I’ve been playing L.A. Noire, and what with all the fedoras, old-timey cars, and talk of “bracing” witnesses, it’s put me in quite the mood for one of my favorite movies, L.A. Confidential. I stayed up late watching it again the other night.
There’s a shorthand in a lot of movies, especially cop dramas, when it comes to character flaws. Want to quickly build an anti-hero? Give him a drinking or drug problem. Give him an ex-wife (or a dead wife) or an estranged child. Give him a couple days of beard growth and a crummy, messy apartment. This signifies to the audience that your hero is struggling with demons without having to do all that pesky work of, you know, writing a good, believable character.
L.A. Confidential takes the harder, longer route, and it pays off in spades: the three main characters are all horribly and realistically flawed and thus incredibly compelling. Exley is a overly ambitious weasel, a political rung-climber obsessed with outdoing his father, and happy to wear the disdain of other cops as a badge. Vincennes is a charming sleaze, willing to sell out for fame and headlines and not interested in solving crimes as much as starring in them.
With Exley and Vincennes both showing themselves to be glory hounds (“Between the two of you guys, you should bring along a photographer” one cop says as they leave the office together), we’re left with Bud White. At first, he appears to be heroic enough, viciously punishing women-beaters, but his loyalty to his scumbag partner and sudden bouts of violence show him to be less than a white knight.
And then we see his true colors: while rescuing a rape victim, White summarily executes a rapist, then plants a gun on him. It’s like the last of the air being let out of our sails. Not because we feel for the rapist (as White says, “That’s what the man got. Justice.”) but because our last hope for a hero has shown himself to be horribly flawed as well, willing to kill suspects and plant evidence. Shit, we think. Everyone in this movie is a complete disaster. Who am I supposed to be rooting for again?
Redemption is coming, however. After Exley receives his commendation, he discovers he’s been set up: the Nite Owl suspects were innocent (of the murders, at least), and their deaths were engineered by the corrupt Captain Dudley Smith (along with prison wardens, police captains are almost always evil in movies). Vincennes is paid to set up a hapless male prostitute to seduce the district attorney for blackmail purposes, but after the kid winds up dead, Vincennes realizes he’s lost his way. And White gets involved with Lynn Bracken (see: heart of gold, prostitute with), who helps him realize he’s got more to offer than just acting as “the guy they bring in the scare the other guy shitless.”
As the three cops struggle to right their wayward paths, we’re treated to the best scene of the movie. I haven’t seen Kevin Spacey act in anything recently, but watching this scene makes me remember just how brilliant he can be with just a few spoken words. Exley comes to Vincennes after realizing that the Nite Owl case is bullshit. “Do you make the three Negroes for the Nite Owl killings?” he asks Vincennes.
Vincennes (pause): “What.”
Exlsey: “It’s a simple question.”
Vincennes: “You should be the last person who wants to dig any deeper into the Nite Owl… lieutenant.”
The last word is wonderfully delivered and dripping with meaning. Lieu-ten-ant. The Nite Owl case earned Exley the Medal of Valor, it officially “made” him, and now he’s about to go pulling at its loose threads. Finally, Exley tells Vincennes why he became a cop: because he wanted to catch the criminals who thought they could get away with it. “Why did you become a cop?” he asks Vincennes.
Vincennes, after a long pause: “I don’t remember.”
Again, Spacey imparts a ton of meaning with just a few words: we can see this revelation is heartbreaking to Vincennes, and yet he can almost find the humor in it.
After Captain Smith kills Vincennes (you could see it coming, since Smith mentions, for no apparent reason, that his family is out of town before letting Vincennes into his kitchen), Exley seeks help from White, but Smith has tricked White into wanting to kill Exley. Another great scene, where White goes on a rampage, flinging Exley around the room like a ragdoll, as Exley implores White to use his brain and realize that Smith is playing him. “Think!” he yells as White is whomping on him.
White eventually realizes he’s been set up by Smith, and he and Exley begin working together to stop the corrupt captain. Is there anything more satisfying than when Exley and White team up? I still feel so damn happy when they walk into the office to brace the district attorney. Exley, sitting, looking smug, and White looming against the bookcase, a ticking clock of brutality, ready to be unleashed by a simple look from Exley. The D.A. isn’t scared shitless… until White uses his head to open the window and then dangles him out of it. The first time I watched that scene I didn’t hear a single word of dialogue, I was so concerned the D.A. was going to slip out of White’s hands and plummet to his death.
The film also has its finer, subtler moments, like Exley talking to Lynn in the police station. Seeing her bruised face, Exley asks if she’s okay. “Are you?” she responds, seeing his own bruises, also caused by White. It’s a sort of sad moment, as they both acknowledge that they’re entwined with a violent psychopath, but by now they also both realize White adds up to more than the sum of his muscles.
Another one of my favorite little moments is when White is questioning the medical examiner about the Nite Owl case. He notices blood on the wall in one of the crime scene photos, the blood of his partner, Dick Stensland, and wonders why it’s there, when everyone was supposedly killed in the other room.
“Well, he was a cop,” the M.E. says. “He probably tried to do something.” He does a great little dismissive eye-roll, implying he doesn’t think much of the heroic antics of cops. White, on the other hand, knows Stensland was anything but a hero, and that’s all he needs to confirm that the Nite Owl case isn’t as neat as it seems. Like Lynn told him, he’s smart enough.
And, of course, this scene:
Exley: “Shut up. A hooker cut to look like Lana Turner is still a hooker.”
Vincennes: “She is Lana Turner.”
Vincennes: “She is Lana Turner.”
The only issues I have with the film arrive in two scenes. First, the scene of Exley getting seduced by Lynn Bracken has always felt a bit forced to me, as it happens too quickly. Exley is obviously jealous of White and attracted to Lynn, but the speed in which he is seduced is a little ridiculous. There was really nothing up to that point to suggest that he was such a horndog, and it felt a little rushed just to give Smith the tools to set White after Exley.
And, of course, the final scene of the movie, or what should have been the final scene.
We’ve got the shoot-out at the Victory Motel (still exciting, even after repeated viewings). White and Exley holed up in the same room White has done so much of his strong-arm stuff in (the hole in the floor he crawls through during the firefight is the same hole he made while ripping up the torture chair during the interrogation of Sid Hutchens). As the armed thugs move in, Exley and White share a bit of jet-black humor, with Exley saying that all he ever wanted was to measure up to his father.
“Now’s your chance. Wasn’t he killed in the line of duty?” White asks. (God, what a great fucking movie this is.)
In the aftermath, White lies on the floor and Exley gets the drop on Smith. Smith says to Exlsey as the sirens approach: “Hold up your badge, so they know you’re a policeman.” (A beautiful line, considering how everyone involved has crossed the line between cop and crook in one way or another). Exley shoots Smith in the back (a nice callback to the three questions Smith asked Exley at the start of the film.) Then, Exley holds up his badge as the squad cars pull up.
Boom. Roll credits. Perfect ending. We assume White is dead (come on, he was shot three times at close range), and we’re left to guess at the fate of Exley. He could come out okay, he could be finished, we don’t know, we don’t need to know.
Instead, unfortunately, we get what feels like a tacked-on wrap-up. Exley sits in an interrogation room, giving a summary of all the plot lines for anyone who has fallen behind, and then smartly maneuvers himself into getting another medal. Captain Smith is labeled a fallen hero (for the good of the department) and White, somehow still alive, drives off into the sunset with Lynn.
Bleah! It’s like eating through a bag of cherries and discovering the last one is rotten: it doesn’t spoil the meal but leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
But still. Great movie.