Film Reviews

City of angles

Bernardo Bertolucci once dubbed Los Angeles the Big Nipple. Writer-director Curtis Hanson has been suckling at it all his life. Just how much nourishment he's drawn becomes clear in his terrific new L.A. film, L.A. Confidential. Now 52, Hanson has been a talent for critics to dead-reckon with for 20 years, displaying snappy craftsmanship and a welcome air of irony in movies as different as the 1983 coming-of-age comedy-drama Losin' It (with Tom Cruise's best performance) and the 1990 anti-yuppie thriller Bad Influence (with James Spader's best performance).

But he's never before generated the kind of heat inside a picture--and out of it--that he has with L.A. Confidential. His mounting of James Ellroy's maze-like crime saga draws audiences into a startlingly close bond with three morally tainted L.A. cops. They stumble toward redemption in the City of Angels in the giddy decade following World War II.

Or is that the City of Angles? Each of the three antiheroes is playing one. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) tries to edge into the spotlight as the technical advisor to a Dragnet-like TV show called Badge of Honor. Bud White (Russell Crowe) rescues abused women to settle a private psychic score. And Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is a canny precinct politician posing as a clean-cut idealist. The story traces the unholy yet virtuous three as they investigate a massacre of six people at a late-night coffee shop--even after the department closes the case.

In run-of-the-mill films noir, any one of these men would serve as the flawed central hero drawn to a voluptuous woman and driven to righteousness for once in his life. But L.A. Confidential explodes into a panorama of mixed motives: All three end up serving justice. And if two men fall for the same sadder-but-wiser beauty, Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), they both wind up better for it. She's a femme fatale with a healing touch, and Jack, Bud, and Ed are rogue cops with nagging consciences.

Hanson sets their mutual crucible bubbling in a 1950s Southern California that's oddly hopeful and inviting. It's also unlike anything else in the genre that's now known as "neo-noir." The only one peddling the sultry romance of the '40s in this movie is Lynn Bracken, whose millionaire pimp has made her over to look like Veronica Lake.

Over lunch two weeks ago a short hop away from his home and office in Marina del Rey, Hanson said, "I didn't want to make a movie that was a homage to a style of the past. Quite the contrary. I made it despite the fact that it was set in the past and was about cops."

His interest was in Southern California fiction--Chandler, Cain, John Fante (The Brotherhood of the Grape). "I'd read half a dozen of Ellroy's books before I read L.A Confidential," Hanson said. "I got hooked on the characters, not the plot, and part of what hooked me on them was that, as I met them, one after the other, I didn't like them--but as I continued reading, I started to care about them.

"I also found myself thinking about the city. Ellroy gave me the opportunity to set a movie at a point in time when the whole dream of Los Angeles, from that apparently golden era of the '20s and '30s, was being bulldozed; the area was changing from this group of individual little communities to the megalopolis that the freeways created. The mood after World War II was very un-noirish. It was one of optimism and economic boom. And there were a lot of things starting here, new and exciting, that for better or worse are still very much with us today. The freeways, the whole idea of suburbia. Television, tabloid journalism. It's the period that I lived through as a child, and this seemed to be an opportunity to tell a story about these characters and that city all in one."

Hanson's co-writer on L.A. Confidential, Brian Helgeland, originally signed with Warner Bros. to do a Viking movie with director Uli Edel. (Helgeland jokingly refers to it as Last Exit to Oslo.) He then worked on an unproduced modern-day King Arthur story and got typecast as "the sword guy" at the studio. Unlike Hanson and Ellroy, Helgeland hails from southern Massachusetts. But he was a longtime fan of Ellroy's writing, and what he saw in L.A. Confidential was the chance to do, as he put it, "epic, swashbuckling noir." In the typical noir, he says, "Guys are poking guns at each other in drab rooms and dim hallways. In Ellroy's book, it's more like Lawrence of Arabia."

When he heard that Warners had acquired the book, he lobbied to script the film: "Unfortunately, I was just 'the sword guy,' and they were seeing big writers." Helgeland finally got a meeting, but it was canceled two days before it was to occur--Warners had decided to go with a writer-director, Curtis Hanson. But Helgeland continued to push. He and Hanson ultimately got together at a bungalow at Universal, where Hanson was at work on The River Wild. And they found that along with their enthusiasm for Ellroy, they shared the same concept of how to lick the novel: "Basically," says Helgeland, "to remove every scene from the book that didn't have the three main cops in it, and then to work from those scenes out."

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Michael Sragow