City of Angles

How Curtis Hanson brought James Ellroy's epic crime novel L.A. Confidential to the screen

Suckling at the Big Nipple
Bernardo Bertolucci once dubbed Los Angeles the Big Nipple. Writer/director Curtis Hanson has been suckling at it all his life. Just how much nourishment he's drawn becomes clear in his terrific new L.A. film, L.A. Confidential. Now 52, Hanson has been a talent for critics to dead-reckon with for 20 years, displaying snappy craftsmanship and a welcome air of irony in movies as different as the 1983 coming-of-age comedy-drama Losin' It (with Tom Cruise's best performance) and the 1990 anti-yuppie thriller Bad Influence (with James Spader's best performance). But he's never before generated the kind of heat inside a picture -- and out of it -- that he has with L.A. Confidential. His mounting of James Ellroy's mazelike crime saga draws audiences into a startlingly close bond with three morally tainted L.A. cops. They stumble toward redemption in the City of Angels in the giddy decade following World War II.

Or is that the City of Angles? Each of the three anti-heroes is playing one. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) tries to edge into the spotlight as the technical adviser to a Dragnet-like TV show called Badge of Honor. Bud White (Russell Crowe) rescues abused women to settle a private psychic score. And Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is a canny precinct politician posing as a clean-cut idealist. The story traces the unholy yet virtuous trio as they investigate a massacre of six people at a late-night coffee shop -- even after the department closes the case.

In run-of-the-mill films noir, any one of these men would serve as the flawed central hero drawn to a voluptuous woman and driven to righteousness for once in his life. But L.A. Confidential explodes into a panorama of mixed motives: All three end up serving justice. And if two men fall for the same sadder-but-wiser beauty, Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), they both wind up better for it. She's a femme fatale with a healing touch, and Jack, Bud, and Ed are rogue cops with nagging consciences.

Hanson sets their mutual crucible bubbling in a 1950s Southern California that's oddly hopeful and inviting. It's also unlike anything else in the genre that's now known as "neo-noir." The only one peddling the sultry romance of the '40s in this movie is Lynn Bracken, whose millionaire pimp has made her over to look like Veronica Lake for would-be star-fuckers.

Over lunch two weeks ago a short hop away from his home and office in Marina Del Rey, Hanson said, "I didn't want to make a movie that was a homage to a style of the past. Quite the contrary. I made it despite the fact that it was set in the past and was about cops."

His interest was in Southern California fiction -- Chandler, Cain, John Fante (The Brotherhood of the Grape). "I'd read half a dozen of Ellroy's books before I read L.A Confidential," Hanson said. "I got hooked on the characters, not the plot, and part of what hooked me on them was that as I met them, one after the other, I didn't like them -- but as I continued reading I started to care about them.

"I also found myself thinking about the city. Ellroy gave me the opportunity to set a movie at a point in time when the whole dream of Los Angeles, from that apparently golden era of the '20s and '30s, was being bulldozed; the area was changing from this group of individual little communities to the megalopolis that the freeways created. The mood after World War II was very un-noirish. It was one of optimism and economic boom. And there were a lot of things starting here, new and exciting, that for better or worse are still very much with us today. The freeways, the whole idea of suburbia. Television, tabloid journalism. It's the period that I lived through as a child, and this seemed to be an opportunity to tell a story about these characters and that city all in one."

I phoned James Ellroy and asked whether L.A. Confidential should be regarded as more of a Hollywood movie than a film noir. I'd just read Ellroy's most recent book, My Dark Places, a real-life L.A. street tragedy that explores the unsolved murder of Ellroy's mother when he was 10, and his search for her killer nearly four decades later. In response, Ellroy quoted from his memoir: "The region defined the crime. The region was the crime. The people who flocked there flocked there for unconscious reasons that superseded the conscious application of logic and made anything possible." Then he noted, "Curtis Hanson is an L.A. homeboy."

Stalking Epic Noir
Hanson's co-writer on L.A. Confidential, Brian Helgeland, originally signed with Warner Bros. to do a Viking movie with director Uli Edel. (Helgeland jokingly refers to it as Last Exit to Oslo.) He then worked on an unproduced modern-day King Arthur story and got typecast as "the sword guy" at the studio. Unlike Hanson and Ellroy, Helgeland hails from southern Massachusetts. But he was a longtime fan of Ellroy's writing, and what he saw in L.A. Confidential was the chance to do, as he put it to me, "epic, swashbuckling noir." In the typical noir, he says, "Guys are poking guns at each other in drab rooms and dim hallways. In Ellroy's book it's more like Lawrence of Arabia."

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