Director Curtis Hanson’s now rather overlooked 1997 crime gem “LA Confidential” was really a surprisingly good police crime film set in the corrupt world of Los Angeles in 1950s. Kevin Spacey and two relatively unknown, but upcoming stars, Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, lead the cast playing three distinctly different types of cops investigating a series of murders.
The film’s opening credit sequence looks like a glitzy travelogue of Los Angeles narrated by LA’s sleazy gossip columnist for Hush Hush magazine, Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), who describes a city that’s “Paradise on Earth”. But despite the glamour, LA has its crime; mobster Mickey “C” Cohen (Paul Guilfoyle) and his most reliable strongman Johnny Stompanato (Paulo Seganti) rule the underworld.
This story of good cops and bad cops begins of Christmas Eve 1952. Television’s hit television show is the LA-based cop drama “Badge of Honor” starring Brett Chase. The show’s technical advisor is narcotics Detective Sergeant Jack Vincennes (Spacey). He’s a slick cop who wears fancy suits and works with Sid Hudgens to give him the scoop on the latest criminal activity in town.
Officer Wendell “Bud” White (Crowe) is the brutal cop who we first see on a stakeout of a domestic dispute. When the woman he’s observing starts getting beaten up Bud steps in a pounds her attacker to submission before slapping cuffs on him. Finally, there is Detective Lt. Edmund ”Ed” Exley (Pearce), the “straight by the book” cop, who is living in the shadows of his legendary father Preston Exley, an LA cop gunned down years before. He flatly refuses any bribes, payoffs, or other corrupt activities, usually accepted by even their police chief Dudley Smith (James Cromwell).
When three Mexican-Americans suspects are brutally beaten by several LA cops, Exley steps in and offers to testify against his fellow police in a grand jury investigation. He wants to work with only honest cops.
Then there is the bloody Night Owl cafe robbery where three men take a load of cash and kill six late-night customers. This event is sensationalized by the local press. Quickly three African Americans are accused of the robbery and later killed after they escape and engage in a shootout with police, where Exley is directly involved. Soon Bud becomes more thoughtful about the Night Owl evidence and begins a more thorough investigation on his own.
At the same time, Bud becomes involved with Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), a classy call girl who works at an exclusive club called the Fleur-de-Lis. The club’s boss, Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn) has all his girls look like well-known movie stars. Lynn looks exactly like the sultry, real-life ‘40s film star Veronica Lake. After Bud first follows her back to her home, where she’s entertaining a client he asks her, “I’d like to see you again.” Lynn’s response is “You asking for a date, or an appointment?” “If you’re asking for a date—I should know your first name.” Soon their flirting turns into a real passion.
The three lead actors Crowe, Pearce, and Spacey work very effectively together and it’s intriguing how director Hansen has their extreme characteristics almost blend at times, as each character shows a smarter, more ethical, then even more violent and more corrupt side of themselves while facing a variety of criminal dilemmas throughout the story. Crowe is especially compelling as he battles his more emotional side, while carefully, systematically gathering concrete evidence in the murder case.
Eventually, even Jack Vincennes begins questioning past corruption and thinks he might have a lead on the killer of Exley’s father. All three investigators realize the corruption may lead them to the upper levels of the police department and include local political figures, too.
Dante Spinotti’s cinematography adds the perfect touch of film noir in color. And Jerry Goldsmith’s musical score complements the criminal tension and violence so effectively.
The film was nominated for 9 Academy Awards, including best picture, cinematography and director. Basinger won an Oscar for best-supporting actress, while Hanson and screenwriter Brian Helgeland shared the Oscar for best-adapted screenplay, which was based on James Ellroy’s 1990 novel. Most major awards were given to James Cameron’s hugely popular “Titanic” that year.