City of angles

How Curtis Hanson turned James Ellroy's epic crime novel L.A. Confidential into one of the year's best films

Hanson's entering the project piqued his curiosity: "In the two films of his that I had seen then, Bad Influence and The Bedroom Window, I found him a competent and interesting storyteller. He's not some bullshit auteur.

"I figured that if he wanted to talk to me, he'd find me. He did find me, but he found me when there was a reasonable chance of it getting made. That made me feel I was dealing with a mature man right away. I told him it was my book, but it was his movie, and even if his movie fucked up my book beyond redemption, it would sell books of mine. And even if it was a piece of shit, I wouldn't be quoted on that for attribution when the film came out."

Hanson retains the Film Generation's erudite infatuation with the medium. He doesn't separate movie art from the rest of storytelling, and his tastes are particular and refined. He never enrolled in college or film school, but began writing on film for Cal State L.A.'s campus paper. He also worked as an unpaid gofer for one of Uncle Jack's least-lucrative enterprises, a swank-looking movie magazine called Cinema. Eventually he became its editor.

Cinema clenched his ambition to tell stories through pictures. During his years on the magazine, he befriended a number of filmmakers he revered, including masculine genre specialists Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry) and Sam Fuller (Pickup on South Street, Shock Corridor).

From the late '60s on, Hanson amassed an eclectic body of experiences. His photos of an unknown actress named Faye Dunaway helped producer-star Warren Beatty and director Arthur Penn cast her in Bonnie and Clyde. In 1970 he co-wrote a low-budget version of H.P. Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror and wrote and directed a small-scale psycho-killer film called The Arousers. He did patch jobs for Roger Corman while angling to direct A movies. In his years of struggle, he did score a couple of bull's-eyes, including his cunning script to the Elliott Gould-Christopher Plummer thriller, The Silent Partner, and his deft direction of the Tijuana fable, Losin' It. But few Americans saw The Silent Partner, and Losin' It typecast him as a director of teen-oriented movies (including the TV film The Children of Times Square).

To get on the adult track, he wrote a deft Hitchcockian pastiche, The Bedroom Window --and writer-director Robert Towne, an acquaintance from his days on his Uncle Jack's tennis courts, godfathered it into production with Hanson at the helm. More directing jobs followed: on Bad Influence and the evil-nanny shocker The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (a commercial smash) and the rousing white-water adventure, The River Wild (with Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon).

To capture the L.A. he needed for L.A. Confidential, Hanson screened his favorite '50s films to his Confidential collaborators both for points and counterpoints. He used Vincente Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful to epitomize the glamorized Hollywood they were hoping to avoid, except in the depiction of Lynn Bracken. He showed Nicholas Ray's volatile Bogart film about a pent-up screenwriter, In a Lonely Place, to evoke the emotional wasteland behind the glamour. Siegel's The Line-Up served to highlight "the faces of men who'd been through World War II and drank and smoked and never worked out." And with Robert Aldrich's rock 'em, sock 'em piece of pre-postmodernism, Kiss Me Deadly, Hanson proved how cutting-edge and anti-nostalgic '50s pop culture could be.

He and cinematographer Dante Spinotti knew they would shoot wide-screen, so they studied two exemplars of expressive CinemaScope--Douglas Sirk's adaptation of William Faulkner's Pylon, Tarnished Angels, and Minnelli's adaptation of James Jones' small-town saga, Some Came Running. Spinotti also screened each of Hanson's own features, deciding that their signal characteristic was the director's fix on his characters' points of view. "I like strong point of view in movies," admits Hanson. "That's part of their visual attraction; suspense in particular works well when you get the audience involved in a single point of view. The challenge of L.A. Confidential was to use multiple points of view to get the audience invested in several characters instead of one. Bud White, Ed Exley, Jack Vincennes--each is a leading man in his own story. Then the stories come together."

Ellroy saw the movie at a "blue-collar" test screening in Tacoma, Washington. He and his wife, former L.A. Weekly critic Helen Knode, flew out for it. Ellroy was delighted. "I understood in 40 minutes or so that it is a work of art on its own level. It was amazing to see the physical incarnation of the characters--I had spent time with Pearce and Crowe in Australia when on a book tour. I knew what they looked like, knew their original Australian accents.

"I was startled by the film more than anything else, and happily relinquished myself to it. Then as I saw it on subsequent viewings, I got more of a sense of the depth and design of the work. For example, Basinger is noticeably older than Crowe, and it adds a maternal air to their scenes; here is a man who witnessed the brutal murder of his mother, and at the end he's grievously wounded and being nurtured by a mature woman. A young kid could not have made this film; only a seasoned artist could have."

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