Monday, 30 November 2009

LA Confidential, Curtis Hanson, USA 1997

Ever since I happened to see Chinatown a second time after having not liked it the first time round, have I discovered that it’s very worthwhile to give a film you disliked - or didn't get - a second chance. Needless to say, I’ve since seen Chinatown many times over, but just tonight the very same thing happened to me with the film that many people consider to be ‘the new Chinatown’, or ‘even better than Chinatown’ – Curtis Hanson’s LA Confidential.

I vividly remember having seen LA Confidential with a friend at the Barbicon cinema in London at the time when it was first released, but for some reason I fell asleep during the screening and found the film incredibly boring and laboured. The fuss that was made about the film was entirely lost on me. Maybe I didn’t want to like it because it galled me hearing LA Confidential being compared with Chinatown – and since Chinatown had since turned into my all-time favourite film, the fact that something so sacred to me should actually have an equal didn’t sit well with me, considering any kind of comparison with the original to be slander, a smear campaign by dim-witted critics to throw Chinatown off the pedestal, exchanging it for the latest flavour of the month until something else comes along which then, too, will be unashamedly hyped and showered with praise until they run out of adjectives … Well, I’m aware that I can be quite opinionated when it comes to films, – especially my favourite ones!

However, tonight, 11 years later, I saw LA Confidential again for the second time, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I was absolutely riveted; in fact, so engrossed and immersed in it was I that I watched it twice in a row! Well, regardless of the fact that it’s quite advisable to see the film more than once for a variety of reasons, but apart from everything else - how else are you to grasp the highly intricate plot, the cascade of names, the storyline that emerges, slowly, not quite halfway through the film - but almost - just when you thought there wasn’t one?! But of course all the conversational titbits, seemingly insignificant details in the narrative at the beginning – all of that pertains to the story, only that you deemed them peripheral until it’s too late; and that’s why the film -just like Chinatown- requires your attention from the moment the credits roll until the film’s bitter end.

LA Confidential is a tour de force of taut, sinewy screenwriting, with fully fleshed out characters and witty dialogue that’s tight like a fist. True to neo-noir form, LA Confidential takes place chiefly at night, in the dimly lit streets of Los Angeles and the plush and ritzy mansions of the Hollywood Hills. Most every character either has an axe to grind or skeletons in the closet, and there are few heroes but plenty of villains, though it takes you a while to figure out who exactly belongs to which category. The inevitable femme fatale inevitably comes in the disguise of a hooker; however, she’s no Phyllis Dietrichson, nor an Elsa Bannister, although Lyn Braken sure is dressed to kill. Lyn Braken, actually is probably one of the very few individuals in LA Confidential who has practically no hidden agenda. She is just another one of the scores of hopefuls that flocked to Hollywood during its infancy in the - more often than not - vain hope to be in pictures but ends up as a high-class prostitute instead. In that respect her character is reminiscent of Faye Greener in Nathaniel West’s/ John Schlesinger’s The Day Of The Locust although Lyn entirely lacks Faye’s guile and cruelty. In the early day of Hollywood, the hopeful, arriving on a bus from, say, Idaho, was as much part of Los Angeles as the police officer. And with many hopefuls turning from starlet to prostitute in a city that is filled to the rafters with movie folk, a lot of whom with no morals but money to burn, the only people who were busier than police officers were those who did the dirty work for them – or those, who took their job seriously. One such guy is Ed Exley, played by Guy Pearce, who is the embodiment of righteousness and decency. His character is juxtaposed by Russell Crowe’s Bud White, who is all muscle and no brain, and by Kevin Spacey’s Jack Vincennes, who in turn is the one who bends with the wind, jumps on every bandwagon, just as long as he can make a buck on the side and doesn’t get found out. If Ed and Bud portray two different faces of how to stand up and fight for your principles - a brainy and a brawny one - Jack is a third, the flipside – the one that has no morals or principles to speak of.

But even though Bud is too trigger-happy, Ed too priggish and Jack far too cynical, the truly bad guy, the one who equals the Noah Cross character in Chinatown, is their boss. While Noah Cross was wealthy enough to buy off politicians and police officers as he needs them, in LA Confidential money and power are united in the same person, Police Captain Dudley Smith, chillingly played by James Cromwell.
Like Chinatown, whose screenplay is based on a real-life water scandal that rocked LA like an earthquake in the 1910s, LA Confidential, too, is inspired by true incidents, James Ellroy - on whose book the film is based - drawing upon heavy and blatant corruption in LA’s Police Department during the 1930s and 40s.

Actually, being someone who’s always had a soft spot for Los Angeles, I just marvel at the amount of novels, short-stories and films in which LA is depicted as a gotham city, where disaster lurks behind every corner, full of “trashy cars and fancy women” and whose “streets are dark with something more than night”, to quote the city’s aptest chronicler, Raymond Chandler, to whose books, both, Chinatown and LA Confidential, owe a lot. It must be because I just don’t come across that seedy, sordid side of LA, being totally under its spell as I am. However, I can certainly imagine that it’s there, somewhere, but by looking at the palm tress swaying in the wind, with the sun high up in the eternally blue sky shining down on those gorgeous hacienda houses, you would simply never guess… but, I suppose, you only ever see what you want to see…or came to see.