Wasn't sure to put this under classic cinema or not, but because it's only 8 years old, I figured it was safer to keep it here.
1997 hardly seemed like a great year for film. Looking at some of the films that received high critical praise at the time, we wonder what was happening. Yet arguably the two best American films of the year, both took place around LA, and both need to be seen at least twice. Ironically both films are period pieces. The first film was Paul Thomas Anderson's commercial failure Boogie Nights, and the other was Hansen's LA Confidential. At the time though neither film received hardly any Oscar recognition, because Titanic well, that was about the only movie the country went to see for about 5 months.
Once the hype dies down and several years later, one can appreciate Titanic, and see in it what people at the time liked. More importantly you can look at Boogie Nights and LA Confidential and see that these truly were the two best films of the year. The best of these would be Hansen's LA Confidential. I say this film is essential to see more than once because nothing makes sense the first time around. James Ellroy's source novel is epic in length and the characters are neverending. There are a lot of names to remember, and every character winds up different from how they started.
Watching the film a second time (prefarably as soon as you can) you'll remember what's coming up next. Plus there are sequences that seem hard to understand, character betrayals, off key performances, and plot twists that may seem off or even go unnoticed. LIkewise even on the fourth viewing I was still so wrapped up in the story that I barely paid attention to the actual "film". When noticing it though, you pick up that Hansen is making direct reference to film noir. The deep focus photography is there, and the editing remains very classic, not the rapid fire cutting associated with modern MTV-era movies.
Parts of the film come off like a dream. Easy to see this type of fantasy interpretation, because there are three scenes where it rains (and anyone who lived in California knows that never happens). The rain works for the noir though, and there are plenty of classic film noir films with rain soaked streets. The ending of the film also has a dream like quality. Shot in soft focus (which predates noir), and with a bright glow to it, that makes it seem almost like a fantasy sequence, and *spoiler* seeing Russell Crowe survive certainly lends to this fantasy element.
What impressed me most about the film, were the characters. It was condensed from the novel, but whoever is left is memorable and distinct. On the ride home from Grizzly Man last night I couldn't remember the name of the main character (who's Timothy Treadwell, after I was corrected), yet 18 months after the last time I saw LA Confidential I still remembered Edmund Exley, Budd White, Jack Vincennes, Dudley Smith, Lynn Bracken, and Piece Patchett. The names are distinct, which keeps them memorable. They have their own style as well. There is a face to associate with each character. It helps that certain actors like Crowe and Guy Pierce have emerged as stars since this film, but we can instantly associate the face with the name. The three main cops, Vincennes, Exley, and White are all unique. Vincennes the Hollywood cop, with more style than most movie stars. Exley, the clean cut kid with (and occasionally without) glasses. Then there's White, the brute who looks like he could have easily been a strong arm goon on the other side of the law.
Each character mutates though, and finds some sort of conscience. Vincennes realizes that he's selling his soul. He stops crime for money, usually just drug busts to get his face in the paper, and always a little gratuity. Exley stops thinking about his career for a minute and remembers what got him on the police force in the first place (the man who got away). White loses his desire for force, and is desperate to escape the cliche of being just a dumb brute. I believe White is the least selfish of the main characters. He may be somewhat corrupt and racist, but his motivations aren't for himself. He wants someone to pay, and he doesn't really care who, yet he's not out for his own gain.
Characters can change in a movie so wonderfully well. No one is perfect, and there are no saints. Lynn is certainly no angel, and well as far as her and Edmund, it takes two. Budd even slaps her (the first indication that he's becoming his father), after the fact, but we remain supportive and apprehensive. We see the danger in it, just as he does. We also see (thanks to a career best performance from Kim Bassinger) how horrified she is with herself. As the story indicates, the "job" with Edmund is the last trick she turns, at least on camera. She has reached the end of her rope. She has found love with Budd, and realizes that she can no longer be what Pierce Patchett made her to be. She too has had a maturation, and a vital change has occured in her life. It is her self loathing that we pity in this scene, but at the same time we still can't help but feel betrayed by her, just as Budd does.
True to some Hollywood conventions, we respond to the violence very well. In this regard Hansen is able to surpass classic noir with it's extremely short fight scenes (usually one punch knock outs), and of course no blood. In the modern film world he can shoot whoever he wants, and the characters can beat the crap out of each other repeatedly. It becomes hard boiled as films like the Blue Dahlia, Force of Evil, or Out of the Past could never be. It is these images of violence (particularly at the hands of Budd) that carry the most resonance when the film finishes. We can't help but be on his side almost immediately. Hansen opens the film with White, as he beats up a wife beater, and hand cuffs him to his front porch rail. It is Budd that gets answers the quickest, and it is him that has the lack of conscience to get the information necessary from criminals. It was the image of him putting a gun with only two bullets in it, in a suspects mouth and clicking the trigger until he talked that made me watch the film again so quickly. I spent the whole day replaying it in my mind, and just had to see the film again, almost for that scene alone. Therefore we're willing to accept the fantasy-esque ending that leaves White breathing, simply because he is the character we most admire, and we already had one casualty.
It's not surprising to see how Russell Crowe earned his reputation from here. He makes the biggest impression, and to me this is the first time he demonstrated how he was capable of being one of the best actors in Hollywood. Ironically both he and Pierce are Australian natives, but you would never know it from their performances here. They embody the roles perfectly. Then again, Hansen is a master at getting great performances (hell look at what he did for Eminem in 8 Mile).
Kevin Spacey was the "star" of the film, coming off a recent Oscar win for the Usual Suspects. His role isn't as major as Crowe's or Pierce's, but it is vital to the story. It also brings about the gay subtext brilliantly. Homosexuality was something that couldn't be brought up in classic noir (hence the reason Crossfire turned to an anti-semetic message picture), but in today's film world it could be an intregal part. Spacey is the one who brings out this in the film, partially from being assigned temporarily to vice. In this morally bankrupt LA, even the District Attorney has tendencies. Vincennes is the conscience of this, the one person who cares when Matt Reynolds is killed in a hotel room. Of course we find that his death links everything together, but in the LA of the 1950's the police force could care less at what they think is another homophobic murder. The belief that homosexuals aren't even real people is prevelant in this/that society, and he represents a part of a modern liberal conscience towards it.
I think I've rambled enough, and applause for those who have read this far. I didn't think I'd come up with much to say, but well here we are. For those who haven't seen the film, I apologize for giving away a lot, but for those who have seen the film, your thoughts and opinions would be appreciated. This is a fantastic film for debate, and certainly one of the best American films of the last decade.