Curtis Hanson’s screen adaptation of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential is often called a neo-noir, but that does not fully describe its essence. Film noir projects a specific style and sensibility harkening back to the aesthetics of the 1940s for its origins and influences, utilizing monochromatic chiaroscuro effects to heighten feelings of psychological stress and alienation. Hanson’s film, in contrast, is shiny yet tough; illuminating the shadows with hazy sunshine and jettisoning anxiety for brutally direct action. Ellroy has recently labeled it a hard-boiled historical romance, which better depicts the film’s tough yet glamorous evocation of mid-century Los Angeles.
The picture’s contemporary look and rapid pace aligns with contemporary audiences’ perspective of Southern California’s historical legacy. While retaining the novel’s depiction of the post-WWII Los Angeles Police Department’s rise to power as a background to a complexly layered crime story, it uniquely interweaves Hollywood illusion-making into its architecture, fashion, and civic propaganda. While it owes a legacy to period epics like Chinatown and True Confessions, which chronicled L.A.’s water and construction booms in sordid tales of violent intrigue, it also nods, like Pulp Fiction, to how pop culture blurs the distinction between fantasy and reality. If hard-boiled period mysteries in the 70s and 80s maintained discrete levels between surface and substance, L.A. Confidential asks, “What’s the difference?”
The character best exemplifying this ambiguity is narcotics detective “Trashcan” Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), who moonlights as a technical advisor for a TV show called Badge of Honor, which, through its “just the facts” tagline, is clearly based on Dragnet. That show, which boasted sporadic runs and reboots on television and radio from the 1950s to the 2000s, is often cited as boosting the LAPD’s image as it weathered varying controversies ranging from corruption and racism to spying, brutality, and shielding itself from public oversight. Vincennes’ qualifications for the job rest with his reputation as an anti-drug crusader, an illusion fostered by a tabloid journal, Hush-Hush, whose editor, Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), pays off the Trash Man with free publicity and cash for tips related to celebrity drug busts. Although a tawdry scandal sheet by that name operated in the 1950s, the version in the movie is a fictitious construct, usefully illustrating the dialectics of sunshine and noir that defined the relationship between Hollywood and the press.
Vincennes follows the path of celebrity lawmen like T-Man Eliot Ness, who became celebrities in the 1950s when television began adapting hard boiled formulas for serialized crime dramas. By the 1970s, the era that establishes L.A. Confidential’s visual style, this trend was in full force, when the exploits of real life cops like Dave Toschi (“Dirty Harry” Callahan), Richard Egan (“Popeye” Doyle), Buford Pusser, David Toma, Frank Serpico, and “Jigsaw” John St. John dominated the airwaves. L.A. Confidential dramatizes the moral decay resulting when Vincennes’ identify shifts from celebrity to police officer. Using some of Hudgens’ cash, Vincennes pays off night commanders for allowing the press to photograph movie star perp walks in the booking room. He stages arrests with directorial flair, urging Hush-Hush photographers to get an Art Deco theater spire in the background as he leads suspects to the paddy wagon (Hanson and cinematographer Dante Spinotti follow the same suggestion, seamlessly integrating their composition of the actors with the actions of their characters). As the film progresses, this bifurcation of identity grows. When a patsy Vincennes sets up for a blackmail scheme is murdered, he pools information on this crime into a larger murder investigation, leading him to a tragically ironic fate.
Vincennes allies himself with ambitious robbery/homicide detective Edmund Exley. Defined by a rigid posture, oversized glasses, and a score of prissy mannerisms, Exley exudes a stern rectitude at odds with Vincennes casual lassitude. Their contrast in personal style and moral attitude is established at their first encounter, when he turns down Vincennes’ C-note for letting Hush-Hush photograph the booking of a D-list movie actor on a drug charge. His sanctimonious, by-the-book mentality places him at odds with the Department, whose swaggering, billy-club-swinging brutality, is widely viewed, as Robbery/Homicide Detective Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) puts it, as “a vital part of the job.” Exley is initially treated as an annoyance, but the officers and top brass soon learn never to underestimate this officious little prick. Beneath his façade of prim self-righteousness rests an unstoppable ambition to link his absolutist morals to career advancement. Smith is convinced that the latter will impede Exley’s pursuits, telling him that, “You have the eye for human weakness, but not the stomach for it,” but he doesn’t appreciate Exley’s indomitable will to align his sense of right and wrong to his self-interest. Like Vincennes, he is willing to reshape the narrative of critical events to further his agenda.
This opportunity arises when Vincennes and Exley’s paths cross again a few days later, after a racist mass beatdown at the jail causes a scandal demanding swift disciplinary action. This incident is based on the 1951 “Bloody Christmas” fracas in the city’s holding facility, in which 27 officers were dismissed or reprimanded after their assault on predominantly Latino inmates. For Chief William Parker. the punishments demonstrated his commitment to reforming the Department’s image which, when he was appointed to the position in 1948, was tarnished with accusations ranging from incompetence (as illustrated by the failure to apprehend the “Black Dahlia” killer, a notorious murder fictitiously chronicled in another Ellroy novel) to collusion with organized crime (as Hollywood madam Brenda Allen and reformers like Clifford Clifton alleged). The film cynically insinuates that the rampage was more widespread than what the investigation acknowledged, and that relatively few officers faced reprimands for participating. Exley masterminds the show trial, earning a promotion to the Detective Bureau, and Vincennes testifies against pensioners “who’ll be fly fishing in Oregon next week” for a light suspension and a temporarily lowered media profile.
Exley’s dog and pony show only grazes his nemesis, Bud White (Russell Crowe), a plainclothes officer with a departmental reputation for unrestrained violence. Although his pugilistic vigilance is primarily directed at wife beaters (in response to having witnessed his mother’s death in a domestic altercation), Smith and Exley see his actions as demonstrating a more generalized bent towards brutality. Smith finds these inclinations useful, placing White on his “gangster squad,” which employs random beatings to intimidate organized crime associates from locating to Los Angeles. To his girlfriend, Lynne Bracken (Kim Basinger), a high-price call girl, White’s motives are self-evident: he is simply a protector of vulnerable women who cannot conceal his impulse to attack misogynistic aggression. He is as direct as Exley and Vincennes are cunning, and they, or his supervisor, can’t comprehend his moral compass.
In the months following “Bloody Christmas”, the three detectives pursue different leads while investigating a mass murder at a downtown coffee shop in which White’s ex partner, who was dismissed from the department after Exley’s post-brawl clean-up, is slain. Exley and Vincennes restore their reputations after the arrest, interrogation, and subsequent killing of three African-American suspects for the crime following a jailbreak. White, displaying a tenacious intelligence unnoticed by his colleagues, suspects that another victim’s connection to a high-priced call girl outlet suggests a more sinister motive. By solving the case, he seizes a chance to, as Vincennes says, “fuck [Exley] if it takes him the rest of his life,” for forcing his partner’s retirement. Following a witness’s recantation of her statement placing the original suspects at the scene, and the “homo-cide” of a gay actor in a shakedown gone south, the other two detectives suspect a cover-up. Ultimately, all three join forces in tracking down the killers, uncovering a deeper sense of departmental corruption than they had ever imagined in the process.
From the above description, one might expect that Hanson and Helgeland comprehensively presented the plot of Ellroy’s 500-page opus. In fact, they covered only about 20% of the book, and roughly 40% of the script consists of scenes altering the story to accommodate time constraints. When discussing the possibility of adapting the novel into a film in the early 90s, Ellroy said that it would have to be five hours long and shot in black and white. Upon L.A. Confidential’s release he promoted the feature and he later often referred to it as a salutary adaptation, while half-facetiously grumbling that more people were familiar with it than the book. Last year, not long after Hanson’s death, Ellroy proffered a more withering critique at a 20th anniversary screening of the movie in Denver, which he reiterated at the Noir City: Los Angeles festival last April. While he made numerous specific objections ranging from the elimination of subplots to the stiltedness of the acting, the gist of his complaints rest with the film’s tone, which he believes weakened the novel’s dark substance.
These complaints reawaken an age-old argument as to whether screenplays should strive to capture the essence of the works they adapt, or reshape the material to best operate within the restrictions of the cinematic medium. In the case of L.A. Confidential, the either/or side of this question blurs. Hanson retains much of Ellroy’s fierce economy of language and narrative drive while altering its rhythm and plot. The novelist and the filmmaker part ways, however, in terms of tone, morality, and historical perspective. In the final analysis, Ellroy’s version is a tabloid-infused film noir nightmare, while Hanson’s is a cynically glamorous rumination on L.A.’s conflation of reality and illusion.
Despite massive structural alterations to the book, Hanson still retains the singularity of the book’s dovetailing of historical philosophy to dramatic form. Both artists see history instrumentally, understanding the present as an effect of numerous connections from the past. Historians and crime novelists deducet the nature of events byn assembling evidence and evaluating clues through universal axioms (such as, no set of fingerprints are alike) to draw an irrefutable conclusion as to a hitherto unknown cause. The form of crime fiction articulates a cultural expression of progressive forms of achieving justice through establishing truthful outcomes, using logical modes of inquiry to establish guilt through evidentiary proof.
In both its literary and cinematic forms, L.A. Confidential extends its formal investigative structure to explain the cultural and political nature of the city it depicts. They integrate historical references into their crime-solving narrative to envision a larger chronicle of political malfeasance. The aforementioned “Bloody Christmas” riot and subsequent coverup is the first example. Patchett’s use of blackmail to get city approval for the Santa Monica Freeway constitutes another. The works imbue the evolution of Los Angeles’ physical environment with an aura of corruption, representing the city as a series of interrelated crime scenes, where each moment of civic progress, from police reform to urban infrastructure, is tainted with the scent of moral decay. The antonymic relationship between Sunshine and Noir, the Yin and Yang of the Southland’s urban myth, enhances the effect that crime fiction, in explicating narrative in the form of forensic procedure, can illuminate, if not a literal truth, an ecstatic counterforce to the celebratory boosterism embedded in public memory.
Both authors therefore create historical fiction in opposition to a mostly positive nostalgic idyll relating to postwar innocence, largely imagined in terms of Hollywood glamour and suburban consumerism. Hanson and Ellroy display a deep acknowledgement of the influence of mid-century film noir in their art. These films, in contrast to, say, the fanciful teen movies and musicals of that time, have provided historical evidence that audiences responded to dramas projecting the subconscious anxieties regarding social change during the period. The use of psychological metaphors in describing public reception towards film noir is not accidental. Whereas early crime films rooted the actions of gangsters and other sundry crooks in social conditions (poverty and bad environment, coupled with bad social legislation like Prohibition), later entries during and immediately after WWII were driven by the characters’ specific traumas and fears. Vincennes, Exley, and White are not pure-hearted criminologists motivated to seek truth and justice for their own sake. Their actions are fueled by personal drives of guilt, ambition, and hatred. They seek to stabilize their egos by inhabiting the archetype of a police officer.
The psychological dimension of noir also comments on the key weakness of thinking of historical reconstruction as pure science. The recollections of human actors and witnesses to famous events are shaped by both deliberate and subconscious biases in attempts to officially write their chronicles in a beneficial light. In many cases the facts, as reported, get warped by the drives of the players, or even the chroniclers themselves. In L.A. Confidential, as in the movies and books that influenced it, the legitimacy of facts (most noticeably, the ballistics evidence implicating the black Nite Owl suspects) gets challenged as evidence of a wider conspiracy comes to light. The unreliability of fact invokes an aura of suspicion that extends beyond the case into a wider pattern of historical lies.
The archetype of the detached detective is renegotiated throughout the film and novel, with each form given its own distinct set of psychological instigations. White represents an older model in which officers embody the necessity of force to maintain order. His bulky muscularity and recognizably cheap suits convey a brutal fearlessness that intimidates miscreants, keeping them in line with normative rules of social conduct. Exley’s donning of the blue uniform early on, which morphs into the more fitted jacket and slacks as he rises through the ranks, proffers a more disciplined image, where policing is run by a bureaucratically driven institutional procedures and protocols. Each character exudes a style of masculinity conducive gaining power and control over the forces that obstruct their objectives. These archetypes are also historically loaded. White is aligned with the past; Exley with the future (and present). Both characters achieve self-actualization by dealing with their own pasts, as reflected in their problematic relationship to father figures throughout the investigation.
Both White and Exley share a severed relationship with absent dads. In the novel and film, White was forced to watch his father beat his mother to death before absconding into the ether. Young Bud’s extrajudicial punishment of wife beaters stems from a symbolic attempt to avenge this Oedipal loss. In a major departure from the book, Exley’s father is killed in the line of duty and remembered, by both the son and the Department, as a fallen hero. Young Edmond competes with his father as a means of compensating for this loss. In Ellroy’s version, Exley pére is alive and both a viable legend in the department and an active presence in his son’s life. For reasons that I will pursue in the upcoming paragraphs, the father/son rivalry stems from familial tensions stemming from that fractious relationship. Missing patriarchs create vacuums that the narrative seeks to fill.
Both L.A. Confidentials use Oedipal conflict to explicate how the control and manipulation of male desire legitimizes claims for the mantle of leadership. This is accomplished by drawing sinister parallels between its surrogate patriarchs. White and Exley come under the tutelage of Dudley Smith, head of both the robbery/homicide bureau and a clandestine “muscle” squad directed against outside organized crime outfits. Smith explicitly proclaims, like White, that violence is “a necessary component” of the job, and salvages the traumatized officer’s career from the “Bloody Christmas” fallout. He also assigns him to the muscle squad, a move revealing a critical blindness to the specificity of his pupil’s aggression. Likewise, Smith mentors Exley’s advances up the chain of command. He warns the younger go-getter of the costs of alienating himself from the rank and file by putting career above the unspoken code of silence on the subject of professional misconduct, and often blocks him when his righteousness and sense of entitlement go too far. He also appreciates Exley’s gifts for calculation, acknowledging that “the Department needs smart men like Exley.” Smith obtains paternal authority by earning the loyalty of the men under his command, understanding that they are instinctually governed by violent urges, and allowing these emotions to flourish in a moderated state.
Lynne Bracken’s procurer, Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn), on the other hand, obtains wealth and influence by preying on men’s carnal lusts. Running a stable of call girls whose faces are remodeled, via plastic surgery, to look like movie stars, he caresses city officials’ egos by allowing them to play tough guys with his girls, only to blackmail them with photos of these encounters if they act against his other business interests. Paradoxically, he provides decent housing and pensions for his women as long as they don’t use drugs, thus winning their willing compliance to his operation. Like Smith, Patchett spins a web of corruption out of instilling loyalty mostly by allowing his minions illicit freedom, and security from outside surveillance of their actions.
Following this Oedipal psychological model, White and Exley overthrow their symbolic father figures and assume their place. To achieve this end, both versions merge the triptych=based expository structure of the first two acts into a single propulsive strand emphasizing teamwork, with Exley emerging as the dominant protagonist. Recognizing White’s usefulness in obtaining information about the Nite Owl (for example, being able to beat the crap out of the D.A.), Exley mounts a two-pronged offensive against Smith, melding his own intellect with White’s muscle, which necessitates ending their rivalry diplomatically to bring the latter under his compliance. By the end, Exley kills Smith, the mastermind of the massacre and, as he did with Bloody Christmas, reframes the narrative to conceal the embedded corruption within the department. Exley achieves self-actualization by besting his father’s reputation and assuming the guise of the Superego in the form of a high-ranking position within the L.A.P.D’s top brass. White advances only so far as he substitutes Smith for a stronger, Freudian-based personality who he can serve, as well as a substitute mother figure to nurse his physical injuries.
Up to this point, Ellroy and Hanson share a remarkable facility at creating a noirish, psychologically driven counter-myth of the rise of police power in Los Angeles. They part ways, however, in how they aestheticize violence. Ellroy’s tone, as he suggested in the 90s, is inscribed in monochrome and horror, highlighting the connection between film noir and other genres influenced by Gothic expressionism. Hanson’s aesthetic, in contrast, is shaped by Technicolor and two-fisted machismo. By minimizing the presence of the grotesque, Hanson’s adaptation neuters the story’s impact. In turn, the film loses much of the novel’s personality, and more importantly, its moral force.
The slackness of the film’s visceral intensity is probably best illustrated in the elimination of a key subplot from the film in which the foundation of Exley Senior’s “big case” collapses in the wake of revelations uncovered by the Nite Owl investigation. Preston Exley’s notoriety rests in solving the murder of a 1930s child star, whose body, along with several others, was dismembered and re-assembled with animal parts by a vicious psychopath. The elder Exley, it turns out, framed a random pedophile for the atrocity while clandestinely killing the young man who he believed to be the real culprit, the son of a Walt Disney surrogate, Ray Dieterling. Exley, and ultimately his own father, believed the younger Dieterling to have been psychologically afflicted by pornographic cartoons that Ray secretly produced for Patchett in the 20s. Both men publicly profited by this act of vigilantism, which they privately justified as an act of “absolute justice.” Young Edmond discovers the real killer through a Nite Owl tendril, and at the book’s end, he leverages that knowledge to exact morally justified revenge over his domineering, hypocritical father.
Although the elimination of this plot thread does not leave a noticeable hole in the film’s streamlined narrative (a testament to the adroitness of Hanson and Helgeland’s storytelling skills), it fails to underscore the harms invoked by certain details left in their narrative. The mirroring of the plastic surgery demanded by Patchett on his girls and the hideous barbarity of the earlier crime is lost. In the novel, the return of the Exley’s family’s original sin emerges in White’s discovery of mangled pornographic photos. This thread ultimately leads to the brutal beating death of a teenage prostitute who, like his mother, the detective fails to save. As far as physical impacts go, all the movie shows us is a bandaged nose and black eyes on a Rita Hayworth look-alike. The film simply drops the link between the serial history of physical trauma (and its impact not only on women but the men who watch and are affected by it) and the decadence of Hollywood eroticism.
Ellroy uses the horror engendered in the rending of human flesh to give psychological weight to the power of witness, and the long-term effect of that violence. He also deals with the emotional trauma born to the male survivors of misogynistic aggression, an issue that he has personally experienced. In his 2010 memoir, The Hilliker Curse, the author relates how his teenage fascination with the Black Dahlia case re-translated his sublimated feelings of lust and hatred towards his own mother, murdered in a still-unsolved 1958 sex crime, into a heroic narrative of personal redemption. Ellroy’s creativity seems connected to a dark fantasy life formed by a personally felt connection to the material existence of evil. The destruction of the human form by this frenzy of desire is a critical element of his moral viewpoint.
Hanson severs the desecration of the innocent and the feminine from its occult implications, depicting the alteration of the body for visual pleasure in more benign terms. Physical alterations of the female body are normalized as economic pragmatism, as the horrific impact of that practice is erased. In the book, the Hollywood dream factory spurs on the actions of psychopaths, depicting these effects as an organic consequence of the film industry’s manipulation of reality. The film draws a line at implicating movies in the violence it depicts, offering a more nostalgic framework for accepting everyday corruption. A larger evil is eliminated by the novels end, but a facile acknowledgement of the persistence of moral turpitude remains.
Ellroy’s stance towards evil is more epic in scope, and thus more powerful. This is best illustrated at the novel’s conclusion, when Exley, after fully recognizing his capacity to use force as an instrument of power, welds his ambition to a higher pursuit of achieving what his father called “absolute justice.” He brings White’s ferocity under his control and avenges his dad’s hypocrisy in service to bringing down Smith, who becomes the book’s Rollo Tomasi by successfully severing his connection to the Nite Owl and remains the protagonists’ moving target. Exley maximizes the potential of his sinfulness for the sake of achieving a greater good. In the film, he shoots Smith in the back and re-orchestrates the act to create a cover-up designed to protect the Department’s reputation. The protagonist’s path of career advancement only serves the purpose of achieving self-actualization. There is no further impetus to achieve justice.
In an essay that Ellroy wrote after 9/11, the author explicates that the inevitable rush to use war to exact revenge upon the attacks on the world Trade Center erases the truth that the incident was predated by crimes committed in the name of geopolitics. War may be justified in the pursuit of safety and security, he argues, but the power of acknowledging cause and effect will be diminished under a wave of nationalism. Policies, and even atrocities, are committed to handle the blowback from previous actions, but, we must not lose sight of the totality of decisions and unfolding events in the rush to, as he put it in American Tabloid, “give great moral weight to moments of political expediency.” Ellroy sees dramatic fiction as analogous to the explanatory power of history, fusing psychological insight to a grand moral purpose where sinfulness may redeem itself in righteousness, even at great personal cost.
Hanson’s adaptation, while deft and appealing, is, comparatively, glib and facile when compared to the source. It looks at the layering of fantasy over harsh realities of Hollywood storytelling in a self-knowing, self-deprecating manner, in which no noticeable effect will occur once the story is closed. Exley gets the world, and White gets an ex-hooker and a one way ticket to Arizona, as this is how the world works, because everyone in the end gets what they want. It’s a brilliant streamlining of a labyrinthine narrative, but in eliminating key elements of the plot and providing a more definitive sense of closure, the movie substitutes a more complacent acceptance of our civic perfidy for Ellroy’s dark rumination on the forces that drive individuals to accept the weight of moral obligation.