

    J.D.: I prefer the experience of watching L.A. Confidential to reading the book. Nothing that was cut out of the book was missed, particularly all the grisly serial killer stuff or the alternate reality Walt Disney cover-up. Truly a brilliant adaptation and even nicer that the author thinks so. Thanks for commenting.

    Colleen: Now, that is how you write constructive criticism. I hope others take note of your awesomeness. Thank you again for appraising the canon. I can only hope that if I am ever captured by pirates, you will make a plea for them to at least let me continue blogging.

Leave a Comment