City of Angles

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

From the late '60s on, Hanson amassed an eclectic body of experiences. His photos of an unknown actress named Faye Dunaway helped producer/star Warren Beatty and director Arthur Penn cast her in Bonnie and Clyde. In 1970 he co-wrote a low-budget version of H.P. Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror and wrote and directed a small-scale psycho-killer film called The Arousers. He did patch jobs for Roger Corman while angling to direct A movies. In his years of struggle, he did score a couple of bull's-eyes, including his cunning script for the Elliott Gould-Christopher Plummer thriller The Silent Partner and his deft direction of the Tijuana fable Losin' It. But few Americans saw The Silent Partner, and Losin' It typecast him as a director of teen-oriented movies (including the TV film The Children of Times Square).

To get on the adult track he wrote a deft Hitchcockian pastiche, The Bedroom Window -- and writer/director Robert Towne, an acquaintance from his days on his Uncle Jack's tennis courts, godfathered it into production with Hanson at the helm. More directing jobs followed: on Bad Influence and the evil-nanny shocker The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (a commercial smash) and the rousing white-water adventure The River Wild (with Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon).

Hanson fulfilled a film buff's dream when he suggested Sam Fuller for the director's slot on an adaptation of Romain Gary's anti-racist parable White Dog. The premise of a dog raised to kill black people proved too hot for Paramount to handle in the early '80s (the film premiered on cable). But Hanson was thrilled to co-write the script with Fuller. Hanson says, "When we were working on the character of a young screenwriter, Sam said to me, 'It's you! He's a screenwriter with a hard-on to direct, just like you are!' I said, 'I don't talk that way.' Sammy said, 'You would if you could!' There's a line in the picture, 'That dog is a four-legged time bomb.' It's newspaper talk of the '20s; nobody but Sammy talks that way."

To Hanson, Sid Hudgens of Hush-Hush, the scandal-sheet editor in L.A. Confidential played with grungy elan by Danny DeVito, is a bit like Fuller, "that enthusiastic, roll-up-your-sleeve reporter in search of a story. He's the one who sets the tone in terms of the Ellroy lingo. We expect the words to come out of his mouth as you picture them on a page in large type."

To capture the L.A. he needed for the movie, Hanson screened his favorite '50s films to his Confidential collaborators both for points and counterpoints. He used Vincente Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful to epitomize the glamorized Hollywood they were hoping to avoid, except in the depiction of Lynn Bracken. He showed Nicholas Ray's volatile Bogart film about a pent-up screenwriter, In a Lonely Place, to evoke the emotional wasteland behind the glamour. Siegel's The Line-Up served to highlight "the faces of men who'd been through World War II and drank and smoked and never worked out." And with Robert Aldrich's rock 'em, sock 'em piece of pre-postmodernism Kiss Me Deadly Hanson proved how cutting-edge and anti-nostalgic '50s pop culture could be.

He and cinematographer Dante Spinotti knew they would shoot wide-screen, so they studied two exemplars of expressive CinemaScope -- Douglas Sirk's adaptation of William Faulkner's Pylon, Tarnished Angels, and Minnelli's adaptation of James Jones' small-town saga Some Came Running. Spinotti also screened each of Hanson's own features, deciding that their signal characteristic was the director's fix on his characters' points of view. "I like strong point of view in movies," admits Hanson. "That's part of their visual attraction; suspense in particular works well when you get the audience involved in a single point of view. The challenge of L.A. Confidential was to use multiple points of view to get the audience invested in several characters instead of one. Bud White, Ed Exley, Jack Vincennes -- each is a leading man in his own story. Then the stories come together."

Kansas City Confidential (II)
Ellroy saw the movie at a "blue-collar" test screening in Tacoma, Wash. He and his wife, former L.A. Weekly critic Helen Knode, flew out for it. Ellroy was delighted. "I understood in 40 minutes or so that it is a work of art on its own level. It was amazing to see the physical incarnation of the characters -- I had spent time with Pearce and Crowe in Australia when on a book tour. I knew what they looked like, knew their original Australian accents.

"I was startled by the film more than anything else, and happily relinquished myself to it. Then as I saw it on subsequent viewings I got more of a sense of the depth and design of the work. For example, Basinger is noticeably older than Crowe, and it adds a maternal air to their scenes; here is a man who witnessed the brutal murder of his mother and at the end he's grievously wounded and being nurtured by a mature woman. A young kid could not have made this film, only a seasoned artist could have."

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