Sunday, January 13, 2013

Adaptation: "Just the facts, Ma'am": L.A. Confidential on Screen

When it was announced that a film would be made of James Ellroy’s fantastic novel of crime and corruption in Los Angeles during the 1950’s, it seemed a ridiculous undertaking. The novel is huge in scope and it seemed heresy to cut any storyline for a two hour film. With a plot so intricately wound around its characters it would certainly fall apart within the Hollywood machinery. However, this was not to be the case in the hands of screenwriter Brian Hegleland and the eyes of director Curtis Hanson. What was to be a disaster turned out to be perhaps one of the greatest noir crime dramas ever put on celluloid in the past fifty years.

L.A.Confidential is a hard-hitting, spare-no-mercy exploration of the crime and corruption dogging the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), where framing suspects, destroying and creating evidence, and banking some on the side is all in a day’s work.

The story begins with the murder of crime lord Mickey Cohen and the subsequent theft of a sizeable amount of his heroin (25 lbs to be exact). Through this initial story turn, the audience is introduced to the three main characters: Wendell “Bud” White, Edmund Exley, and Jack Vincennes. From here the story spirals into the Night Owl Murders, an event bringing all three officers into contact with each through a web of side plots and independent investigations. Out of this tangled web we become aware of large-scale corruption in the District Attorney’s office and the police department, a prostitution ring, and a racially motivated framing of suspects.

What really makes this tale exhilarating are the performances, in particular those of the three lead characters. Bud White (played by the always astonishing Russell Crowe) is all muscle and no brain, at least in the eyes of his superior officer, Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). Beyond his rough exterior, the audience gets glimpses of White’s unabashed instinct to protect women. This instinct leads him to Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger in a role tailor-made for her), a high-class call-girl who pushes all White’s protector buttons and who believes in his ability to follow his hunches regarding the resolution of the Night Owl Murders.

Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a career cop also serving out the Hollywood dream by being a consultant for a popular cop television show. He is all flash and charm, working with a low-time paparazzi Sid Hutchins (Danny Devito) to setup actors and actresses for good copy and a fifty dollar pay off. Involved in a police station brawl, Vincennes is demoted to vice squad and taken off the television show as punishment. In vice he comes across a folder of pornographic materials with a fleur de lys (‘whatever you desire’) logo embossed on the cover. This symbol matches a business card he found during one of his busts and he sets out to find out what is behind the symbol.

Also involved in the police station brawl is Ed Exley (Guy Pierce), an idealistic young officer looking to move beyond the shadow of his father’s legacy. He finesses his involvement in the brawl to secure a position in the detective unit, a shrewd move not well-received by his fellow colleagues. Exley’s first night on the job has him tagged to investigate the Night Owl Murders.

Moral confusion is the centerpiece of this story, played out through the subtle adjustments each of these characters must make to their individual moral codes as the investigations unfold. White walks a fine line of brutality and sensitivity, with the former strangling him from the inside out in his role as Captain Smith’s enforcer and the latter fueling his attraction to Lynn. Vincennes sold-out a long time ago to be part of the cult of celebrity but ultimately finds a path of redemption, a path he unfortunately only discovers at the moment of his dying breath. It is his voicing of the cue “Rollo Tamasi” which triggers the collision of the moral codes of these three characters narratively and sets into motion the physical and psychological showdown at the Victory Motel.

And it is at the Victory Motel where Exley’s struggles with doing what appears to be morally right in contrast to those around him sharply resolves into an acceptance that the only way to do what is right in the long term or big picture is to sometimes do what is potentially wrong in the present. The result of this resolution is evident in how he handles the aftermath of the gripping and explosive showdown. The lesson learned here—for him and for the audience—is ideal justice is not always so ideal or just when the heroes and villains are indistinguishable.

Attempting to visualize morality and all its complications may seem an easy feat when couched in extremes such as violence. The audience “knows” it is wrong to hang someone out an open window or setup drug busts for money. But the audience has to feel it is wrong and also somewhat right for a particular character to take such actions. It is in navigating this sketchy terrain where a clever script must be equaled or bettered by clever casting and clever directing, as is the case here.

Crowe is as good as it gets by infusing a winning combination of roughness and vulnerability to flesh out White’s demons and angels. It is still stunning he was overlooked for awards glory with this performance. Pierce is brilliant as the ambitious yet skittish Exley. Kevin Spacey nails the self-loathing and self-satisfaction of Vincennes. Not surprisingly, the film crackles with intensity whenever there is interaction between any of the three leads.

Basinger was the sole actor in the film singled out for their work and rightfully so. The character could have easily turned into just another bombshell caricature but Basinger keeps Lynn bruised but not broken. Basinger’s approach plays beautifully into the relationship between Lynn and Bud, a relationship rendered as a delicate dance between two emotionally and physically damaged people learning to expose their wounds and vulnerabilities.

All of the actors are grandly assisted by the commanding yet unintrusive presence of Hanson. This skill is best displayed in the quieter moments, the moments that come to signify the turning points for each of the lead characters. Vincennes decision to leave a payoff on the bar is powerful in its simplicity without being maudlin. But Hanson is equally deft at capturing the bombastic as is evident in the scenes at the Victory Motel. Flashes of body parts, slippery figures in shadow and reflections, punctuations of gunfire come together to compose an artistic experience like no other.

L.A. Confidential is a study in moral complexity, emotional ambiguity, psychological depth. It is a classic tale of brains vs. brawn and the achievements and destruction to be wrought when the two clash. It is a narrative requiring an audience to pay attention to the details, to think through what is and what isn’t being presented, and to determine what they would do in these situations. It is an anything but basic Hollywood film that is still highly entertaining and invigorating after repeated viewings.

"And," in the words of Lynn Bracken, “that’s all the news that’s fit to print.”

No comments:

Post a Comment