Even if the novel in question is, luckily, one without a legion of basement-dwelling fanboys (of any gender), you still face the first couple challenges listed above. Few novels have presented as daunting a challenge as L.A. Confidential. James Ellroy’s 1990 crime saga is an epic in both size and scope, featuring almost a dozen interweaving plot threads, with nonpareil disturbing graphic violence, and a number of events and characters that you need to have read Ellroy’s previous The Big Nowhere (not to mention The Black Dahlia and Clandestine) to fully comprehend. Fortunately, director Curtis Hanson said to himself, “Hmm, a 500 page novel with a bunch of shit I can’t film without being arrested, three main protagonists instead of the industry standard one, and a plot so convoluted Raymond Chandler just shuddered in his grave . . . sure, fuck it, let’s make a movie.”
It helped that he was a fan of Ellroy’s work and thus personally invested in making a proper job of it. Screenwriter Brian Helgeland, also a fan of Ellroy’s, had been lobbying for the job since before he was famous enough to even get a meeting with the studio, and did the first few drafts of the script for free. Ellroy himself was like, “Holy shit, somebody’s trying to film that one? I want to meet these guys, they’re as crazy as I am.” Hanson and Helgeland’s script impressed Ellroy, who has since repeatedly gone on record as saying that the cinematic L.A. Confidential is in the spirit of its literary ancestor.
That’s especially impressive considering how different the two are. Because making a two hour, fifteen minute movie out of such a massive novel is, to put it mildly, a bit tough, a few changes had to be made:
--A number of cool-sounding character names from the book (Buzz Meeks, Deuce Perkins) were applied to different characters in the movie.
--Inez Soto, the girl the “innocent” Nite Owl Massacre suspects were pimping out and gang-raping instead of murdering everyone at the Nite Owl is a major character in the book, and eventually the lover of both Ed Exley and Bud White (two of the three main protagonists), but in the movie appears in only one scene.
--The third main protagonist, Jack Vincennes, is a technical advisor for a Dragnet-like TV show in both the book and movie, but in the book he has a whole backstory that was cut involving a drug-addled shootout wherein he accidentally killed two tourists, which led to his obsession with prosecuting narcotics offenses, earning him the nickname “Trashcan Jack” by tossing jazz legend Charlie Parker into one during a possession arrest. I always loved the nickname “Trashcan Jack,” not in the least because it led to lines like “Trash could write a good quickie,” referring to the report Jack files after busting the Nite Owl suspects.
--Ed Exley’s father is alive in the book, and is the contractor who builds a thinly fictionalized version of Disneyland (where Inez Soto eventually goes to work), but in the movie Exley’s father is merged with his brother, a policeman who was shot by a purse-snatcher in the line of duty, inspiring Exley to invent the name “Rollo Tamasi” as a catch-all description for “the guy who got away.”
--The book spans the years 1951 to 1958, while the movie takes place over a few months in ’53.
--Bud White’s investigation into a serial killer of prostitutes is completely cut.
--The actual Nite Owl killers are different in the book and the movie, although the mastermind behind them is the same guy.
--(MAJOR SPOILER) Dudley Smith doesn’t get killed in the book.
However, some things change, and some things stay the same. To wit:
(1) Bud White will fuck you up.
Oh you’d better believe it. Here’s an example of the kind of reasons Curtis Hanson managed to make a good—coherent would have been impressive enough—movie out of L.A. Confidential: instead of going for a recognizable American actor with box office pull to play Bud White, Hanson said, “I want the best actor for the part.” By about the middle of his first scene, Russell Crowe became a recognizable actor with box office pull in America. Not only inhabiting the character of Bud White, a not-terribly-cerebral cop with a violent streak a mile wide who fiercely defends and avenges abused women, Russell makes it impossible to imagine anyone else playing the part. And if you even look at a woman funny, Bud White will put his foot so far up your ass his wingtip will chip your teeth.
(2) Captain Dudley Liam Smith for the Nite Owl.
The Irish-accented, charismatic, charming, and terrifyingly corrupt Dudley Smith first appears in a minor role in Ellroy’s first novel, Clandestine. He doesn’t appear in Ellroy’s next period piece, The Black Dahlia, but he’s back and playing a lot bigger part in The Big Nowhere, Ellroy’s Red Scare in Hollywood/Zoot Suit Riot/”psycho killer running around chomping people with dentures made out of wolverine teeth” book; Dudley commits a murder during the Zoot Suit Riot that has repercussions on the larger plot of the novel, and he bodyguards a massive heroin deal between Mickey Cohen and Jack Dragna that gets ripped off by reluctant tragic hero Buzz Meeks. This leads us to L.A. Confidential, which opens with Dudley leading a posse that kills Meeks and takes the heroin back.
Mickey Cohen: “Not even Hitler is capable of such things. Who could be so brainy and so ruthless?”
Bud White: “Dudley Smith.”
Mickey Cohen:“Oh, Jesus Christ. Him I could believe . . .”
L.A. Confidential sees Dudley trying to take over organized crime in Los Angeles with Mickey Cohen in prison. A meeting involving a scheme to distribute illicit pornography at the Nite Owl coffee shop ends with three gunmen in Dudley’s employ murdering everyone in the place. Dudley then uses his borderline supernatural pull within the LAPD to manipulate the thrust of the investigation, and if not for Ed Exley being the one man in the whole department who’s as smart and ruthless as Dudley, he probably would have gotten completely away with it, instead of the mere temporary détente at the conclusion of L.A. Confidential.
In White Jazz, the last book in the series, the Exley/Dudley end game plays out. It takes Dave Klein (think a more intelligent Bud White . . . it’s okay to be scared), the book’s narrator, to take Dudley down, and even then he can’t kill him. Dudley Smith lives out his days semi-lucid, missing one eye, charming the nurses in his hospital, and in his coherent moments telling stories about the days when men were men.
Now, as far as I’m concerned, Dudley Smith is one of the greatest villains in the history of literature. When I first heard there was going to be a movie of L.A. Confidential, I absolutely could not think who could play Dudley. There was something unearthly about Dudley’s villainy, something that made it impossible to imagine a mortal actor portraying him with anything remotely approaching success. But Curtis Hanson, in another one of his brilliantly inspired choices, cast James Cromwell.
Wise casting director say: when in doubt, cast one of the best character actors of his generation. Not only is James Cromwell a terrific actor, the fact that he’s six-foot-seven made for a terrific visual dynamic wherein his Dudley—a little older and more outwardly frail than he appears in the books—is enough taller than everyone else in the movie that he is always the superior in every interaction, just like Dudley Smith in the book. And with that one, tiny, possibly unintentional (though Curtis Hanson is smart enough it might have been totally on purpose) touch, movie Dudley lives up to book Dudley.
(On a sad, spoilery note, the fact that Exley shotguns Dudley in the back at the end of the movie means we can never have a movie version of White Jazz that’s worth a shit. Joe Carnahan was working on an adaptation that he wrote with his brother where Exley and Dudley had different names, but without the blood feud between the two developed over the course of L.A. Confidential the dynamic has nothing whatsoever motivating it . . . oh, well. It was almost worth it to have L.A. Confidential be that good, and they did justify it by having Exley finally punish “the guy who gets away with it,” avenging his father.)
(3) With the exception of Kim Basinger, the whole movie is perfectly cast.
And she’s very well cast. The fact that she’s about 20 years older than her character is in the book lends her a bit of world-weary gravitas that not many younger actresses would have been able to pull off.
We already talked about why Russell was so awesome. Guy Pearce is Ed Exley: the fastidiousness, the movie-long journey growing into his physical presence, the intelligence, the hidden ruthlessness and ambition.
Kevin Spacey looks like he’s barely lifting a finger as “Don’t Call Me Trashcan, That Subplot Was Cut” Jack Vincennes, but that’s only because he’s doing such a terrific job of portraying a man who labors so hard to evince effortless cool. When the consequences of Jack’s actions finally hit him a ways into the movie, Spacey blasts the screen with Jack’s existential confusion and despair, before redeeming himself in death by springing a booby trap for the treacherous Dudley, telling him the name of Exley’s boogeyman Rollo Tamasi. The scene when Dudley fucks up and mentions that name to Exley made me clench my fist and say “Nicely done, Trashcan,” because, I’m sorry, he’ll always be Trashcan Jack to me.
At some point in this blog, I’ll go into greater detail about why David Straithairn is God, but for our purposes here suffice to say that as high-end pimp/pornographer Pierce Patchett he’s both a) completely different from the way Patchett is in the book and b) better. I’ve never seen David Straithairn in anything where he didn’t absolutely fucking rule, but as an intelligent, debonair bad guy he might be at his absolute best. I say might, because he’s great at everything, but he knocked me on my ass as Patchett, someone else I couldn’t cast in my head before seeing the movie.
(4) Cinematically, form and content are one harmonious whole.
Hanson resisted the temptation to go too over-the-top with noir cinematics, instead choosing, with DP Dante Spinotti, to light more naturalistically, but due to Hanson’s (and production designer Jeannine Oppewall’s) attention to period detail, the whole picture feels like a noir picture from the 50s (In a Lonely Place and/or Kiss Me Deadly in color). Even the framing and deep focus (i.e. the awesome shot when Bud White first shows up at Patchett’s house, and Patchett’s lining up a golf shot with Bud on the balcony over his shoulder about 20 feet away) are straight up 50s. Sirk, Minnelli, Siegel, and Nick Ray would smile.
L.A. Confidential, unfortunately, got steamrolled by Titanic at the ’97 Oscars, which is partly why it’s been on my mind of late, since Jim Cameron’s latest might very well steamroll The Hurt Locker this year. But Oscars aren’t everything. L.A. Confidential is a top 3 decade, Titanic “didn’t suck.” L.A. Confidential wins style points for, on so many levels, pulling off something so brutally fucking difficult and making it look effortless. Most importantly, though, it satisfied the rabid fanboys, which in this case means me. Cranky internet shitheads are tough to please.