The film career of the late Curtis Hanson is an odd one to pin down. Unlike many of his contemporaries Hanson’s filmography isn’t one that boasts many easily definable hits or a consistent theme. There are mid-career thrillers like The Hand That Rocks The Cradle and The River Wild – the latter a tense but forgettable chase flick headlined by Meryl Streep, the former a deliriously enjoyable psychological shocker. There’s the subtly impressive Wonder Boys – a university set comedy about a novelist struggling with writer’s block. The unexpected sibling drama In Her Shoes led by the brilliant trio of Cameron Diaz, Toni Collette and Shirley MacLaine. And perhaps most strikingly of all, the semi-biographical Eminem vehicle 8 Mile best known for its Oscar winning soundtrack and surprising lead performance from the hip-hop megastar. All solid outings by the director, but not a list you could strike a common thread through either in thematic structure or overall quality.
Amongst them all is one single outright classic. Wedged bang in the middle of the six year gap between The River Wild and Wonder Boys sits L.A. Confidential, a sprawling, elaborate noir that would go on to become one of the greatest movies in history. A work of such monumental brilliance that it became an outlier amongst his other work, a solid directing career highlighted by a single moment of undisputed genius. All of which makes his one true masterwork even more special. Unlike true cinema greats like Scorsese or Spielberg – careers dripping with influential hits and genre defining standouts – Hanson’s back catalogue never even manages to hint at true greatness, all genuinely entertaining films that are good without being great. All except for L.A. Confidential – the full court heave that scores on every conceivable level and matches anything Scorsese or Spielberg have committed to screen.
It’s a staggering achievement throughout, especially given its source material. On the list of seemingly unfilmable novels, James Ellroy’s 1990 classic sits near the very top – an intricately plotted thriller filled with twists, turns and a massive cast of perfectly drawn characters. Its specific tone and language was one thing, but adapting each and every personality into a two hour feature was always a prospect too intimidating for most. Instead what could have been the film’s major stumbling block becomes Hanson’s biggest success with a dialogue heavy script stacked with weaving narrative and characterization that somehow never feels forced. This is efficient yet layered storytelling at its finest.
L.A. Confidential is the story of the Nite Owl Café massacre – a blood soaked crime scene that gradually seeps into three separate investigations by the three main characters. Sgt. Ed Exley is the one to initially crack the case, immediately reaping the benefits through a swift rise up the ranks before realizing there may be much more to the situation than anyone originally thought. Officer Bud White’s ex-partner is one of the victims of the Nite Owl, and spends the rest of the film trying to piece together clues to his involvement. Sgt. Jack Vincennes meanwhile is better known for his role as technical advisor on the hit TV series Badge Of Honor, but becomes increasingly determined to uncover the truth behind the murder of a young actor linked to a high powered District Attorney. All three gradually find their paths overlapping as the scale and corruption of what they uncover becomes more and more apparent.
The film introduces each character perfectly, managing to establish personal histories and backstories immediately without ever overwhelming the viewer in a haze of convoluted excess. Russell Crowe’s simmering White and Guy Pearce’s painfully straight-laced Exley are front and centre, two seemingly polar opposite detectives in search of the truth and two actors giving the performances that launched their careers in Hollywood. Pearce plays the role of the morally uptight, arrogantly ambitious Exley brilliantly, conveying emotions and thought processes with only slight changes in facial expression. Crowe is even better, a genuine powerhouse bubbling with righteous fury throughout. An interrogation scene early in the movie showcases both actors perfectly, Pearce all calculating intelligence while cross examining three suspects before Crowe puts a brutal full stop on proceedings through terrifying intensity and blunt force.
At the time Spacey was on the greatest run of his career, fitting this between The Usual Suspects, Se7en and American Beauty in a phenomenal four year period. His turn as Vincennes is as good as anything he’s ever produced, matching his natural movie star charisma with a weary cynicism. It’s all topped by an Oscar winning showing by Kim Basinger as Lynn Bracken, taking the standard role of the sympathetic prostitute and imbuing it with heart and vulnerability. Bracken is the strong centrepiece of the film, able to read each character effortlessly and only letting her guard down when it matters most. There have been bigger stars and more Oscar nominated names, but L.A. Confidential makes a case for boasting arguably the most flawless collection of performances in film history.
In the middle of it all is Hanson himself. Never an overly stylized director, here he remains patient and purposeful, embracing the constraints of this hard-boiled world to enhance the power of the script itself. Every word is used with precision, an intricately planned jigsaw that somehow merges the various plots into an explosive finish. Hanson never aims to redefine the genre, instead filling the screen with many familiar tropes that he quietly tweaks here and there. This is an unabashed noir film that thrives in a mixture of homage and innovation. And most importantly, he’s littered it with genius moments. Pearce and Crowe’s good cop/bad cop routine and the epic finale are just as incredible as the previously mentioned interrogation scene, but it’s the Rollo Tomasi sequence that stands as its most iconic, the kind of excellence reached only by moments in film that can be identified with just a single phrase.
Hanson never came close to reaching the same heights again, but in a way he never entirely tried to. He continued to be well received critically and in 8 Mile had his biggest box office smash by a long way, a massive hit spurred on by a star in his prime that is easily Hanson’s most recognizable work. He hinted at a personal side later in his career to diminishing financial returns and avoided the unashamedly B-grade thrillers of his earlier output, but never again aimed for the kind of career euphoria he reached here. L.A. Confidential is the one that comfortably sits near the top of any self-respecting movie list. For one film Hanson went digging into his noir rabbit hole, into a world of expertly drawn characters and shifting allegiances, coming out the other side with a genuine masterpiece.