#139) L.A. Confidential (1997)


#139) L.A. Confidential (1997)

OR “LAPD Blue”

Directed by Curtis Hanson

Written by Hanson & Brian Helgeland. Based on the novel by James Ellroy.

Class of 2015

The Plot: “L.A. Confidential” is the LAPD of the early ‘50s as seen through the film noir lens. Straight-arrow Sergeant Exley (Guy Pearce) wants to live up to his famous detective father’s reputation, and is hungry for any step up the career ladder. Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) doesn’t think Exley has what it takes to be a detective, but Exley goes ahead trying to solve a multiple homicide in a seedy diner. Throw in thuggish but morally complex Officer Bud White (Russell Crowe), sleazy narcotics expert Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), tabloid editor Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), and a call girl who doubles as Veronica Lake (Kim Basinger), and you’ve got all the ingredients for a classic Hollywood murder mystery.

Why It Matters: The NFR praise Hanson and Helgeland for “successfully interpret[ing] film noir’s dark and seamy allure for new audiences.” The cast and cinematography are also lauded.

But Does It Really?: If film noir was allowed to have violence and nudity and swearing, it would be “L.A. Confidential”. I bought this world instantly, and once this film had me it didn’t let go the whole way through. Hanson et al help you navigate this complicated maze without getting lost, but without spoon-feeding you everything either. The script is airtight, the direction divine, and the entire cast top-notch (Yes, even that creep. More on him later). I’m not sure the film has enough of a cultural or historical impact to warrant this somewhat early recognition, but “L.A. Confidential” is some pretty masterful storytelling, and that’s good enough for me.

Shout Outs: Hanson cites “In a Lonely Place”, “Kiss Me Deadly”, and “The Bad and the Beautiful” as influences, the latter appearing briefly on a theater marquee in the film. Bud and Lynn watch “Roman Holiday” on a date.

Everybody Gets One: As with most recent NFR entries, this is the meal ticket for almost everyone involved. Special Mention to Hanson, Crowe, Pearce**, Basinger, Cromwell, and Kevin Spacey, who recently made sure that none of his other films make this list for a while.

Wow, That’s Dated: Jerry Goldsmith’s score gets just a little too ‘90s action movie towards the end. Other than that, the only dated quality is the fact that a major movie studio produced a non-franchise adult drama.

Seriously, Oscars?: In the year where “Titanic” was poised to sweep, “L.A. Confidential” was close behind with nine nominations, and positioned itself as the potential spoiler (Host Billy Crystal jokingly referred to the film as “the iceberg”). “Confidential” lost in seven categories to “Titanic”, but did manage two wins: Supporting Actress for Kim Basinger, and Adapted Screenplay for Hanson and Helgeland. Interestingly enough, Helgeland won the Razzie that same weekend for Worst Screenplay (“The Postman”). He referred to the experience as “the Quixotic nature of Hollywood.”

Other notes

  • Never pick a fight with Russell Crowe. You will lose.
  • I kept an ear out for any line spoken by Kevin Spacey that could be deemed ironic given what we know now. The winner is actually one of Jack’s first lines: “America isn’t ready for the real me.” Yikes.
  • Does Danny DeVito ever actually need to crouch?
  • “L.A. Confidential” makes my “Die Hard” list of great films set during Christmas that aren’t Christmas movies.
  • Ron Rifkin: Because Bob Balaban is unavailable.
  • A lot of great dialect work going on here. New Zealander Russell Crowe and English-by-way-of-Australian Guy Pearce nail their American accents, and James Cromwell has a lovely Irish lilt throughout the film. Well done, dialect coach Jessica Drake.
  • David Strathairn plus ‘50s style pencil moustache equals pretty convincing-looking Walt Disney. Just saying.
  • Be on the lookout for Simon “The Mentalist” Baker in the brief but pivotal role of Matt Reynolds.
  • If they think a Hollywood actor’s bisexuality is taboo, wait until they hear about Exley’s past.
  • Kim Basinger says so much with a subtle glance of her eyes. Take that, old lady from “Titanic”!
  • Bud has plenty of cash on hand at all times for bribes. How often does he go to his bank? That’s a scene I want to see.
  • All I will say about the ending is that my jaw dropped during one of the big revelations. Any other details are “off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush.”


  • This is the film that introduced Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe to America. So we have “L.A. Confidential” to blame for…
  • An attempt to turn “L.A. Confidential” into an HBO miniseries fell apart in 1999. That miniseries later served as the basis for a pilot starring Kiefer Sutherland. The pilot finally saw the light of day in 2003, but Sutherland had already moved on.
  • So far, this and 2006’s “The Black Dahlia” are the only film versions of James Ellroy’s “L.A. Quartet” novels. A film adaptation of “White Jazz” by George Clooney never got off the ground.
  • And of course, the flurry of noir-homage films that cashed in on the success of “L.A. Confidential”. Hey, it could still happen!

Final Viewing: Sorry “The Usual Suspects” and “American Beauty”, but you’ll have to wait for your NFR inclusion when future generations forget what a garbage human Kevin Spacey is. To borrow from Patton Oswalt, I always admired Kevin Spacey, but this is where we say goodbye. If only we could replace Spacey with Christopher Plummer in all of his films…

**2017 Update: Guy Pearce now has “Memento” as well. Kevin Spacey still has only this.

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