Watch this as soon as you can…
L.A. Confidential has a curious place in the film canon. It is considered a masterpiece and a highlight of 90s cinema, but it still feels underrated and overshadowed. The 90s is easily one of cinema’s greatest decades, with many of the best films of all time coming out in one ten year period. It is easy to see why this one might be overshadowed when it came between movies such as Pulp Fiction and Fight Club. Time to give this classic the attention it deserves.
You have to applaud the filmmakers’ work with regards to adaptation. The film is an adaptation of the third of James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet. This novel is a long one with too many plotlines to fit into 120 minutes of film. A television series would be needed to include every plot line. The novel is also truly cruel and horrifying in places, such as Dr Frankenstein. Whilst Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson may get away with including these elements in an adaptation today, it would have been a much tougher sell in 1997. So, for fans of the original novel, this may seem like an over-simplification of Ellroy’s work. Its inevitable hollywoodisation. Yet, L.A. Confidential is dark and complex in its own right. The screenplay is effectively recreates the corrupt world of 1950s L.A., with all the sex, drugs, death and bribery you would expect. Further, this film is a difficult watch that demands constant attention. A lot is going on, and if you are not watching carefully, you will end up behind the three main characters as they investigate the multiple homicide incident at Night Owl diner. A re-watch is a must to truly process all the information and detail in this film. As Hollywood adaptations go, this film manages to preserve its source material’s complexity and rich sinfulness and darkness.
The film also messes with your expectations in some fantastic plot twists. The film’s disregard for cliche is best summarised in a humorous scene where Danny DeVito’s cocky and to-the-point narrator speculates on whether some minor characters will play a key role in the plot or not, only for them to be gunned down in the same scene. To paraphrase the narrator, he says “I suppose not”. This dark comic humour can be found throughout, but this scene also demonstrates the film’s relationship with cliche plotlines. Do not go into this film expecting anything. Characters who survive in the novel die in this film. The film poster leads you to believe Kevin Spacey is playing the lead protagonist, for he is the one dominating and in the fore. Not true. Spacey’s character is gunned down just over halfway through. It is a shame, for Spacey’s timing in this film is impeccable as he walks a fine line between moral and immoral, between condemnable and amusing. He is easily the best of the three leads, but Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe also deliver fine performances. Spacey’s shocking exit from the film makes for a well-timed and sudden jolt in the plot, though. The twists and turns of this film are unexpected and shocking, but they feel like a natural part of the film’s unravelling plotline. The best kind of twist.
This film is more than a skeleton; its well-crafted plot serves as a foundation for excellent work from other contributors. Whilst the score may not be as good as the one in the background of Chinatown by Roman Polanski, Jerry Goldsmith’s score perfectly captures the feel of the noir genre, with all the glamour and darkness you would expect. The work of production designer Jeannine Claudia Oppewall also helps to create the mood and atmosphere of the era- this is some truly stunning and sublime production work. The cinematography of Dante Spinotti makes sure it can be fully appreciated, along with the gritty underbelly of the criminal world. There is an authenticity to this film. The 1950s L.A. depicted here feels real.
You will likely see this film on many “greatest films” lists, but never right at the top. Pulp Fiction is probably the best 90s film. Chinatown is probably the best neo-noir. As a result, you may have never given L.A. Confidential a chance. With excellent performances, a complex and intricate plot, and an dazzlingly authentic recreation of 1950s L.A., you need to rectify that.