James Ellroy was (and still is) never going to make an easy transition to the cinema. The dense layers of plots within plots that typify his books, all told through staccato four word sentences (often in as brutal a manner as possible), the sense of the history of a city (and the wider nation) unfolding before the readers eyes feels more at home as something the consumer can immerse themselves in than as a film (something Brian DePalma shows with his disastrous take on The Black Dahlia). The demands on your attention, the ability to move back through the book to see the beginning of the end are often necessary. Here though Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland manage it by boiling down the third part of a quartet (for which the first two parts haven’t been filmed), jettisoning vast chunks of the sub-plot and re-crafting it into something more direct but no less intelligent. On the surface LA Confidential seems like a by the numbers crime / conspiracy thriller, underneath it’s probably the best example of the genre since Chinatown – perhaps not as good as that film, but only because few films are.
The trick (as with all good detective films) is to only allow the audience to keep pace with what the detectives know at that point, rather than allow them to second guess the protagonists. Add to this a sense that anything is possible (spoiler alert: Especially following what happens to Kevin Spacey) and the sense that anything could happen to anyone is heightened throughout. Hanson (the director) never shirks from the casual brutality of the source, delivering violence in the same sudden, sharp and vicious manner as it was written – apart from the closing shoot out, violence is often over as quickly as it begun. Other directors would soften the two protagonists, Hanson presents them warts and all as complicated figures adrift in a grey landscape, none more so than Crowe’s compromised pit-bull of a detective, unable to piece together the bigger picture and a pawn of everyone else. It’s interesting that his relationship with Basinger’s “Hooker with a Heart of Gold” (another cliché that Ellroy spun wonder from) feels real rather than fake, so that when the inevitable violent act happens it’s even more shocking. Hanson understands that Ellroy should leave you feeling slightly grubby, although it must be admitted that some of the more extreme elements of the novels are omitted, probably out of a sense of decency.
I often comment how films fail because the director tries to mimic the medium they are adapting rather than translate it into the language of the medium itself – LA Confidential doesn’t fall into that category. The novels are (on one level) an exploration of the nature of detective novels from the fifties and sixties, dragged into a modern novel framework but still recognisably part of the genre. Hanson pulls the same trick here, dragging the genre into modern techniques but still shouting out to the past, there are echoes of the classic RKO Film Noir in its style, but all without the restrictions of the Hays Code. Whilst the levels of violence are noticeably higher, the darkness of the tone is reduced, threat can be shown, not merely implied.
The cast is uniformly excellent, often in roles outside what we had expected from them before. Danny DeVito is wonderful as the sleazy reporter, trading in on his more usual persona to present something more troubling – and James Cromwell is a revelation as the villain behind everything, come the end there’s still the possibility everyone could be wrong so difficult is it to believe he’s been corrupted so completely. Interestingly, no one gets their grand-standing moment, instead it plays very much as an ensemble piece, no one is more important than anyone else; no one is the clear star.
Around this Hanson & Hegleland construct a wonderful facsimile of Hollywood in the fifties, all gleaming cars and dry heat. Like Chinatown before it, it acknowledges that this is not reality but reality filtered through fifty years of the genre. It’s all too easy to imagine that Bogart is sat in the building next door working on another case of equal importance, that stories exist beyond what is going on here. Time and place are as important as narrative drive, creating a sense of realism as well as drama.
It’s debatable whether this works because of what was cut, or whether it would have worked anyway. True, full strength Ellroy would be better suited to television where the full weirdness of the sub-plots would have time to breathe, but this works by focussing on the essentials rather than anything else. Likewise, cutting things doesn’t always work – DePalma cut much of the Tijuana sub-plot from The Black Dahlia and in doing so lost the weirdness that the book sometimes explores. The reason this works is it leaves in enough of the complications and uncertainty to muddy the waters, it doesn’t allow these to get in the way of the driving narrative. LA Confidential tells a complex story in as simple a manner as possible, something many films fail to do.