Posted in First Take

[1997] L.A. Confidential

God, if we could only track the lives of the characters we love through the lens of the actors who play them.

The narrative appeal is endless, if not ludicrous, for the thought that Marlon Brando’s actual life led him from the ‘coulda-been’ Terry Malone in On The Waterfront to boss-extraodinaire Veto Corleone in The Godfather; imagine that Jimmy Stewart kept playing self-flagellating characters throughout his actual life.

It’s a fun thought: we – as movie goers – would like to think that the piece we’re viewing picks up at a certain point, gives us a poignant glimpse and simply continues after the main conflict fades to end. We can then disengage from the surreality of the screen and return to our lives, whose experiences do build upon one another.

This is not how noir film works. Instead of a slice of the big fictional pie, noir rips through an entirety of a story in wildly emotional acts, leaving every stone unturned and not a single character the same, often not alive and occasionally better off dead. L.A. Confidential is no exception to this high concept and pays grand homage to noir film of decades past. As the apotheosis of the highly stylized neo-noir genre, L.A. Confidential is, in 2013, darkly comical in its treatment of actors-as-characters. I can’t hardly see James Cromwell, affable farmer in Babe, as a twisted captain or even more so Guy Pearce, pointillist in his proceedings as a lieutenant, as a man lost and never found in Memento. 

This is both a function of the genre and an externality of brash originality of this movie. These characters – Cromwell’s Dudley Smith, Russell Crowe’s Bud White, Pearce’s Ed Exley, Kevin Spacey’s Jack Vincennes….Danny DeVito’s Sid Hudgens – are dynamic, interwoven foils of their also highly stylized city. Curtis Hanson directs his cast as he would paint a puzzle. He recognizes the central and peripheral themes of James Ellroy novel as the ridged pieces and the actors as the box from which the puzzle can be finished.

But L.A. Confidential does what traditional noir films couldn’t do (technical limitations, thematic evolution, budgetary restrictions) or wouldn’t do (moral limitations, mostly): it creates a puzzle with no box. There is no “twist” because there was no path. Hanson’s L.A wasn’t painted by accident, but there also wasn’t a plan to coalesce the characters into a high-speed blender. No, L.A. Confidential is character driven at its core and at its surface. In each scene with straight-man Exley and sleaze ball Vincennes together a dynamic forms that drives and informs other scenes wherein other characters have had the opportunity to grow, shift and thaw. Hanson doesn’t demonstrate character development, he creates the space during which all the characters demonstrate the director’s view and vision of Los Angeles and in turn the different elements that make the city tick, writhe and most importantly sludge.

He’s not talking about human nature, he’s talking that humans have no nature. To him, and hopefully to those who watch L.A. Confidential, the city is a loose representation of what makes humans absolute and terrible and primal. We’re all motived by sex and cynicism and nothing else. He provides an all-too-classic ending to this story that begs the question, “what if I weren’t awful?” And that’s what makes L.A. Confidential a brilliant story and not so much a slice of life, but the whole thing. His themes are too overarching it almost seems humorous.

As a power piece of American late 20th century film oeuvre, L.A. Confidential provides what winner Titanic couldn’t: a story about a time and a place without pretense but without a 2000% return on investment. A love story but without Leo’s androgynous charm. And speaking of humor, though it’s funny to think about Leo’s Jack Dawson’s heart literally going on to become Jay Gatsby and if you think too hard about it, it makes sense.

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