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Categories: Features

Matthew Wilson unravels the mystery of how the late, great, Curtis Hanson created one of the most iconic Hollywood films of all time: L.A. Confidential.

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The passing of Curtis Hanson robbed film of one of its most unique and underrated voices. A director who delivered a critically acclaimed Eminem biopic then followed it up with a female-led comedy drama. But far and away his most renowned work was L.A. Confidential, a film that reinvigorated the crime genre and swept the 1997 Oscars. Or at least, it would’ve, if not for Cameron and that damn boat.

L.A. Confidential, loosely based on the book by James Elroy and the third part of his L.A. Quartet, was released in September 1997. A time when cop films weren’t hot commodities. The two previous big movies, Heat (which brought a criminal’s perspective) and Seven (which had elements of horror akin to Silence Of The Lambs), were both a couple years out by this point and the neo-noir genre just wasn’t selling like it did back in the 70s. Enter Curtis Hanson who, coming off his psychological thriller, The Hand That Rocked The Cradle, found himself reading L.A. Confidential and was enticed by the characters (specifically, the main trio of Ed Exley, Bud White and Jack Vincennes) as much as the plot.

Seeing the potential for a film that could capture the dying dream of L.A., Hanson put forward his ideas for an adaptation and, along with screenwriter Brian Helgeland, started to reshape the novel’s narrative to focus solely on the main three while still retaining the complex story that made the book so interesting to begin with. Eventually landing the directing job after two years of fine-tuning to make the story work.

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The faith put in Hanson because of the effort he put into the script to make the adaption work, and his blessing from Elroy, allowed him to put forward his preferred casting choices. Most notably the choice of two, then-unknown, actors, Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe, as the main leads of Exley and White, respectively.

While the studio was cautious, they allowed Hanson to cast as he saw fit. Giving him the confidence to approach more recognisable stars like Kevin Spacey, coming off of his Oscar win for The Usual Suspects, and Kim Basinger who, at the time, had taken a three-year hiatus from acting to focus on motherhood.

The result was a timeless tale of corruption, scandals and demons in the city of Angels. Utilising the 50s setting to showcase a time period where the Golden Age of Hollywood was being stripped away to reveal the ugliness beneath, Hanson was able to bring Elroy’s novel to the big screen and keep it as complex and as dirty as ever. Being unafraid to touch upon subjects like racism, homophobia and murder.

Part of what makes the film work is how Hanson approached the three leads and how their stories eventually tie together. The main three (of Exley, White and Vincennes) represent an archetype of the cop character but fit together in the same universe.

Exley is the overachieving do-gooder, despised by all (including Bud) but his ambition to reach the top is respected. Bud is the thug with a heart of gold, his violent temper shocking until such time as its virtue, and necessity, is recognised. Jack is the Hollywood Cop, a fast-talking movie-star that’s a big celebrity hit but has lost sight of why he became a cop in the first place. All three know each other but each have their own separate storyline.

Bud is looking into the abduction and rape of a Latino girl, Jack is trying to atone for putting a young bisexual actor into a compromising position and getting him killed and Ed is taking the main investigation into The Nite Owl Massacre which including an ex-cop among the victims.

As the movie goes on, the parallels between each case begin to form together until they all merge into one case that forces the men to put aside their differences and work together to expose the corruption within their own department. In an ironic twist, it’s Hollywood Jack, played by arguably the biggest actor in the movie, who gets the shocking death at the hands of his own Captain Dudley Smith. Though perhaps, in a film which chronicles the death of the Hollywood Image, having the celebrity cop get killed was more on the nose than people initially realised.

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There are a lot of layers to the story, including the takedown of a drug baron, a prostitution service with girls cut up to look like movie stars and a team of ex-cops that find themselves employed by the same company. But, as Hanson realised, it’s the characters that drive the story and all are perfectly captured. Representing the good, the bad and the ugly of Old School Hollywood as it matured into its teenage years, started taking drugs and openly scandalised itself.

It’s a film that doesn’t talk down to its audience, trusting them to follow the multiple threads and realise the bigger picture at play here. It’s the type of film that hadn’t been seen in Hollywood for a while and sadly hasn’t been seen much since either.

On a personal note, L.A. Confidential lies in my top ten films of all time. It’s a masterpiece of storytelling, acting and directing with Hanson being able to carry the film through its multiple plotlines and double-crosses. This was one of the best films to come out of the 90s and proved to be a staple of the crime genre for years to come. Hanson might never have hit the same heights again but he never tried to.

Instead, he forged his own path rather than letting the success get to his head. Which makes this piece of brilliance all the more unique as a result. By never forcing himself to live up to the hype, Hanson created a one-off that perfectly encapsulated a time period and breathed new life into a dying genre.

L.A. Confidential is available now on DVD and Blu-ray.

Matthew Wilson

Operating out of Livingston, Scotland, Matthew Wilson has been self-publishing reviews since 2012 - amassing over 1000 and climbing on his personal account at MovieFanCentral- and has produced a number of short films for his Graded Unit at Edinburgh College. Matthew hopes to start writing and directing his own productions one day, having written several unpublished scripts for film and television.

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Posted on Oct 3, 2016

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