L.A.P.D.: This Is Cop Land

It’s too early to predict prizes, but when we get around to the best film of 1997, L.A. Confidential will be hard to beat. I’ve already seen it twice, and I can honestly tell you it’s merely sensational. The world has always been fascinated to the point of obsession with the seductive images of endless sunshine and oranges, sleek cars, fast-lane luxury, alluring glamour, get-rich dreams and get-famous promises of Hollywood. L.A. Confidential digs up the worms beneath the tinsel to expose the crime, corruption and rotten soul of postwar Los Angeles in the dark and dazzling film noir tradition of Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain, piercing the veneer in the best crime thriller since Chinatown .

The criminal and social history of Los Angeles has been a particular obsession for writer James Ellroy, whose books on the Black Dahlia murder case and his own mother’s murder when he was a child are collector’s items. The Ellroy book on which director Curtis Hanson based his screenplay (co-scripted by Brian Helgeland, whose moronic Conspiracy Theory in no way prepares us for the masterful job he’s done here) spans eight years, spotlights more than 100 characters and unravels a plot with more fissures than the San Andreas fault. I would have considered it unadaptable for the screen. It is amazing and gratifying to see the brilliant way that book has been condensed into a steamy, erotic, superbly photographed film with a labyrinthine yet never confusing narrative. Curtis Hanson, previously known for two fine but hardly revolutionary pictures, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and The River Wild , has not only found his form, but surpassed it.

L.A. Confidential takes an unforgiving scalpel to the sordid underbelly of police corruption in 1950’s Los Angeles that settled over the city like an impenetrable smog. Beneath what looks like an earthly paradise lies Dante’s Inferno. Mickey Cohen has been sent to San Quentin State Prison, leaving the dope rackets and prostitution rings to his thug apprentice, Johnny Stompanato. A disgraced cop is slaughtered in a coffee-shop massacre. A gay actor is murdered in a seedy motel room after an assignation with the gay district attorney. And everything seems inexplicably linked to a ring of colorful call girls surgically altered to look like movie stars. There is also a search for a master criminal called Rollo, whose identity remains top-secret until the shocking finale. Kim Basinger, who makes a fabulous comeback as the Veronica Lake look-alike, is the most baffling puzzle in the jigsaw because she has no angle at all. It’s a role Veronica Lake herself would have killed for.

Involved up to their jaded eyeballs are three L.A. cops who will do anything for career advancement on a police force that is already out of control: Bud White (Russell Crowe) is something of a thug himself. While Dean Martin sings Christmas carols, he’s making pot busts, beating witnesses senseless and bending the rules for promotion. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a celebrity cop, a career-driven, publicity-seeking technical adviser to a weekly TV show called Badge of Honor ( Dragnet in mufti) who hobnobs with the rich and famous, blackmailing them and ratting on his fellow cops if necessary. And Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is the clean-cut, all-American role model who stands for integrity but is really a political opportunist masquerading as an idealist. Their internecine back-stabbing and the celebrity scumbags they’re involved with are all being watched and chronicled by “Sleazy” Sid Hudgeons (Danny DeVito), editor of a tell-all scandal rag called Hush-Hush , based on the infamous, defunct Confidential magazine, forerunner of today’s tabloids.

Everyone is on the make and on the take, and they’re all tied in with show-biz movie references, pop recordings of the period by Chet Baker, Kay Starr and Gerry Mulligan, and a plot involving vice, drugs, bribery, gangsters and a web of deception that leads all the way up the ladder to the police commissioner. While the cops are cleaning up the garbage, they’re secretly filling their own coffers, and everyone is corrupt if the price is right, from lawyers and judges to film producers and movie stars. There are so many characters to keep up with, so many plot twists to absorb and so many mysteries to solve that it’s not an easy movie, but it’s jazzy, and there’s a thrill in every scene. There is also humor. The funniest scene in the picture occurs when two cops accost hoodlum Johnny Stompanato in a dive next door to the movie house where The Bad and the Beautiful is playing. One cop insults his date: “A hooker cut to look like Lana Turner is still a hooker.” “She doesn’t look like Lana Turner,” says the other cop. “She is Lana Turner.”

Mr. Hanson has cast boldly. For his two lead detectives, he has chosen Australians Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, the latter being the prettiest and daintiest drag queen in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert . Without a trace of an accent, they’re the most rugged American cops imaginable, bringing a freshness to their assignments that big stars might have staled. Ms. Basinger, satiny and lethal, with a warm heart, and Mr. DeVito, as the muckraking runt with no morals of his own, explore facets of their talents most directors would consider too risky. And there are other surprises: The excellent David Strathairn is especially sinister as a rich pimp who invests in the construction of what has now become the L.A. freeway system, while the ruthless police captain who plays more of a role in the mayhem than first seems possible is brilliantly essayed by James Cromwell, who played the benevolent old pig farmer in Babe . Mr. Hanson incorporates every diverse element seamlessly-from the lush, haunting Jerry Goldsmith score (similar to the one he wrote for Chinatown ) to Dante Spinotti’s moody camera work to the clothes, sets and fantasies that make up Hollywood history. The film runs two hours and 16 minutes, but you never want it to end.

It’s very rare indeed to see a movie- any movie-where everything works flawlessly, but the writing, casting, editing, visuals and especially the structure of this one add up to a combustible canvas that is art. Glossy, savvy, hard-boiled, with stinging style and smirky exchanges of torrid dialogue that carry the feverish flavor of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, L.A. Confidential is a genuine masterpiece that will literally knock your socks off.

In Stitches Over Kline Outing

More than any other actor working today, Kevin Kline can say volumes just by looking querulous. He gets plenty of opportunities in In & Out , a vibrant comedy about a most unusual and exceedingly unasked-for “outing” with hysterical consequences. Mr. Kline plays a beloved fusspot who teaches high school English in small-town Indiana. A few days before his wedding to his long-suffering girlfriend (Joan Cusack), a former student (Matt Dillon) innocently, dopily thanks him in his Oscar acceptance speech, calling him gay. Hilarious catastrophes ensue.

Based on Tom Hanks’ similar speech the year he won the Oscar for playing a gay character in Philadelphia , it’s a great premise for a serious “issue” flick, but screenwriter Paul Rudnick treats it as a sitcom. And Mr. Kline’s ingratiating charisma and warmth make the character real, lovable and palpably amusing instead of tragic. In the media frenzy that follows, he’s not really a victim, just a spectator, and a nightmarish mistake turns into a cloudless triumph in the best Frank Capra tradition. Instead of a community aberration, Mr. Kline’s professor becomes an American hero, albeit a reluctant one.

In & Out will probably get clobbered for its political incorrectness, its lack of inner conflict, its preposterous happy ending and its trivialization of troubling social issues. But it’s not a movie that holds up to strong analysis, which would defeat its purpose, anyway. To analyze In & Out is to neutralize it. It’s good-hearted, funny and liberating, as blind to homophobia as kids today are blind to race. With one of the wittiest scripts I’ve encountered in donkey’s years and a peachy cast that includes Debbie Reynolds, Wilford Brimley, Bob Newhart and a floppy, loosened-up Tom Selleck, this movie makes you feel good about life in spite of yourself. If that’s a sitcom, then the genre doesn’t get any better than this.

L.A.P.D.: This Is Cop Land