Review: L.A. Confidential


In celebration of the forthcoming release of L.A. Noire, Flixist has teamed up with its sister sites Japanator and Destructoid to give a bit of background on what noir (we’re spelling it that way) is all about. Throughout the next week and leading up to L.A. Noire’s release, we’ll be reviewing/analyzing classic noirs set in L.A., explaining exactly what noir is and a few more awesome things.

The first time I viewed L.A. Confidential, I thought it was an amazing murder mystery with a stellar cast, and it is that. But, on that first viewing, my knowledge and education in noir films was lackluster, to say the least. After going back and screening the film a second time after four years of film education and five years of film criticism, I am almost ashamed to admit what I missed the first time around.

L.A. Confidential isn’t just a great movie; it is an amazing deconstruction of the noir genre (if you will permit me to call noir a genre). Not only is it a finely crafted film, but it explores exactly what makes a noir a noir while deconstructing the classic tropes and characters from one of Hollywood’s most revered genres. This is a modern (slightly flawed) masterpiece that takes some old school styles and not only updates them, but expands and comments on them as well.

In 1997, L.A. Confidential hit the big screen and began racking up the awards, culminating in a plethora of Oscar noms, including a Best Picture nomination and wins for Best Supporting Actress (Kim Basinger) and Best Writing. These are all things it rightfully deserves (although Basinger’s performance was a bit overrated). The hype over the film was not just because it was masterfully created, but because it was a noir film in a time when noir was not being made and when it was was not being made well. L.A. Confidential was a return to form for the genre, and even after all these years, it stands as one of the best the modern era of noir has to offer when it comes to playing it classic.

As far as noir stories go, L.A. Confidential is nothing that new. The investigation of a brutal murder involving a dead cop and four other people at a diner eventually spirals out of control as lies, cover-ups and deceit are revealed. Characters twist and turn in the wind so much that you are not sure who to trust. Well, except for our three cop (anti-)heroes that is: Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), Bud White (Russell Crowe) and Edmund Exely (Guy Pearce). These three chase down the clues that lead to a major city-wide cover-up and peel back the dirty secrets of a city trying to look clean. Insert a blonde femme fatale in the form of Lynn Bracken (Basinger), and you have yourself the boiler plate makings of a film noir.

But L.A. Confidential is anything but boiler plate. It takes its classic noir tale and turns it into a dialog on film noir itself. The most obvious and powerful way it accomplishes this feat is with the three aforementioned protagonists, all of whom take the place of the traditional gumshoe detective present in classic noirs. By dividing the lead detective role into three parts, L.A. Confidential picks apart the classic detective lead of film noirs as well. Bud White is the representation of the hard-fisted part of the noir detective who uses his fists to solve problems and can not stand to see a good dame disparaged. Exely is the good guy in every noir detective that plays by a set of rules (even if those rules are arbitrary). And Vincennes represents the part of the classic noir gumshoe who will do anything for a buck. The three of them make a complete noir detective, and it is no coincidence that they are all relatively ineffective at solving the crime until they join together, thus forming a true noir detective.

In fact, the three characters take the same story arc that a single noir detective usually takes. This is especially apparent in the character of Vincennes, who represents the greedy side of the noir detective. Usually by the end of the noir film, the hardboiled detective has sacrificed his hard line about it all being for money, and the same happens in L.A. Confidential with Vincennes. The eventual death of his character is not only the impetus for what brings Exely and White together at last, but also representative of the traditional growth of a film noir’s detective who eventually learns what the right thing to do is and heads that way, even if it is too late, thanks to his fatal attraction to the femme fatale or he is simply narrating over his deathbed.

The character of White also drives this point home when he almost destroys himself and Elsey in a jealous rage over Bracken. Here we see the traditional downfall of the film noir protagonist, tricked or betrayed by a woman he fool-hardedly charges towards, only to destroy himself. In this case, he is actually destroying Exely, but since the three detectives are truly one character and Vincennes is already dead, White here is actually killing himself in terms of a noir film.

And that could have easily been how the film concluded, with White bringing down the final pair of the detective trinity, but L.A. Confidential is not just playing within the rules of the noir movies, and turns a few of the genres traditions on its head. The film, in fact, opens up with a twist on the conventions as the supposed narrator is not one of the detectives (that would have placed one aspect of the noir detective too highly above the others), but instead with Sid Hugens, a skeezy reporter who, instead of delivering the usual hardboiled truth that noir detectives narrate over, proceeds to slime his way into a set up for the film.

The rile of the femme fatale is also shifted in a major way in L.A. Confidential, and I think it might be the film’s biggest weak point. Lynn Bracken literally enters the film dressed like death in a black robe. Her first encounter with White, who eventually falls for her, screams femme fatale, both visually and metaphorically. As the film progresses, she plays her role perfectly, betraying our leads in one way or another, and never really giving us footing to know exactly what side she falls on. As mentioned above, she eventually leads to our two detectives almost destroying themselves. But in the end, they do not, and by the conclusion of the film, all the fatale has been sucked out of this femme. In fact, the entirely overtly happy ending does not jive too well with me at all. It feels like a modern Hollywood film ending attached to a movie that is more classic noir, and it unfortunately leaves a bad taste on a film that is otherwise incredible.

Of course, I have spent all this time talking about characters and genre conventions and have not even mentioned what might be the greatest aspect of the movie: its screenplay. There is a reason it won the Oscar, and that is because it is absolutely amazing. Not only is it an original and creative story, but the entire thing reads like a classic pulp detective novel or Bogart noir. The dialog is so sharp and quick, it is a wonder that the screenplay was even written in this day and age of pandering to the lowest common denominator in a film’s audience. The actors (especially our tifecta of noir detectives) deliver these sharp lines with the straightforward panache of cinema’s greatest noir detectives. It is refreshing how bluntly they deliver their already blunt lines to the unwavering camera.

What you get with L.A. Confidential is a classic noir with all the modern trappings (though one could argue that by this point, the film itself is a classic as well). Supported by one of the best and most reverential screenplays, the amazing cast delivers a noir film that is both classic and contemporary at the same time. This is a movie that both deconstructs what it means to be a noir film and is a film noir itself in the best ways possible. My only wish is that they had followed through with the convictions they started the film with instead of ending on the far too happy note that the film concluded on.

Overall Score: 8.80 – Spectacular. (Movies that score between 8.50 and 9.00 are some of the best films its genre has ever created, and fans of any genre will thoroughly enjoy them.)

Matthew Razak
Matthew Razak is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Flixist. He has worked as a critic for more than a decade, reviewing and talking about movies, TV shows, and videogames. He will talk your ear off about James Bond movies, Doctor Who, Zelda, and Star Trek.