Why 'LA Confidential' is a timeless piece of cinema, 25 years on

In this retrospective, we discuss why the critically acclaimed film can still speak to a contemporary audience

Kim Basinger and Russell Crowe play Lynn Bracken and police officer Wendell 'Bud' White in 'LA Confidential'. Photo: Alamy
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"A glory that costs everything and means nothing."

The quote by novelist Steve Erickson, used as the epigraph to James Ellroy’s neo-noir novel LA Confidential, encompasses the moral dilemma of a story wholly explored on paper and skilfully translated in the film.

It is the third novel in Ellroy’s LA Quartet series, an epic crime saga spanning more than a decade. This book is immersive, with several storylines and plot twists. Set in 1950s Los Angeles, a large cast of characters — in conflict with each other and with themselves — battle it out at the intersection of greed, corruption, drugs, glamour and murder.

Ellroy takes the reader on a tour of Hollywood's seedy underbelly through effortless, punchy language, potently short sentences and shrewd characterisation. From its reckless pace, sprawling plot and striking attention to character and setting detail, the novel, from the first page, is enrapturing yet also overwhelming.

Director Curtis Hanson (The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, In Her Shoes) spent two years adapting the novel to script with co-writer Brian Helgeland (Mystic River, A Knight’s Tale). They took the wild, dynamic pulse of the novel and the complexity of its characters and moulded it into a clever, enticing film that didn’t sacrifice the brilliance of Ellroy’s vision.

After a bloody massacre where six people, including a police officer, are killed at the Nite Owl coffee shop, the lives of three officers are irreparably entangled.

Ed Exley, played by Guy Pearce, is intelligent and boldly ambitious. The son of a famed detective, he is severely disliked by the rest of the Los Angeles Police Department, after volunteering to testify against corrupt police officers involved in "Bloody Christmas", a real-life incident where police officers severely beat seven civilians to be able to get a promotion.

His antithesis is the complex Wendell "Bud" White, played by Russell Crowe. Brooding, anti-social, troubled and fiercely loyal, he's obsessed with punishing men who abuse women, to his own professional and personal detriment. Naturally, he has an aversion to men who display Exley’s political thinking and disloyalty.

Both police officers find themselves entranced by Lynn Bracken, played by Kim Basinger, a woman with an uncanny resemblance to actress Veronica Lake, who is involved with major players in the world of organised crime. In possession of key information, she speaks to both men’s confused desires to get to the truth of the murder case and the truth of who she is and what she wants.

Jack Vincennes, played by Kevin Spacey, is easier to read, his motivations more transparent. The narcotics detective also works as a technical adviser on Badge of Honour, a fictional popular TV police drama series. This connection allows him to not only rub elbows with Hollywood’s elite, but keeps him in close association with Sid Hudgens, wonderfully played by Danny DeVito, publisher of the popular tabloid magazine Hush-Hush. More interested in fame than being a police officer, Vincennes’ interests gradually shift from doing what’s right to doing what’s right for him.

Nothing is binary between the trinity of these protagonists. The line between good cop and bad cop is blurred and it’s on this morally ambiguous ground that Ed Exley, Bud White and Jack Vincennes must work together to collect sporadic pieces of evidence scattered in a cesspool of a shadows, lies and dead bodies.

LA Confidential is a seductive film.

Aesthetically flawless, drenched in the glamour of the 1950s — the light, the architecture, the styling — all of them present, thoughtful in their details and composition, but never overpowering.

The film doesn’t feel nostalgic, though, even 25 years after it first came out, because it's steeped in accurate historical details, from the dialogue to the costumes, yet shot in a contemporary way that feels clean, accessible and modern.

While crime films don’t usually convey a character's poignant journey through change, LA Confidential effortlessly documents the complexities of damaged people who are trying to make sense of their world.

The film was slated at the time for its unashamed display of piled-up dead bodies, decaying corpses, physical beatings and domestic abuse — apparent on screen and in the novel. It’s interesting to note that 25 years since LA Confidential's release, the display of violence on screen is still a point of heated debate.

In defence of LA Confidential, the action and violence does not act as sensationalist drivel. But through a sharp and tactful approach, it's utilised to reveal more about the characters, their state of mind and their intentions.

At first glance, the characters are archetypes of the film noir genre. As the film progresses through plot tangents and twists, characters grow out of their genre tropes and reveal themselves as complex, real people with conflicting desires and hopes.

It’s this very crucial aspect, so present in Ellroy’s novel and wonderfully channelled into the film, that makes LA Confidential, aside from all its polished aesthetic and structural qualities, such a timeless and essential piece of cinema.

Updated: September 16, 2022, 6:02 PM