City of Angles

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

That goes double for Lynn Bracken: At one point, she makes whoopee with a city councilman under a 16mm print of Lake and Alan Ladd in This Gun for Hire. Hanson hopes this scene spells out the difference between L.A. Confidential and classics set in the L.A. of the '30s and the '40s, from The Big Sleep to Chinatown: "What we're saying in that shot is: That's the past. She's exploiting it." Hanson isn't. "I feel drawn to the past, to the dream state of L.A., but I'm not depressed or bitter that the city moved into something else. It's life; it's reality."

Hanson dropped out of high school in his senior year, perplexing his parents. He says he didn't like the discipline. As a reader of Dickens, Twain, and Conrad as well as Southern California melodramas, what he loved was storytelling. He moved to Hollywood and since then has lived all over Los Angeles. "It's hard to imagine," he says, "how wonderful this place undoubtedly was in the '20s and '30s. When you see the vestiges of it, you see the houses that survive have this proximity to everything -- people lived here, worked there, everything was so close. This way of life was destroyed and replaced by something ugly and gray by comparison, this whole freeway thing. But the city of the past is still out there. You drive around Silver Lake, Echo Park, East Hollywood, and you still see the remains of that period. It's like watching a movie that you really love on late-night television when it's been butchered, cut up for commercials, and re-edited; you still can connect to the movie you love, and still get an emotional charge from it, if you just weed out all the other crap."

Kansas City Confidential
Ellroy, the hard-bitten bard of lower-depths L.A. in novels like The Big Nowhere, now happily makes his home in affluent digs in Kansas City. "I have enough crazy shit in my head to last another 49 years anyway," he says. When Warners first optioned L.A. Confidential, in 1990, his reaction was, "Thanks for the dough!"

Ellroy says his interest in movies "doesn't reach beyond their depiction of crime. I love a lot of the classic film noir shit, from '46 to '59. But I can't sit through comedies or westerns or outer space flicks; if you want to put me to sleep forever just set me down in front of a John Ford movie. My books are not written to be films; a lot of their strength as novels comes from their dense structure and their complexity, the internal access I give to the characters; there are interior monologues in all the books."

Hanson's entering the project piqued his curiosity: "In the two films of his that I had seen then, Bad Influence and The Bedroom Window, I found him a competent and interesting storyteller. He's not some bullshit auteur.

"I figured that if he wanted to talk to me he'd find me. He did find me, but he found me when there was a reasonable chance of it getting made. That made me feel I was dealing with a mature man right away. I told him it was my book, but it was his movie, and even if his movie fucked up my book beyond redemption it would sell books of mine. And even if it was a piece of shit, I wouldn't be quoted on that for attribution when the film came out."

The Curtis Hanson Film Festival
Over dinner at James Beach in Venice, I tell Hanson that almost all his movies take tropes we love from Hollywood classics and put new twists on them. He replies, "You do carry around those images that made strong impressions on you as a kid, of that crazy world that adults live in, or seem to, and a lot of it comes from movies. You wonder how much those fantasies that you construct with the help of images from movies and stories will connect with reality. That's where Bud is in L.A. Confidential when Lynn walks into the liquor store in that hooded cape. He sees a nocturnal purity in her, and his image of her doesn't change when he finds out she's a hooker."

Hanson retains the Film Generation's erudite infatuation with the medium. Unlike the rambling omnivores of the video-store generation, he doesn't separate movie art from the rest of storytelling, and his tastes are particular and refined. He never enrolled in college or film school, but began writing on film for Cal State L.A.'s campus paper. He also worked as an unpaid gofer for one of Uncle Jack's least-lucrative enterprises, a swank-looking movie magazine called Cinema. Eventually he became its editor.

Cinema clinched his ambition to tell stories through pictures. During his years on the magazine he befriended a number of filmmakers he revered, including masculine genre specialists Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry) and Sam Fuller (Pickup on South Street, Shock Corridor). He's particularly close to Fuller; he's been a frequent attendee and speaker at the American Cinematheque's Fuller retrospective in L.A.

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