L.A. Confidential. It is useless to track the plot. It’s about post-war go-go America, gangsters, drugs and sex and corruption. What makes it a great film is character, pacing, writing and authenticity. The characters are rich and finely drawn. Guy Pearce’s Edmund Exley is half ambition, a quarter condescension, and a quarter fear. Anything he fears he must best, even destroy. He fears Bud White (Russell Crowe) so he testifies against White to have him kicked off the force. White survives Exley’s testimony, but White’s partner does not. As played by Crowe, White seethes with hatred for Exley. When they become entwined in the same investigation of a mass shotgun slaying (which claims White’s disgraced partner), they clash, and White tries to tear Exley’s head off. Their supervisor, Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) intervenes:
DUDLEY SMITH: It’s best to stay away from the lad when his color is up.
ED EXLEY: His color is always up.
DUDLEY SMITH: Then perhaps you’d do well to stay away from him altogether.
Smith is a villain with a gentle Irish brogue, and Cromwell plays him with relish.
I saw Kevin Spacey on Inside the Actors Studio and he said that he patterned his Detective Jack Vincennes – the third character we follow – on Dean Martin in Rio Bravo. It shows. Spacey’s Vincennes alternately swaggers and hunches, bravado followed by just a little shame. He’s corrupt, he’s good at being corrupt, and corruption has made life easy. Vincennes is torn between the celebrity and fortune and guilt his corruption has brought him. And in a film that is so broad, he has little time to make the transition from crook to clean. But he does it in a very brief scene, alone, at a bar, as he eyes a $50 bill (a payoff from the slimy editor of the scandal rag Hush, Hush, played by Danny Devito). Spacey looks at the bill, sees his face in the mirror, places the bill on his shot, and leaves to do the right thing. Kim Basinger won the Supporting Actress Oscar as the women who captivates Bud White, and she’s sleek, sultry and affecting, but every other major performance is better than her own.
The care taken by director Curtis Hansen can be seen in every scene in the film, be it a jail melee’, a triple interrogation, and a stunning shotgun shootout, all of which could have been mucked up. Hansen is very straightforward and confident. Save for some gentle love scenes between Basinger and Crowe, the entire film is quick, sharp movement, punctuated by real or verbal violence. It never, ever drags or becomes self-indulgent. You love what you are seeing but want it to be over because you want to see more.
The film also oozes the L.A. of the time period. It feels right and looks better (for the opposite, a tacky, awful, ridiculous L.A. film, see Mullholland Falls.