In Time Magazine’s recent release of Film Noir: 75 Years of the Greatest Crime Classics, writer J.I. Baker details the connection between tabloid fodder and pulp fiction. At a time when respectable journalism reigned supreme, post-war publications like New York Daily and Confidential magazine crashed the party with crass gossip and a “shocking, sleazy sensibility” that echoed the era’s literature. Authors Cornell Woolrich, James M. Cain and, more recently, James Ellroy, lifted the sensational headlines of America’s asphalt jungle, while Hollywood followed suit with a darkened style modeled after photographer Arthur Fellig (a.k.a. Weegee).
Curtis Hanson grew up in the eye of this lurid storm. Born in 1945 and enthralled by the glamour of his Los Angeles hometown (his uncle supplied clothes for stars like Natalie Wood and Marilyn Monroe), Hanson decided to pursue a career in magazine photography before he even finished high school. The dropout would ultimately trade his stills for a movie camera come the ’70s, but fascination with a Hollywood industry built on fantasy never waned. In fact, when it came time for Hanson to pitch an adaptation of Ellroy’s 1990 novel L.A. Confidential, the cagey craftsman played up every sensational angle: criminal scandal, colorful postcards, and tabloid pages pulled directly from the time period. “That’s the image that they’re selling you of Los Angeles”, Hanson explained on Charlie Rose, “we wanted to peel back that image and show you what’s really going on.” (Charlie Rose, 24 October 1997)
As a result, L.A. Confidential (1997) presents a paradise with secrets behind every palm tree. A parade of glossy images (many of which Hanson used in his studio pitch) distill the opening montage, while Hush-Hush editor Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito) paints 1953 L.A. with sunny, sinister narration. Sure, crooked cops and organized crime roam the streets, yet the dazzle of movie premieres and a post-war economy make it so nobody has a good enough reason to rock the boat. This includes the film’s trio of policemen: Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), a career-minded square, Bud White (Russell Crowe), a brute with a bad temper, and Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), a hot shot who enjoys only the perks of his profession. Each joined the force with admirable intent, but those days have long since passed. When asked why he become a cop, all Vincennes can muster is a defeated “I don’t remember.”
The obvious touchstone for the film is Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974). Both utilize broken anti-heroes and the history of Los Angeles as a backdrop, while detailing the fall of the working class and native peoples for the posh crowd. Not everyone is given a pair of wings in the City of the Angels. Instead of Noah Cross and his plight to command the city’s water supply, Confidential offers up Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn), a bigwig pornographer with plans to construct a local highway. Both of equally smarmy disposition, they present an evil that goes beyond the individual and speaks to a society that allows them to thrive.
Where the film differs from Robert Towne’s script, however, is that Patchett is merely a baddie for the true criminal–the system–to blanket itself. The Nite Owl Massacre, a coffee shop shooting that aligns the core trio, is quickly passed off as the handiwork of African American convicts. Exley is appointed to the case as a department boy scout, and the subsequent investigation, shootout, and media acceptance that comes with it cancels out any need for further questioning. The sergeant is promoted and praised, but even he is weary of the convenience that came with his ghetto scapegoats. It isn’t until a turn of guilt from Vincennes that Nite Owl gets a second glance; and by then, both cops are positive they won’t like what they’ll find.
Hanson and co-writer Brian Helgeland reportedly spent two years deconstructing this sprawling mystery for the big screen. The novel, a 500 plus page behemoth that spans seven years and eight storylines, was a task that many rightfully deemed to be unfilmable. In response, the writing duo stuck mainly to the Exley-White-Vincennes subplot, and tossed out everything that didn’t support their particular narrative. “I wanted the audience to be challenged but at the same time I didn’t want them to get lost” (“Mean Streets”, Dawson, 1997) said Hanson, who minimized, combined, and diverted characters to make for a more concise viewing. This approach triumphed in retaining the book’s central themes while still allowing space to develop even the most minimal of characters. Lynn Bracken (an Academy Award winning Kim Basinger), the call girl who captivates White, embodies Confidential’s broken spirit despite appearing in roughly fifteen of the film’s 138 minutes.
It also helps that Hanson believes in his film noir values, and isn’t simply using them for decoration. The director’s affinity for Hitchcockian flair is apparent in The Bedroom Window (1987) and Bad Influence (1990), but Confidential at last allowed him to channel his other filmmaking idol: Nicholas Ray. The spirit of the noir auteur behind In a Lonely Place (1950) and On Dangerous Ground (1951) is especially prevalent here; from the echoing Bracken-White love affair of the former to the urban disillusion of the latter. As a result, the cheap thrills that Hanson had previously leaned on was streamlined for a denser, more developed sense of narrative progression. He understood Ellroy’s seedy world, and the intimacy that came with it leapfrogged over the fanciful, albeit entertaining existence of something like Influence.
Nearly every scene bridges this gap between literary prose and livewire production. The fatal exchange between Vincennes and Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), for example, is Hanson’s crowning bit of suspense, invented solely (and brilliantly) for the sake of the film. Amidst the small talk and late night coffee, Vincennes begins to realize Smith is behind the Nite Owl killings, and is shot point blank in response. No talk, nor build-up, just a bullet and the brief, glazed moments that remain. A turning point in the narrative and a brilliant curtain call for Vincennes (his final words prove Smith’s undoing), it is the most shocking murder this side of Billy Costigan in The Departed (2006).
The climactic shootout, where Exley and White are pinned down in an abandoned motel, is another case of Hanson and Helgeland fabricating for Hollywood’s sake. In the novel, there’s no blaze of glory that leads to Smith’s death; he survives, akin to most evil figures in film noir. The brash Ellroy was initially apprehensive about the change, but quickly came to accept it, explaining:
Hanson proved me wrong on a couple things. When I read the script, I thought the shoot-out […] was preposterous. And you know what? In the movie it’s preposterous. Two guys holed up in a room where they kill fifteen guys — it’s bulls**t. But you know what? It’s inspired bulls**t.
The surviving duo spin a final web of lies for the tabloids, before making off with their happy ending. Exley gets the glory, White gets an “ex-hooker and a trip to Arizona.” It’s a reserved, plainspoken, touch to leave things off, yet it speaks volumes to the cinematic artistry of Curtis Hanson. In a career that mostly defied auteur association, his most tangible thread as a storyteller was optimism: the eternal light at the end of the dark tunnel.
It permeates nearly all of his works, and with L.A. Confidential, his self-admitted masterpiece, it becomes a poetic capper to the exploitation, ambition, and seduction that preceded. Few own their wings in the City of the Angels, but Hanson, the Academy Award winner who passed away on 20 September, certainly made a strong case for consideration. Off the record, on the QT, and of course, very hush hush.