Tinseltown Rewind: 20 Years Since ‘L.A. Confidential’

Kim Basinger and Guy Pearce in ‘L.A. Confidential’/Image © Warner Bros.

Los Angeles is having quite a moment. Even people with zero interest in the film business are flocking there in droves, and it’s safe to say that the city’s lifestyle – an intoxicating combination of surfboards, smoothie and poke bowls, tacos, and Instagram irony – is setting the whole country’s tone.

Also back in fashion: sunshine noir, which drags such dark matter as drifters, grifters, and serial killers into the light, usually of Southern California. Think P.T. Anderson’s “Inherent Vice,” the hit Amazon series “Bosch,” and, of course, the media’s rediscovered obsession with O.J. Simpson. In fact, it was only a few years after the former football star’s 1995 trial that writer/director Curtis Hanson adapted James Ellroy’s ultimate sunshine noir novel, L.A. Confidential. The 1950s-set thriller offered a much-needed historical perspective on the intersection of the LAPD, fame, and race, and was so smartly rendered that it launched the career of Russell Crowe, resuscitated that of Kim Basinger, and put SoCal vintage at the epicenter of fashion – perhaps paving the way for non-Tinseltown L.A. to feature so highly in today’s zeitgeist.

Only twenty years old – it premiered May 14, 1997 – “L.A. Confidential” would never be fronted by a major distributor today, though Warner Brothers released it at the time. The film is too brainy, too beautiful, and too grown-up for comic book-addled studios to embrace. Chalk the big brains up to Ellroy’s gloriously staccato prose and premise, which telegraphed nothing and delivered everything. A then-unknown Crowe (Hanson had to fight the studio to cast him) is an ideal Bud White, a 1950s thuggish Los Angeles cop who takes no prisoners and whose chief nemeses are wife beaters; Guy Pearce plays White’s other nemesis, Ed Exley, a self-righteous detective who takes no bribes, plants no evidence, and resists no career opportunities when it comes to selling out his colleagues. Rounding out the triptych of leading men is Jack Vincennes, also known as “Hollywood Jack.” Played by Kevin Spacey on the heels of his Oscar-winning “Seven” turn, Vincennes works Narcotics, is technical adviser for a “Dragnet”-like TV show called “Badge of Honor,” and is in cahoots with Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), the film’s narrator and a reporter for Hush-Hush magazine (the 1950s equivalent of Us Weekly). Hudgens sets up public figures with drugs or prostitutes, then calls in Vincennes to make the busts and smile pretty for the camera. Even in voiceover, you can hear DeVito rubbing his hands together in glee. Like everyone but the grunting Bud, he speaks a mid-50s patois of Yiddish, Spanglish, and such punny slang as “prime sinuendo,” which makes me rub my hands in turn.

Though mutually at cross purposes, all four men stumble upon the same labyrinth of corruption, anchored by a huge shipment of heroin, the rape of a Mexican women by three men of color, a massacre at a diner, and a group of call girls surgically altered to resemble movie stars. It’s all too complex to synopsize neatly, which is a fact crucial to the film’s lurid appeal. As Lynn Bracken, a prostitute decked out as Veronica Lake, Basinger – forty-three at the time of filming – was also crucial to that lurid appeal, and for a reason far easier to synopsize. Put simply, she’s never been more lovely nor more self-possessed. In interviews, she’s said she almost didn’t take the role because she was tired of playing a hooker with a heart of gold. Though I don’t blame her – nor do I think the role really transcends those conventions – I’m glad she took it, if only because the perfect composition of her patience, red lips, satin curves, and long, pale hair and gowns comprises the paragon of 1990s beauty.

Style is really the saving grace of this crime thriller. In a swoon of cream and lemon Cadillac fins, fedoras, and rat-a-tat-tat dialogue and gunfire, Hanson snags our attraction long before he gives cause to like any of his characters. Though we’re saturated with a post-O.J. and Rodney King acknowledgment that cops mistreat suspects of color, the film perpetuates micro – and macro! – aggressions that would require greater narrative eyebrow-cocking today. The only black characters are soda pop-swilling rapists, the only female characters are cocktail-swilling whores, and, ameliorating Ellroy’s maze-like plot but not his rough bedside manner, Hanson doesn’t reveal anyone’s good side until the credits are practically rolling, nor does he accept guidance from any moral compass. Instead, the appeal of what he reveals lies in its unadulterated pack of lies. At two hours and seventeen minutes, “L.A. Confidential” doesn’t just work; it soars. What’s more, it never stops picking at our fancies – unstacking gorgeous layer from gorgeous layer, de-realizing Hollywood dreams, and laying a path to the Los Angeles cinema inhabiting our imaginations today.