Curtis Hanson’s gripping, graceful 1997 thriller “L.A. Confidential” is such an immersive invocation of a bygone past that it can be hard to process the fact that the film is now 20 years old. A movie of classical virtues is now a classic in its own right.
It’s also a film that’s sadly relevant to our own times, with its unflinching depiction of police racism and abuse of minorities. The film’s depiction of LAPD attitudes toward blacks and Hispanics in the 1950s serves as a foreshadowing of the riots that would engulf the city in 1965 and 1992.
Less than a year after Hanson’s death, “L.A. Confidential” returns to the big screen on Tuesday for a 35-mm screening at Laemmle’s Ahrya Fine Arts Theater, featuring a post-film Q&A with Kim Basinger. A 35-mm print will also screen June 3 at downtown’s Orpheum Theatre.
The critically acclaimed adaptation of an epic, supposedly unfilmable James Ellroy novel — the third book in his L.A. Quartet — the film remains a sophisticated touchstone of Los Angeles mythmaking. In a 2008 Los Angeles Times poll, it was selected as the best L.A. movie of the previous 25 years.
A glamorous throwback governed by the spirit of film noir, “L.A. Confidential” earned nine Oscar nominations — including a supporting actress win for Basinger and an adapted screenplay win for Hanson and Brian Helgeland — and a healthy $126-million worldwide box office gross. It introduced U.S. audiences to two talented unknowns, New Zealander Russell Crowe and Australian Guy Pearce, and elicited career-best performances from Basinger and Kevin Spacey.
Confidently navigating a labyrinthine plot propelled by a multiple homicide at the downtown Nite Owl Café, “L.A. Confidential” exemplifies what critic J. Hoberman calls "sunshine noir," a tributary of film noir that takes the Hollywood dream factory as its subject. The story takes place where vice and showbiz intersect, where cops, hookers, gangsters, actors and tabloid journalists seek mutual benefit and (mostly) meet nasty consequences. The film’s most obvious antecedent is “Chinatown,” another ravishing period piece that used the codes of film noir to uncover the skeletons in L.A.’s sordid historical closet.
For New York Times critic Manohla Dargis, who wrote a 2003 book about the film, it’s an almost ideal adaptation. “Ellroy has this wonderful scatting, rather dirty prose,” she said. “But Hanson had a lot of heart. He brought a pathos to it that was really important.” Hanson and Helgeland discarded significant chunks of plot, streamlining Ellroy’s sprawling novel in order to focus on the three cops at the heart of the story. The movie’s most satisfying twist, which involves the name “Rolo Tomassi,” was entirely the screenwriters’ invention.
Beyond the surface pleasures and narrative tension, “L.A. Confidential” is a sensitive study of moral codes and broken dreams. The tortured relationship between the ambitious straight-arrow Det. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) and the volcanic enforcer Officer Bud White (Russell Crowe), each forced to negotiate his own naivete about a system he thinks he understands, is the film’s emotional core. And Basinger’s heartbreakingly direct portrayal of a call girl “cut” to resemble Veronica Lake grants the film an air of lingering melancholy.
The film is fascinated by Hollywood’s methods of bringing the real and the pretend into close contact. Det. Jack Vincennes (Spacey) is less interested in police work than in his side gig as a consultant to a “Dragnet”-style TV show. And in a memorable scene set at the Formosa Cafe, Exley insults a woman he takes to be a call girl, telling her: “A hooker cut to look like Lana Turner is still a hooker.” After she tosses a drink in the cop’s face, Vincennes corrects him: “She is Lana Turner.”
The film is punctuated by visceral bloodshed. Hanson was an apprentice of B-movie auteur Samuel Fuller, and according to Dargis: “He could bring that pulp sensibility. Hanson understood the appeal of that kind of violence and how it worked cinematically, but then he brought so much soul. It’s great directing.”
Hanson was an industry veteran who had never previously attempted anything quite so ambitious — his previous films included “The River Wild” and the remake of “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.” Audiences could have hardly expected him to craft such an entertaining, powerful and resonant crime epic. (He later went on to direct the equally strong “Wonder Boys” and “8 Mile.”)
An L.A. native, Hanson obsessed over the city's historic spaces, and served on the L.A. Conservancy's Advisory Council. To an unusual degree for a midcentury period piece, “L.A. Confidential” was mostly shot on location, in old homes, office buildings and watering holes across Hollywood, Elysian Park, Hancock Park and Los Feliz. The film is a feast for architecture enthusiasts and urban preservationists.
But Hanson was above all a humanist, and for a film about a cascade of corruption, “L.A. Confidential” is emotionally tender and refreshingly uncynical. It even arranges for a happy ending.
“Living with the movie as long as I have has only deepened my love and admiration for it,” Dargis says. “It has the feeling of an old studio classical movie, something like ‘Casablanca,’ where the technique is just perfect. It is the studio system at its absolute finest, and yet it’s bringing in a postclassical Hollywood sensibility, so you have this perfect synthesis.
“ ‘L.A. Confidential’ doesn’t feel dated to me at all,” she adds. “It feels timeless.”
20th anniversary screening of ‘L.A. Confidential’
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Ahrya Fine Arts Theatre, 8556 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills
Info: (310) 478-3836