October 31st, 1997 saw the release of L.A Confidential; Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of James Ellroy’s highly complex and convoluted noir novel about a group of very different police officers in 1950’s Los Angeles, embroiled in a notorious mass murder case. The film was the result of years of prep work by both filmmaker Curtis Hanson, and screenwriter Brian Helgeland, who separately had tried for years to bring the proyect to the big screen. What came out was one of the best noir films the genre had seen since Chinatown (1975), Roman Polanski. Getting there, though, was a rocky road, to say the least.
An unwanted genre
One of the main problems both Hanson and Helgeland faced was convincing any major Studio to invest the necessary capital to produce a movie that was of a genre most producers thought was long dead. On top of that, the movie was a multi-character period piece with a convoluted story that was very tricky to bring to the big screen.
Hanson and Helgeland had already met when, each of them separately were trying to shop the idea around to different Studios, and while they thought it a terrific idea to adapt Ellroy’s novel, they also knew that it would be a daunting task to try and condense Ellroy’s book into any kind of manageable cinematic form. They immediately started working together on the script, until they came up with a first draft that they both were proud of to show to both any potential Studio, and to Ellroy himself, whom they both admired. Surprisingly enough, Ellroy liked the changes they’d made to the book, and that kind of emboldened them to try and sell the idea to Warner Bros. Hanson even had the idea of meeting the producers, actors and crew he wanted to work with in the movie in the Formosa Cafe in LA, a mytical place that would play an important role in the movie he wanted to shoot. Hanson had gathered a nice array of pictures and memorabilia from 1950s Los Angeles, which he used to convey the type of movie, look and story he wanted to tell. It was this sort of improvised pitch, plus his enthusiasm for the proyect, that finally sold the idea to the powers that be at Warner Bros. Another sticky point of the story was that in order for it to be believable and being as it was, a multi-character plot, and not wanting to draw the attention of the audience to any one character, the parts would have to be played by unknown actors. Hanson had done multiple casting sessions, and had come up with three very unlikely actors to play each of them; Russell Crowe as Officer Bud White, Guy Pearce as Lieutenant Ed Exley, and Kevin Spacey as Detective Jack Vincennes. Although Spacey had achieved relative fame with his character roles in movies like Seven (David Fincher),1995, and The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer), 1995; the other two were Australian actors who had little experience, in the case of Crowe; to no experience at all in the US market. The heads of Warner feared that casting unknown actors would make it a tough sell for the box office. Fortunately, Hanson didn’t buckle under the Studio’s pressure and convinced the Studio to stick with his choices. Not all actors were unknowns, however. Hanson knew from the start that he’d have to have some familiar faces in the movie in order to make it more appealing to audiences, but without sacrificing the believability of the story in the process. For this very reason he cast a number of actors who were sufficiently known to the big public like Kim Basinger as First Class Call Girl and Veronika Lake impersonator Lynn Brackett, and Danny de Vito as sleazy tabloid reporter Syd Hudgens. It actually took Basinger some convincing on the part of Hanson to take on the role of Lynn Brackett, as the role would take her away from her family life for a long time. A Best Supporting actress Oscar win for the role in next year’s Oscar ceremony would be quite a hefty price for a part she didn’t want to accept in the first place. For the rest of the main cast, Hanson went with TV actor James Cromwell to play the part of Captain Dudley Smith, and to actor David Strathairn for the role of suave and sophisticated Hollywood entrepreneur, Pierce Patchett.
The pieces start to fall into place
With a pretty good script and a solid, if mostly unknown ensemble of actors; Hanson started looking for the best people to bring his script and vision to the big screen. Costume Designer Ruth Myers, Production Designer Jeannine Oppewall, Editor Peter Honess, and Cinematographer Dante Spinotti, were each given the directive by Hanson to bring out the 1950s period and feel, without making it too obvious and showy, and to give it a grounded and everyday look that would not distract the audience from both the characters and story unfolding on-screen. Needless to say, all of them brought their A game to the project, and made each of the elements they contributed to feel like a part of the story in a seamless way. All of this rounded off by a brilliant score by master Composer Jerry Goldsmith.
Critical and Financial success.
Time made both Hanson and Helgeland right and the movie was heaped with critical and financial praise. It garnered 9 Oscar nominations that year, but being as it was Titanic’s Award-sweeping year, they only took home two Oscars for Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress. I’m gonna say right upfront that I’m a big fan of James Cameron’s masterful epic Titanic (1997), but even I can’t deny the fact that, objectively L.A Confidential is a far stronger movie, both storytelling and performance-wise. In all fairness, and this is coming from someone who was rooting for Cameron to win for Best Movie and Director, Hanson should’ve walked away with at least those two accolades.
L.A Confidential is a storytelling masterpiece, the likes of which we don’t get very often. It is also a brilliant example of Noir executed to perfection. All the pieces fall perfectly into place. It’s not very often that all actors in a movie are cast to perfection, each giving nuanced and believable performances, without out-staging one another, which is exactly what Hanson wanted to achieve. It’s also one of the best book adaptations ever put to the screen. Both Director and Screenwriter take the best elements from Ellroy’s book, and mash them together without betraying the core spirit of Ellroy’s literary masterpiece. It’s a very complex book to faithfully adapt to the screen, but both Hanson and Helgeland managed to pull it off. There’s of course changes to the book’s narrative and many characters and subplots that are sacrificed, but these are sacrifices that had to be made to trim the story down to cinematic size. Some of these changes are actually very welcome departures from the book, and help to make it more digestible to the audience, and even throw in a surprise or two. When said changes are met with approval by the book’s author, all the more reason to be satisfied. What’s important is that the morally ambiguous nature of many of the characters, and the feel and glamour of the period from the book; are true to the source material. It also helped to launch the careers of three great actors into the mainstream and gave us one of the best movies of the 90s in particular, and of cinema history overall.
This is what happens when the best of the best comes together to make movies. A Masterpiece.
Thanks for reading.