Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: L.A. Confidential (1997)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

Serious question: is there any other "old Hollywood" genre that has been as imitated, deconstructed and re-worked as the film noir? Of course, the most famous example is Chinatown, Roman Polanski's classic 1974 film that put a unique spin on the noir idea and became the favorite example of film professors everywhere. Similarly, Jean-Luc Godard demonstrated the noir's artifice in his breakthrough film Breathless, in which the genre's surly detectives are figures to be imitated. Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye brought famed literary detective Phillip Marlowe into the free-wheeling California of the 1970s, and Shane Black's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang tossed in a healthy portion of modernity and millennial irony to the mix. It makes sense that the genre would be such a point of fascination: it's essentially dark, with characters witnessing the seedy depths of human behavior, with the good men winning but at what cost to their souls?


In 1997, L.A. Confidential joined the list of deconstructed neo-noirs. Curtis Hanson's film, based on a novel of the same name by James Ellroy, follows three different policemen in 1950s Los Angeles who become involved in the same case. "Hollywood" Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a superstar, the police consultant on the cop TV show Badge of Honor (a clear homage to Dragnet) who also gives exclusives to Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), the writer for gossip magazine Hush Hush. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a quick-tempered beat cop who's something of an avenging angel for battered women. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is by-the-book and more than a little dweebish, often described as a "politician" by Chief Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). When Bud's partner Stensland (Graham Beckel) is found murdered, along with several other people including a woman who looks like Rita Hayworth, the case consumes all three men, and it reaches much further than any of them could have imagined.

More after the jump.

Before diving into a discussion of "best shot," the film's reworking of the old noir trope of the femme fatale is worth noting. In 1997, Kim Basinger was better known as a former Bond girl (1983's Never Say Never Again, not officially canon) and Alec Baldwin's wife, with her acting career firmly rooted in the mid-to-late-1980s. But taking on the role of Lynn Bracken, a prostitute who's been made to look like Veronica Lake, (temporarily) reignited her career, winning her the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. The role is described as being a "femme fatale," but it's hard to really place it as such. Lynn's mostly a passive participant in this scheme, and even when she does play an active role - seducing Ed as part of a greater plot to get Bud to eliminate him - she does so without really knowing the extent of her involvement. If anything, she's collateral damage, and getting romantically involved with Bud has put her at greater risk in the grander machinations at work. Hanson frames her, initially, as the femme fatale, but slyly twists it into something else. The women of this film - and Lynn is essentially the only woman who gets extended screen time - are unwitting pawns in the game, used by men as a means to an end. It's an odd change though, because essentially women have no agency in this story. Essentially, Lynn is a prop used by the men in her life to advance their own interests, and their interactions with her are based in deceit.


That makes sense when you consider that L.A. Confidential is essentially about artifice. Lynn is just one of many prostitutes in Pierce Patchett's (David Strathairn) company, and all of them have been made to look like famous movie stars. The entire plot takes place in the wake of notorious gangster Mickey Cohen's imprisonment, as new criminals move in to take over Cohen's rackets. Jack makes arrests on celebrities, and then has them photographed for Hush Hush in front of a movie premiere:


Jack himself is more of a fake cop than a real one: though he still makes these arrests, his real passion is his work for Badge of Honor, which mostly requires him to recount stories from his career and keep the show as "real" as possible. The decision to cast Spacey in this role was a stroke of genius: at the time, he had just ascended on movie stardom, and he was just "Hollywood" enough to play a cop who thinks of himself as a movie star. Jack has swagger, but he's deluded himself with the fantasy of being a big-shot.

Ed and Bud are still working the beat, but on different ends. Bud is, in Ed's own words, a "mindless thug," but only part of that is true. Bud is prone to violence, certainly, and has no qualms about giving someone a beat-down if he feels they deserve it. But he also operates by his own moral code, one that may not perfectly align with the law but makes perfect sense to him. Ed also has his own moral code, but his is the letter of the law. Ed works completely in black-and-white, and when Dudley asks him tough questions about his willingness to plant evidence and shoot a bad guy in the back, he responds that he wouldn't dare. By the end of the film, of course, Ed's been jaded by the case, and his code has changed.

But Ed's not free from artifice, either. He's named his father's unidentified killer "Rollo Tomasi" in order to give himself a clear villain. It's also notable that he's referred to as a "politician," because he's willing to wear a different face in order to get something done. Surprisingly, Bud may be the only person in the movie who's living as his true self: he may be violent and unruly, but he doesn't try to hide it behind a mask. Bud is exactly who he presents himself as, and as a result he's the most "honest" cop in the bunch.

This brings me to my favorite visual motif in the film. I know that in the past I have made my affinity for reflective shots very clear, so I almost didn't want to pick another one. However, it works so well with the film's theme of artifice that I couldn't resist. There are multiple times throughout the film in which people are being interviewed at the station and being observed through a one-way glass. On one side of the glass is a mirror, which allows whoever's on that side to only see themselves:


But on the other side of that mirror stands someone else, watching them as they are being interrogated.


The fact that it's one-sided glass adds a terrific thematic layer: these men can see what another is doing without notice, but they're also on the other side of the glass, unable to see who's watching them. At any given point, any of them could be on either side, whether that be literal, as seen above with Ed looking in on Jack (who's aware of his presence), or figurative, as when Sid photographs Ed and Lynn through the window of her house:


As such, Hanson and cinematographer Dante Spinotti use the framing of scenes in the interrogation room to position those being questioned in relation to those observing. Take, for example, this shot:


Ed is questioning a suspect that was brought in for the Nite Owl murders. The audience - both within and without the film - doesn't know this yet, but Dudley has set this kid up for the murder, since they were actually committed to kill Stensland for his betrayal in Dudley's secret operation to take over Cohen's rackets himself. In this shot, the reflections of the cops are foregrounded and raised above the men seated in the room, with Dudley's reflection laid over the suspect, indicative of his power over his fate. This is true for Jack and the others as well - they do hold power over the suspect - but it's significant that Dudley's is the one positioned over him. He's the one ultimately in control.

Contrast that to the shot below, which is my choice for "best shot":

*Best Shot*

This comes after the bloody, fatal showdown at the end of the film, after Ed and Bud have figured out Dudley's scheme, Dudley's figured out they're on to him, and the two "good" cops square off against a gang of Dudley's men. Ed himself delivered the fatal shot to Dudley, and now he sits before the LAPD brass for questioning about the event. While other interrogation scenes have been framed for the observers to be dominant in the frame, this time it's Ed who is most in-focus, with the reflections shot to make them appear as if they're actually in the background. Ed has the power in this moment, as he knows the truth about the department's dirty dealings, and knows that that information could be used to bring everyone down unless they give him what he wants. He's also placed squarely in the middle of the crowd of higher-ups, which could foreshadow where his career is going. Ed may be jaded, bloodied, and possibly a little morally corrupted, but he's still the politician Dudley said he was. In a city of dirty cops who play by their own rules, the good ones still win, but "good" carries a dubious definition.

Of course, that's off the record, on the QT, and very…hush hush.

1 comment:

NATHANIEL R said...

i always choose reflective shots too which is why i didn't this time but i really wanted to... from in the early interrogation scene which is really brilliant. love all the future ghosts hovering.