7 Reasons Why “L.A. Confidential” is a Modern Masterpiece of American Cinema

4. The lead players

To modern eyes, the leads of this film may seem like fishing in a barrel. However, those with major parts didn’t seem to be the sure things then that they would be now. As with almost any film, the lead characters are the axis of the film’s plot and, as noted, the principal draw for Curtis Hanson to this project.

The plot centers on how three very differing police officers interact amidst a backdrop of deeply ingrained departmental corruption linked to larger criminal activity in the city. The men include Ed Exley, the coolly officious and ambitious rising star in the department hierarchy who wishes to go upward not only for career reasons but to also try to solve the murder of his father, an officer also high in the department and who may well have been killed over what he knew.

Exley’s opposite number is Bud White, a proletariat plainclothes cop who seems to find violence a lot. In fact, White seems to cause a lot of the violence, usually with him pummeling those whose crimes offend his complex sense of honor (such as beating up on the weak and helpless).

White is widely looked down upon in the department, not the least by Exley. Somewhere in between the two is narcotics agent Jack Vincennes, who is currently the department celebrity by virtue of being the technical advisor to a “Dragnet”-like TV show.

Coming majorly into the lives of both Exley and White is Lynn Bracken, a high-class prostitute who works for a ring which requires its employees (all women) to undergo surgery which causes them to resemble screen stars (Bracken looks like short-lived screen siren Veronica Lake). Her employers are also hooked into the department-crime connection.

Just these casual descriptions show that this film has a complicated plot with distinctive characters, and the casting had to be just right in order to convey who these people are and the thrust of their situations. The prime name at the time of casting was Kevin Spacey, who plays the opportunistic Vincennes and who was just coming off his first Oscar win for “The Usual Suspects” (1995). He is perfect as the outwardly charming but oily and self-serving cop. Ironically, editing for time’s sake curtailed his appearance a bit.

Exley is embodied by Australian actor Guy Pearce, who would eventually be best known for his performance as a man with permanent long-term memory loss in the hit indie thriller “Memento” (2000) but at the time his only notable credit was a role in drag in the 1994 Australian film “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”.

It took someone with vision to see that his lean appearance and sharply delineated manner, married to an inner passion, would be perfect for Exley, who must keep a perfect exterior while keeping his inner turmoil in check in order to get where he needs to go in life. Pearce can be an uneven actor but here Hanson uses him perfectly. Even more impressive is the casting of New Zealand actor Russell Crowe as the thuggish White, who turns out to be a pretty good egg in the end (deep down, anyway).

Crowe, of course, went on to become a big Oscar-winning star for “Gladiator” in 2000, and with an acclaimed and Oscar-nominated performance in the next year’s Best Picture winner, “A Beautiful Mind”. However, his is a rough charisma and he has a genius for making potentially unlikable characters understandable. White is a crucial character and Crowe’s is a crucial performance. If he had failed then the film might well have failed. Though he sadly was not nominated for this film, it was a breakthrough for him.

Augmenting the male actors’ work is that of the film’s leading lady (though all the award givers considered her a supporting player, maybe with some good cause). The glamourous Kim Basinger, who did look like an ultra-idealized version of Lake (Basinger is far more beautiful), seemed like good casting but there were many dissenting murmurings about her during the shooting.

She had been on the film scene for around 20 years by the time of the production of “L.A. Confidential”, after a successful modeling career. However, her work had been… well, less than distinguished. She had a hit with 1989’s “Batman” (though not in a showcase role, really) and had an infamous appearance in 1987’s “9 ½ Weeks”. Her performance here tapped into a strength and depth of understanding she had never exhibited before (and only in “8 Mile”, her only other film with Hanson).

She alone in the cast was Oscar nominated and she won. She has joined the ranks of those who rose to Oscar level only once in their careers, but hey, that’s more than some people manage. Here she makes it understandable that two agents of the law would be drawn to a woman who, by the nature of her mode of living, dwells outside of the law.


5. A great supporting cast

Many an authentic noir (and many other types of films as well) contains great supporting casts, making characters with more limited screen time so memorable and contributing to the feel of the film. “L.A. Confidential” is enriched by the performances of such memorable supporting players as Danny DeVito (the great gremlin character actor of TV and movies), indie star David Strathairn, stage actor Ron Rifkin, a young Simon Baker and, above all, veteran character actor and then-recent Oscar nominee James Cromwell. Cromwell is the key supporting player as the high ranking police officer whose official demeanor, a bastion of integrity, hides deep and dark secrets.

Any good noir and/or neo-noir needs the supporting players for texture. Just as the complicated plot called for the right casting of the leads, it also requires the supporting cast to be well chosen. These people need to be visual flash cards, telling the viewer just who they are and how they will affect the plot and other characters. To that end, “L.A. Confidential” may well be the best cast film of 1997.


6. A great cinematographer

Noir was not a fancy sub-genre and neo-noir, while a bit more upscale from time to time, wouldn’t be called lavish either. However, films are made of images and images must be correctly, inventively rendered according to the creative waves of the films they serve. In other words, the viewer must see the pictures that make up a film and those pictures must tell the proper mini-stories that will add up to the major plot of the film. Any decent director knows that one of the most vital contributors to the film is the cinematographer.

“L.A. Confidential” was blessed with the work of the noted and gifted Italian cinematographer Dante Spinotti.  Spinotti was a distinguished veteran of European cinema long before he made his American debut in 1987 with Michael Mann’s “Manhunter” (and had the distinction of also lensing Brent Ratner’s remake of that film, 2002’s “Red Dragon”).

In fact, it speaks volumes for him that the ultra-style-conscious Mann regularly worked with him (most notably in 1992’s breathtaking “The Last of the Mohicans” and 1995’s “Heat”). He seems to gravitate to genre projects and always supplies tension and temperament in his often lustrous dark work.

The challenge in “L.A. Confidential” (which brought him one of his three Oscar noms to date) was in evoking a past era but also in seeing it in a realistic, non-sentimental way and doing so in widescreen, since the film was created in the anamorphic CinemaScope ratio of 2:35 to 1.

Though he may not have needed to give the film a ‘painterly’ look, Spinotti does achieve that thing great cinematographers often produce: individual frames of their pictures that look like paintings. However, these paintings would be contemporary ones for, per Hanson’s request, Spinotti used natural light at every turn so as not to achieve a clichéd look.


7. A great crew backing up the others

Spinotti couldn’t have produced such great images if he didn’t have something great to photograph (and if Hanson hadn’t known about camera setups). To that end, the Oscar-nominated production design of Jeannine Oppewall, incorporating the set design and decoration of William Arnold and Jay Hart and the costumes of Ruth Myers, gave Spinotti a lot to work with.

The feeling for the period had to be and seem “right” to the viewer and also had to have a subtle contemporary feel to help create a dramatic tension between the period and the then-present. All concerned, they perform their tasks admirably.

Another great Oscar nominated contributor is composer Jerry Goldsmith, one of the greats in his field in the contemporary film scene. Among his many distinguished film scores is the one he created for what might be the greatest of neo-noirs, 1974’s “Chinatown”. The works of these professionals highlight that “L.A Confidential” was a superbly put together package from the source through the finish.

Filmmaking isn’t and never will be something which can be made to formula with the expectation of good results. However, this is one time a correctly chosen ingredient (even those that didn’t look right at the time) came together in a thrilling way. This film looked to be a winner from the start… and was!

Author Bio: Woodson Hughes is a long-time librarian and an even longer time student/fan of film, cinema and movies. He has supervised and been publicist for three different film socieities over the years. He is married to the lovely Natalie Holden-Hughes, his eternal inspiration and wife of nearly four years.