It’s easy to have rose-tinted spectacles and assume that modern versions of a long-forgotten staple of cinema simply can’t be as good, but like Unforgiven before it, L.A. Confidential is a defining example of its genre, a gem that you can actually judge classic entries by, such as A Touch of Evil or Double Indemnity. Much of this is thanks to the hard-bitten novel it’s based on by James Ellroy, whose wonderful story is perfect Film Noir, especially in the Femme Fatale of never-better Kim Basinger; she is dangerous to the men around her, but vulnerable as well. With ironic wit, the story is set in deeply corrupt L.A., but at the height of Hollywood glamour and legend (notorious Johnny Stompanato is featured, along with Lana Turner in a very funny scene). This, is a proper film for proper film fans.
Basinger is a high-class escort, who looks like Veronica Lake, and the key for the L.A.P.D. to uncover David Strathairn’s sleazy business and his corrupted political friends. It comes down to three men to go above and beyond, played by Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce and Kevin Spacey, and it’s a joy to watch these three because none were the superstar actors they are now, so the roles are not compromised in the slightest. They’re supported by James Cromwell as Captain Dudley Smith and Danny DeVito as sleazy Sid Hudgens. The cast is simply note-perfect throughout, chewing wonderful dialogue in Brian Helgeland’s and Curtis Hanson’s screenplay. What is it with Helgeland? He’s either churning out gold like this and Payback, or guff like Sin Eater.
The film is gorgeous to look at, with the production never looking fake, and there are moments that can take the breath away, especially the climax (cinematographer Dante Spinotti coming into his own) or Bud White losing his temper and destroying an office! Like everyone else involved, Jerry Goldsmith finds his best form and produces a score to match the pacing, ever-present, but never over-powering.
L.A. Confidential is very special indeed with Hanson somehow making a film that you think Scorcese could easily have done, yet I’d suggest doing it better, so utterly convincing is his picture of the sleaze and corruption behind the red carpet culture. His Goodfellas style opening doesn’t feel as indulgent as that oft-overrated film and the pacing is sharper where it needs to be. I’m not saying Hanson could pull off something of Taxi Driver standards, but he proves here he can mix it with the best of them. So where is he? Apart from the fantastic Wonder Boys, he’s done little else of note. Apparently this was the film he dreamed of making, so perhaps he is content. And perhaps he should be, because this film is so brilliant, yet everyone involved makes it look easy. It has a style and rhythm other films can only dream of.
For such a tough genre, the final irony of missing out on the Academy Award for Best Picture is strangely poetic, but still, this was far more deserving than Titanic.