Out of the Past

L.A. Confidential
area theaters, starts Friday

AMONG THE TARNISHED angels in L.A. Confidential is police sergeant Bud White, a thick bulldog of a cop who, as a kid, watched his father beat his mother to death with a tire iron. Now a badge allows White to turn psychosexual purgatory into a profession--using his brawn against all lawbreakers but exercising a particular beef against woman-beaters. Personal history informs all the characters in James Ellroy's epic noir novel (the third in his "L.A. Quartet"), but most profoundly in the case of White, with whom the self-described "Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction" shares a murdered mom (Ellroy's was strangled to death when he was 10), a preoccupation with fallen women, and a gift for drawing on some pretty dark places. Naturally, the L.A. Confidential movie is slicker than the book, but it keeps a trace of the demon dog's soul: The plot's clues factor less to solve the crime than to reveal the deeper mystery of what makes the cops tick.

Ellroy purports to loathe Raymond Chandler ("I think he knew jack shit about people," he told Interview last year), but something of The Big Sleep has ended up on screen in this unfashionably pre-postmodern tour de force of piquant characterization, early '50s atmosphere, tight plotting, snappy dialogue, and sharply edited action--you know, all those quaint virtues from the old noirs. As a bonus, the postwar/ SoCal zeitgeist is rendered complete with period detail about race, class, politics, law, news, and the mob, all of it spot-on and sordid. The author, with characteristically shameless immodesty, once said that "there's nothing you could want to know about crime in this country that [my] books won't tell you." So is this studio film too dense for its own good? It probably won't hurt the grosses that its lessons lead to a breathless gunfight and some irresistible male bonding, but neither does that compromise Ellroy's own vision of buoyant machismo keeping despair at bay--but just barely.

The tangled story--involving police corruption, heroin, porn, prostitution, rape, and freeway construction--is a doozy and impossible to summarize. Suffice to say that White (Russell Crowe) finds his crime-busting opposite in rookie Edward Exley (Guy Pearce), a brainy and brownnosing college grad overeagerly following in his late father's footsteps. A third hero is the ultrasuave "celebrity crime stopper" Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), who's introduced staging a "hophead" bust for the camera of a muckraking scandal-sheet editor (Danny DeVito)--while making sure that a glitzy movie premiere is visible in the background. Call this the darkest dawn of pop culture. The flashiest villain is a pimp (David Strathairn) whose stable of whores are "cut to look like movie stars," such as the Veronica Lake look-alike (Kim Basinger) whose research requires her to screen This Gun For Hire at home. Image is everything: Even a geek like Ed Exley recognizes that wire-rims do nothing for his aura or his career.

Then, as now, the culture of accentuating the positive (and whitewashing the lurid) is paid for by the underclass. To polish its appearance, the LAPD contrives to bring down a mob boss, which unwittingly triggers the appalling "Nite Owl Massacre." Reacting on cue, Exley helps pin this bloodbath on "Negro youth" in trade for another promotion. Everyone's an opportunist, the good guys not least: The noble Exley is a snitch and a careerist; White rewards his own chivalry by acting the ladies' man; and Vincennes sold out so long ago that he can no longer remember why he became an officer in the first place. Brilliantly, it's the philosophical differences of these cops that seem to steer the narrative--although nothing enrages red-blooded White more than the news that Exley has slept with his Veronica Lake. Speaking of whom, Basinger's call girl turns out to be a hub of key plot points, which is further evidence of L.A.'s intricate construction and equanimity of character. It's also entirely believable that she would be the sole keeper of men's secrets.

Still, as Ellroy's all-important male-bonding subtext begins to emerge, it behooves these guys to pay close attention to each other's backstories; survival is contingent on knowing, for example, that one "Rolo Tomassi" isn't a real thug but a composite of one cop's life's work (and, ultimately, his Achilles' heel). So the officers get acquainted, each taking a page from the others' plots to develop his own character arc: Exley gets tough, White gets smart, and Vincennes bids to do the right thing. (And the femme fatale tries to turn from "Veronica Lake" into her own person.) Meanwhile, as in Ellroy, the naked city towers high above the men's L.A. stories--if only because the makers of this Hollywood movie had the rare good taste not to cast huge stars.

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