Prolific crime novelist James Ellroy has only had three of his books adapted into films (Blood on the Moon, L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia) while other novels continue to languish in development hell. On the surface, this is baffling as they are chock full of memorable characters, colorful period dialogue and engrossing mysteries at their heart. Dig deeper and it becomes readily apparent why his novels have largely failed to go into production; they feature large casts of characters, each with their own subplots pivotal to the main story. Additionally, the period dialogue is sometimes raw with racial epitaphs, and his lengthy tomes are quite plot heavy.
Where does a screenwriter begin in tackling one of Ellroy’s novels?
Screenwriter Brian Helgeland and director Curtis Hanson found a way with their adaptation of L.A. Confidential (1997), a sprawling epic that was part of Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet, a series of novels set in 1940s and 1950s Los Angeles, a universe occupied by several recurring characters, and the sordid crimes they sought to stomp out in their city. It wasn’t easy as the two men shopped their passion project around a Hollywood wary of a period neo-noir much like the women of Ellroy’s world were wary of the johns they met on a nightly basis. It starred two then-unknown Australian actors, Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe. Fortunately, Warner Bros. took a chance and the gamble paid off with a film that managed to distill the essence of Ellroy’s novel without gutting it completely. L.A. Confidential performed well at the box office ($126 million), it was a critical darling and an awards magnet, winning two Oscars for Best Supporting Actress (Kim Basinger) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson).
We are introduced to three police officers. Bud White (Russell Crowe) uses strong-arm tactics to get the job done, especially when it comes to men that are violent towards women. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) stages busts with Hollywood actors and actresses for tabloid journalist Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito) and is the technical advisor on the Dragnet-esque television show Badge of Honor. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is by the book to a fault and has plenty of ambition to burn. As his commanding officer Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) tells him, “You have the eye for human weakness but not the stomach.”
These three men each have their own respective beats that they patrol, but are brought together with their involvement in “Bloody Christmas,” which saw several cops beat on six Mexicans in custody accused of assaulting two police officers. Their careers are shaken up in the aftermath, but get a chance at redemption courtesy of the Nite Owl Massacre, a coffee shop shoot-out that saw six people brutally murdered. What appears initially to be an open and shut case involves aspects of police corruption and a high-end escort service with prostitutes surgically altered to resemble famous movie stars, chief among them Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger) who looks like Veronica Lake. For Bud, the case is a chance to prove to himself and others that he is more than an enforcer for Dudley. For Jack, it’s a chance to get back to why he became a cop in the first place. For Ed, it’s a chance to prove himself and get out from under the shadow of his father, a legendary Los Angeles Police Department detective.
Known mostly for unsuccessful genre movies like The Quick and the Dead (1995) and Virtuosity (1995), L.A. Confidential put Russell Crowe firmly on the A-list. He brings the requisite physicality necessary for Bud White with a ferocity and an intensity that is riveting to watch. Over the course of the film he does an excellent job of conveying Bud’s change of heart as he begins to question his reputation as hired muscle and uses his brains when he becomes embroiled in the Nite Owl case. His romantic involvement with Lynn also shows a romantic, more vulnerable side, which comes as a pleasant surprise.
Kevin Spacey is well cast as the publicity-seeking cop who would probably trade places with the celebrities he busts on a regular basis. Jack loves the attention that his technical advisor gig gets him and loves hobnobbing with movie stars. However, early on, Spacey hints at a dissatisfaction that exists in Jack’s life. He’s tired of staging pot busts for Sid’s tabloid rag and begins to yearn for the more substantial police work he used to do. This is encapsulated in a nice, reflective moment Jack has during a quiet interlude in a bar when he stares long and hard at his latest payoff and himself in the mirror.
Guy Pearce has the toughest role as he plays a largely unlikeable character for most of the film. Ed is a prissy bureaucrat in a cop’s uniform. He’s a political animal not afraid to sell out his fellow officers to further his own career. This brings him in direct conflict with Bud who is everything Ed is not. Pearce does a nice job of showing how Ed changes as the deeper he gets into the Nite Owl case the more dirt he gets on his hands and blood on his face. The actor’s best moment comes in the scene with Spacey where Ed explains to Jack why he became a cop. He also admits to losing sight of why he became one as does Jack (Spacey’s sad expression at this moment is particularly affecting). It’s a nice little moment between these two characters that provide personal motivation for their continued involvement in the Nite Owl case.
Kim Basinger is an actress with limited range and I’ve always felt that she was somewhat miscast as Lynn Bracken and that someone like Jennifer Connelly, with her experience in period movies like The Rocketeer (1991) and Mulholland Falls (1996), would have been a much better choice. Basinger certainly looks the part, but lacks the dramatic chops to pull off the role convincingly except for a scene where Lynn lets Bud in past the prostitute as movie star façade to her personal bedroom where Hanson provides us with visual cues to her small-town past. Lynn sits on her bed and for a moment she doesn’t look glamorous, but someone who has been playing a role for too long and is tired. Basinger achieves an aching vulnerability that is impressive and one wishes that the rest of her performance was as good as this scene.
Hanson surrounds his three lead actors with a rock solid supporting cast. James Cromwell is perfectly cast as the fearsome Dudley Smith, the Irish cop that employs brutal and unorthodox methods to enforce the law. David Strathairn’s Pierce Patchett is a cool as they come millionaire and power player with a secret side. Danny DeVito gets a juicy role as sleazy mudraker Sid Hudgens, a man who didn’t uncover or create a scandal he couldn’t exploit.
Hanson wisely hired cinematographer extraordinaire Dante Spinotti (Heat) to capture a bygone era on film and he creates a warm look in the day scenes and a shadowy one at night, but without overdoing it to the point of slavish film noir homage. There are many standout sequences in L.A. Confidential, chief among them a virtuoso sequence where Ed masterfully questions three men suspected of the Nite Owl Massacre, going back and forth, playing them against each other. This sequence is not only wonderfully edited, but also well-acted by Pearce who starts off grilling the three men thinking that they did it, but when one of them spills his guts, realizes that they are guilty of a completely different crime. This sequence also deepens the mystery as the killers are still at large and their motives unknown.
Helgeland and Hanson’s screenplay does an excellent job of gradually building narrative momentum. It introduces the three main protagonists right off the bat with scenes that show their distinctive approaches to police work, which informs their character. Over the course of the film we learn more about them from how they act and what they do. The screenwriters also excel at raising the stakes the deeper Bud, Ed and Jack go into the Nite Owl case and the more they uncover. One gets a tangible sense of danger that these men are in, which makes the film’s climax that much more exciting.
Filmmaker Curtis Hanson had been a long-standing admirer or Southern California fiction writers like Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and John Fante. He had read half a dozen novels by James Ellroy before he turned his attention to L.A. Confidential. He found himself drawn to the characters and not the plot. “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.” Ellroy’s novel also made Hanson think of L.A. and provided him with an 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.”
Screenwriter Brian Helgeland was originally signed to Warner Bros. to write a Viking movie with director Uli Edel and then worked on an unproduced modern-day King Arthur story. He was a long-time Ellroy fan and when he heard that the studio had acquired the rights to L.A. Confidential in 1990 as a potential mini-series, he lobbied to write the screenplay. However, Warner Bros. was only talking to well-known writers. When Helgeland finally did get a meeting it was cancelled two days in advance. He found out that Hanson had been hired to direct and met with him while the filmmaker was helming The River Wild (1994). They discovered that not only did they shared a love for Ellroy’s novels, but they also agreed on how to adapt L.A. Confidential into a film. Hanson felt that the key was to “concentrate on the three cops, use them as our tentpoles to hold up the rest of the story and ask what scenes are most important to these guys. Where are the scenes where they play off each other? And how can we bring all their stories together?” He realized that Ellroy’s novels were not “blueprints for movies” because of their many subplots and backstories. He decided to have the characters, not the plot, be their guide because if he and Helgeland approached the adaptation on the plot level they would have “ended up with wall-to-wall exposition.”
The two men worked on the script together for two years with Hanson turning down jobs and Helgeland writing drafts for free. When the studio optioned his book, Ellroy assumed that it would never be made into a film because he designed it to be difficult to adapt and if it was made, he figured that “they would screw it up. But if they do screw it up I am honor-bound to keep my mouth shut because I took the money.” When Hanson and Helgeland finished the seventh draft they showed it to Ellroy. The author had seen Hanson films The Bedroom Window (1987) and Bad Influence (1990) and found him to be “a competent and interesting storyteller,” but wasn’t convinced that his book would be made into a film until he talked to the director.
Warner Bros. didn’t like Hanson’s approach to the script and wanted to condense it into a predictable solo star adventure story. Hanson refused and the studio backed off, suggesting New Regency Productions get involved and handle distribution. Warner Bros. executive Bill Gerber showed the script to Michael Nathanson, CEO of New Regency, which had a deal with the studio. Nathanson loved it, but they had to get owner Arnold Milchan’s approval. Hanson prepared a presentation that consisted of 15 vintage postcards and pictures of L.A. mounted on poster-boards and made his pitch to Milchan. The pictures consisted of orange groves, beaches, tract homes in the San Fernando Valley and the opening of the Hollywood Freeway to symbolize the image of prosperity sold to the public at the time. Then, he showed the darker side of Ellroy’s novel with the cover of scandal rag Confidential and the famous shot of Robert Mitchum coming out of jail after his marijuana bust. He also had photographs of jazz musicians of the time: Zoot Sims, Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker to represent the music people listened to at the time. Hanson emphasized that the period detail would be in the background and the characters in the foreground. Milchan was impressed with the presentation and agreed to finance the film.
When it came to casting Hanson had seen Russell Crowe in Romper Stomper (1992) and found him “repulsive and scary but captivating.” The actor fit the image Hanson had of Bud White. Like countless other actors, Guy Pearce auditioned and Hanson felt that he was “very much what I had in mind for Ed Exley.” Hanson explained his logic in casting them: “My hope was to replicate my experience of the book. You don’t like any of these characters at first, but the deeper you get into their story, the more you begin to sympathize with them. I didn’t want actors audiences knew and already liked.” At the time, both Australian actors were not well known in North America and Milchan was worried about the lack of movie stars in lead roles.
Regardless, he backed Hanson’s casting decisions and this gave the director the confidence to approach Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito and Kevin Spacey. In the case of the latter, Hanson specifically cast the actor against type and told him to think of Dean Martin while in the role. Hanson felt that Jack Vincennes was “a movie star among cops.” Hanson was confident that Spacey “could play the man behind that veneer, the man who also lost his soul.” Once everyone was on board, Hanson gave his cast and crew points and counterpoints to capture L.A. in the 1950s by screening The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), which epitomized the glamorous Hollywood look of Lynn Bracken, In A Lonely Place (1950) to show the ugly side, Kiss Me Deadly (1955) because it was “so rooted in the futuristic 50s: the atomic age,” and The Line-Up (1958) for the “lean and efficient style.” Hanson and Spinotti agreed that L.A. Confidential would be shot widescreen and watched two Cinemascope films of the period: Douglas Sirk’s The Tarnished Angels (1957) and Vincente Minelli’s Some Came Running (1958). However, Hanson didn’t want the film to be an exercise in nostalgia and had Spinotti shoot it like a contemporary film and use more naturalistic lighting.
Before filming took place, Hanson brought Crowe and Pearce to L.A. for two months and immersed them in the city and the time period. He also got them dialect coaches, showed them vintage police training movies and had them meet with real cops. Pearce found the contemporary police force had changed too much to be useful research material, finding the police movies more valuable “because there was a real sort of stiffness, a woodenness about these people” that he felt Exley had as well. Meanwhile, Crowe studied Sterling Hayden’s performance in Stanley Kubrick’s film noir The Killing (1956). Early on, Crowe and Pearce conducted rehearsals with Helgeland and Hanson, which consisted of them discussing each scene. As other actors were cast, they would join in.
L.A. Confidential received nearly universal praise from the critical community. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “L.A. Confidential is immersed in the atmosphere and lore of film noir, but it doesn’t seem like a period picture—it believes its noir values and isn’t just using them for decoration.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Spacey is at his insinuating best, languid and debonair, in a much more offbeat performance than this film could have drawn from a more conventional star. And the two Australian actors, tightly wound Mr. Pearce and fiery, brawny Mr. Crowe, qualify as revelations.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “This is the first film that has truly gotten Ellroy on screen, and, in many ways, it’s a sleeker and more pleasurable experience than his hard-boiled-bebop prose. With its plot that zips and zags like knife slashes, its cynicism stoked to the melting point, the movie brings the thrill of corruption crackingly to life.” Andrew Sarris wrote, “Ms. Basinger’s career has been spectacularly uneven but considerably better and subtler than one would think from the lurid reputation of most of her vehicles. She has never been as good, as sensitive and as moving as she is here as an unusual angel of mercy in her relationships with two of the three protagonists.”
In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “Brian Helgeland and Hanson have expertly extracted the essence of the proceedings and boiled them down to a concentrated screen story where appearances are deceptive and nobody gives any information away.” The Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter wrote, “Hanson delivers something ever rarer in film culture, not a new film noir but an old-fashioned total movie, somehow of a single piece.” Finally, the author himself, James Ellroy weighed in on the film: “They preserved the basic integrity of the book and its main themes, which is that everything in Los Angeles during this era of boosterism and yahooism was two-sided and two-faced and put out for cosmetic purposes … Brian and Curtis took a work of fiction that had eight plotlines, reduced those to three, and retained the dramatic force of three men working out their destiny.”
Helgeland and Hanson successfully adapted Ellroy’s novel because they not only understood that the central theme of the L.A. Quartet is the Evil that Men Do, but also how to translate it on film much in the same way he did it in the source material. Older white men conspire to cheat, lie and kill their way into positions of power and in the process ruin countless lives. These are very bad men who hide behind a façade of respectability and commit heinous acts in order maintain control. This is why L.A. Confidential is a much better adaptation than Brian De Palma’s beautiful looking, but ultimately empty take on Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia (2006). It hasn’t stopped people from trying replicate the special alchemy that Helgeland and Hanson created with the likes of Gangster Squad (2013) on the big screen and Frank Darabont’s short-lived T.V. show Mob City. L.A. Confidential the book and the film take us back to the heady days when the LAPD was trying to clean up its act, the city was ambitiously expanding, and the public’s thirst for celebrity scandal was taking off in a big way. These are all background details that flesh out the vivid world they brought to life, populated with fascinatingly flawed characters embroiled in a mystery that will change their lives forever.
Arnold, Gary. “Casting for L.A. Confidential Went in Unexpected Direction.” Washington Times. September 21, 1997.
Chollet, Laurence. “A Movie Made, An Author Happy.” The Record. September 14, 1997.
Mathews, Tom Dewe. “Through A Lens Darkly.” The New York Times. “October 17, 1997.
Seiler, Andy. “They Came From Down Under! And Now They’re Cops!” USA Today. September 19, 1997.
Sragow, Michael. “City of Angles.” Dallas Observer. September 11, 1997.
Taubin, Amy. “Confidentially Speaking: Curtis Hanson Makes a Studio-Indie Hybrid.” Village Voice. September 23, 1997.
Taubin, Amy. “L.A. Lurid.” Sight & Sound. November 1997.
Veniere, James. “Director of L.A. Confidential Hits Stride.” Boston Herald. September 14, 1997.