[Something new: a film review! And a spoiler-free review to boot! And “remember, dear readers, you heard it here first- off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush…”]
A friend of mine once remarked that film noir is nothing more than “guys walking around with guns”. A pure exercise in style, a paean to the allure and aesthetic of hard-boiled amorality, beautiful corruption, hidden conspiracy, and sleek violence.
Many of the great works of the genre fall into this trap. The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, The Third Man, and Chinatown essentially belong to the realm of “guys walking around with guns”. Possibly the epitome of this pure style and little substance is Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le samouraï, which is literally the titular character walking around Paris, either hunting people or being hunted himself.
L.A. Confidential, however, is not your typical film noir. As Gene Siskel once put it, just two and a half minutes into the film, “you know this picture is onto something, that it knows what it’s talking about.”
(Fun fact: this opening narration is actually more or less the same pitch director Curtis Hanson used to sell the film to Warner Brothers and the main cast.)
The world of L.A. Confidential is one that could almost come out of a Raymond Chandler novel, something Humphrey Bogart would definitely recognize. It’s one of bright lights and barely covered sin, where the glitz and glamor of Hollywood both feeds on and fuels the hungry city of dope fiends, gangsters, prostitutes and pimps. Everybody has an angle, and everyone answers to someone. This, in its own way, is a form of nostalgia, paying homage to the iconography of classic noir.
But right from the get-go, instead of keeping the nostalgia goggles on, director Hanson tears them right off your face- “because they’re selling an image, selling it through movies and television.” The film grounds itself firmly in reality, as opposed to trying to mimic the genre’s clichés. Mickey Cohen and Johnny Stompanato were real gangsters, and Lana Turner really dated Johnny Stompanato. Hush-Hush magazine is based on Confidential, and Badge of Honor on Dragnet. Even the “Bloody Christmas” police riot shown really happened, where a large number of drunk LAPD cops beat to a pulp six unarmed Hispanic prisoners already confined to holding cells. There is no sugar-coating here- the dark racist, corrupt, and murderous heart of L.A. pulses a drumbeat of realism that’s almost unbearable to watch, yet impossible to turn away from. (As police captain Dudley Smith puts it, “this the city of the angels, and you haven’t got any wings.”)
In keeping with this realism, while the plot is as convoluted (if not more so) as any film noir, it remains largely cliché-free. There are no femme fatales, no gunsels, nor even an identifiable bad guy (until quite late into the film). In fact, uniquely for a film noir, Kim Basinger’s Lynn Bracken is probably the most moral of the lot, a point underlined by the nunnish outfit she wears in her first appearance. Instead of private eyes in trench coats and stilted tough-guy dialogue, modern police procedural is the order of the day, punctuated by occasional bursts of extreme violence, usually performed with ferocious physicality by Russell Crowe’s Bud White. And the fact that it’s all done in such gorgeous 50s décor does double duty: it deromanticizes the period, bringing it down to Earth, while simultaneously adding a sort of protective balm to the film, helping soothe its most horrific moments for the audience.
But most importantly, this isn’t a film about some hard-boiled, one-dimensional private dick who could well be replaced by a robot. That sort of character is not only boring, but rather unbelievable- do you, or anyone else for that matter, really know someone like that? No, this is a film that cares about its characters, that wants to make them real. None of the three leads are easily recognizable archetypes; the film takes its time to show us exactly what makes these guys tick before ever diving into the singular event that drives the plot. And once you’ve begun to form an idea of who they are, the film starts to challenge those notions by immediately presenting each character with stark choices. Within the first twenty minutes, all three lead characters make different decisions regarding the same scenario that will define their trajectories for the rest of the film. And each of them is repeatedly presented with dilemmas that mirror the choices faced by the others, and which ultimately reveal their true selves as men and policemen.
None of these men are what they first appear to be; they themselves don’t fully appreciate what they are. But that’s the beauty of the film- we follow along with them, on an intrinsically human journey, as they figure out what sort of men they aspire to be. And that’s why despite juggling three distinctly different leads and plotlines, we truly feel for each of them when we see “Hollywood” Jack Vincennes’ face light up on his return to Badge of Honor, or Bud White’s horror as he realizes he has become what he despises most.
Reality is what makes L.A. Confidential great. It takes the best of film noir— the cerebral plotting (seriously, pay attention, or you’ll miss quite a bit), the infectious atmosphere of sin and conspiracy— but raises it above dry movement on a chessboard by rooting it in realism. From its vicious violence and total moral turpitude to the “work-in-progress” humanity of the lead characters (as we all are), this is a real film with real characters. And in doing so, it becomes one of a select few to transcend the “guys walking around with guns” stereotype that surrounds film noir, to become a film that’s fully “in Technicolor, Sir.” (To quote Bud White.)