Confidentially Speaking, Noir’s Gone Hollywood

Of late I have been consumed by L.A. Confidential (directed by Curtis Hanson, from a screenplay by Brian Helgeland and Mr. Hanson, based on a novel by James Ellroy), as well as the overall phenomenon of film noir. From its first screenings at this spring’s Cannes Film Festival, L.A. Confidential has been deluged by critical encomiums. As I write, it is still too early to tell if the public will be comparably impressed. On sheer merit, the film deserves to make more money than such mindless slush as Air Force One and Men in Black , but I seriously doubt that it will. Never overestimate the taste and intelligence of the mass audience, and too many literate raves make audiences suspicious, particularly when there is no megabucks male star in the cast.

To help this film that has lived up to all its critical hype, I have been tempted to contribute to the hysteria by flat-out designating it as the ” Citizen Kane of the film noir genre,” just as back in 1964 I tagged Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night with the Beatles as the ” Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals.” But I decided against this sure-fire blurb, partly because I am less mesmerized by Citizen Kane than I once was and partly because the excellences of L.A. Confidential are not so much revolutionary as classical: narrative thrust, psychological depth, acting virtuosity, emotional expressiveness and stylistic sobriety.

My own involvement with L.A. Confidential began when I was invited by Harlan Jacobson to participate in his series “Talk Cinema” at the Walter Reade Theater on Sept. 14, at which time L.A. Confidential would be screened before an audience of cinephiles. I had not yet seen the movie, and so I would be going on cold, except for some production notes and stills from Warner Brothers. I was already giving a course called “The Film Noir” at the School of the Arts of Columbia University, and so I could speak in general terms about the genre, but I decided to bone up more specifically on L.A. Confidential by picking up James Ellroy’s novel and reading.

To my horror, I discovered when I got to Barnes & Noble that it was almost 500 pages long. The writing was dense, detailed and somewhat humorless, but the wild plot or, rather, plots made it a real page-turner. I had never read anything by Mr. Ellroy, and, consequently, I had anticipated something on the order of the lighthearted Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen. Instead, I got a tortured American Balzac with a passion for conspiracy theories that would keep a dozen Web sites busy for years. Indeed, the book contains so many varieties of carnal congress and gruesome violence, besides the skeletons in just about every character’s closet, that I ended up wearying of the obsessive depravity. For example, try to imagine a Walt Disney-like organization engaged in pornography and pedophilia, and you get some idea of the scandalous goings-on.

Mr. Ellroy is not into satire. His Hollywood of the 50′s is a pit in hell, and every character is more or less a mortal sinner. Hush-Hush magazine, Mr. Ellroy’s approximation of the old, unlamented Confidential , uncovers some of the dirt back then, but never enough to threaten the corporate establishment. Since reading the book and seeing the movie, I have learned that Mr. Ellroy has written a book about the unsolved and unpunished murder of his mother in sordid circumstances, and of his own ignoble exploitation of her demise to give him a “make-out” line with women. Hence, a torrent of guilt and shame seems to be the driving force behind his dark sagas of police corruption and culpability.

By using the sadistic gangster Johnny Stompanato and his battered mistress Lana Turner as real-life characters in his book, along with the knife-slaying of Stompanato by Turner’s protective daughter, and by referring casually to Robert Mitchum’s notorious marijuana bust, Mr. Ellroy adds just enough sleazy tabloid factoids to his fiction to create the illusion of a community chronicle with more audacity than Mario Puzo employed in The Godfather , a more marginal exploitation of Hollywood’s longstanding ties to the mob.

Many of the critical raves for L.A. Confidential the movie compare it to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), though Chinatown is more star-driven by Jack Nicholson, and Pulp Fiction is more comeback-star-driven by John Travolta. By contrast, L.A. Confidential is propelled by a triumvirate of not-yet-and-perhaps-never-to-be-stars, namely, Russell Crowe as Bud White, a mysteriously dedicated avenger of battered wives; Kevin Spacey, a cynical celebrity cop who is redeemed by his delayed realization that he has sold his soul so long ago he can’t remember when; and Guy Pearce as Ed Exley, a smart cop with scruples that make him more faithful to an abstract ideal of justice than loyal to his fellow officers.

These three co-protagonists are introduced more simply and more efficiently in the movie than in the book, which in its early exposition does not display a Tolstoyan genius for making names jump off the page as vividly distinguishable individuals. But then good screen actors with distinctive personalities can surpass even the greatest writers in establishing dynamic contrasts.

What both the book and the movie have in common is a thrilling transformation of three characters from what they seem at first to what they eventually become through spiritual growth and greater self-knowledge. This process is so rare in movies today that it must be treasured when it appears. Neither Mr. Ellroy in his book, nor Mr. Hanson in his fluid direction, and in his brilliant co-adaptation with Mr. Helgeland of a cinematically unwieldy novel, choose to wallow in the mess caused by a malignant cancer inside the Los Angeles Police Department. Instead, the focus remains, in both the movie and the book, on the Trollope-like discovery by one character of the strengths and weaknesses of another so that former enemies become staunch allies to the death. This positive enhancement in character does not occur in either Chinatown or Pulp Fiction to the same extent. The dark humor in both genre pieces tends to diminish people by making them mere creatures of a chaotic absurdism.

Indeed, there is so much malaise in movie audiences these days that the triumph of decency and morality in L.A. Confidential may strike some moviegoers as too conventional, too reminiscent of old-fashioned movies that wanted you to feel good when you left the theater. On the other hand, the post-censorship liberties with language and violence in the movie may keep more-squeamish patrons away from a genre they have decided to boycott on general principles.

At the Q. and A. in the Walter Reade Theater, one or two women in the audience questioned the fact that the one central woman character, Kim Basinger’s Lynn Bracken, happens to be a hooker. Ah, but there are hookers and there are hookers. 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. James Cromwell, David Strathairn and Danny DeVito complete an ensemble cast that stays with you long after you have left the theater.

Some critics have professed to be surprised by Mr. Hanson’s directorial epiphany after a track record that included such arguably superficial melodramas as The Bedroom Window (1987), Bad Influence (1990), The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992), and The River Wild (1994). I have been aware of Mr. Hanson’s existence ever since he edited the now defunct Cinema magazine, and even then in the early 70′s, I recognized in him the tastes of a kindred cinéaste . It is no surprise to me, therefore, that what Mr. Hanson achieves with a two-way mirror in a police station evokes the German Expressionist masterpieces of the 20′s, and their stylistic resurrection in the 40′s by Orson Welles. Perhaps the Citizen Kane blurb is not such a stretch after all.

A parlor game has already begun as to whether the supreme acting revelation in L.A. Confidential is provided by Mr. Crowe, Mr. Spacey or Mr. Pearce. The order in which I have listed the names is obviously my order of preference, though Mr. Spacey, an actor I have long admired, comes a very close second and has an Oscar on his mantelpiece for The Usual Suspects (1995) to press his case. Still, Mr. Crowe strikes the deepest registers with the tortured character of Bud White, a part that has had less cut out of it from the book than either Mr. Spacey’s or Mr. Pearce’s. I think all three deserve Oscars, but Mr. Crowe at moments reminded me of James Cagney’s poignant performance in Charles Vidor’s Love Me or Leave Me (1955), and I can think of no higher praise.

As for the noir film as a genre, its masterpieces in the 40′s and 50′s were ridiculously underrated at the time because of their allegedly trashy content without humanist “messages.” In 1955, it would have taken a fearless revisionist indeed to express a preference for Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly over Delbert Mann’s Marty . The big problem today is that just about everything on the screen is noir, and except in rare cases like L.A. Confidential , the kick is gone from the genre.