Somebody brought this up on Twitter which got me to thinking, did I review this movie when it came out during the days Maggi Picayune was exclusively in print? No and Yes. No, not really in much depth as other Nineties’ flicks received. Yes, but it was just a blurb on what so cool regarding it in a summary about 1997 as it was lumped in with Cop Land.
Tonight, I’m giving Confidential its due since it theaters 25 years ago. The movie has held up while I feel Cop Land became just another by-the-numbers Crime movie with DeNiro, Liotta and Keitel with the shock of Stallone not stinking it up. I want to watch Confidential again soon and/or find it on whatever streaming I have…umm, none, nevermind, not even HBO Max carries it. Well, either way, I remember Confidential accurately enough given I was a projectionist when Warner Brothers re-released the movie for Oscar® season, I owned a cheap DVD of it which I would watch in French to learn swear words and I read the novel. More about the book, down the way.
Spoilers ahead and they’re fair game by now as this movie is 25 years old and the book hit stores in 1990!
A quick synopsis, which really shouldn’t be necessary (see Spoilers).
It’s 1953. WWII is over, the Korean War is probably winding down as it’s never mentioned. Scores of people every day are moving to California, namely Los Angeles, to pursue new opportunities in the post-war boom. But there’s a nasty snake in this Eden, Mickey Cohen. He’s in charge of the Outfit’s operations: drugs, gambling, prostitution, racketeering, loan-sharking and as needed, murdering those who don’t cooperate. What’s even worse is that the LAPD and DA can’t get any charges to stick until the IRS steps in, creating a power vacuum. What does this have to do with the trailer which presented a less interesting, not very compelling movie? Keep reading.
We are then introduced to the story’s three protagonists; a James Ellroy narration device I’ve grown to love, known as the Ellroy Troika:
- Jack Vincennes, a cynical narcotics detective with side hustles; he’s a consultant for a TV show (fictional Dragnet); he also takes kickbacks from tabloid/rumor rag publisher Sid Hudgens when arresting Hollywood talent.
- Bud White, more of a thug than a cop as he has a propensity for using his fists over his brains. He has a white-knight complex for helping battered women since his own father beat his mother to death when he was a kid.
- Ed Exley, a legacy uniformed officer. His surname is respected within the force because his father was killed in the line of duty by a purse snatcher. He may be ambitious yet he believes in doing the morally right thing, unlike the LAPD.
Their paths all cross one fateful night on Christmas Eve 1953 at a police station. Tensions are high despite the holiday mood in America. A couple patrol officers were assaulted by some suspects with just the reductionist description of “being Mexican and male.” The two are fine though, just bruises, minor cuts and damaged egos. Acting Watch Officer Exley sent them home to recover, a fact he makes clear to a reporter and photographer hanging out for a puff piece to put in tomorrow’s paper. The drunk, on-duty cops, beg to differ; as humans get their facts wrong via telephone. They’re angry and out for blood to avenge their comrades. They get their opportunity when several beat cops bring in some men matching only the suspects’ ethnicity. Insults are exchanged. Then White’s partner, Stensland, leads a Rodney King-level beatdown on these suspects. Exley tries to stop it but he’s locked up by others wanting to join in. Remember the reporter and the photographer? Their puff piece has now transformed into a front-page scoop with the headline…Bloody Christmas and Stensland is clearly identified in the front-page photo.
It may be the early Fifties and what these dirty cops did was par for the course (even today, especially in NYC, LA and Chicago)…unless its exposed by the Media. LA’s DA and Police Chief Parker have to punish the culprits with a trial. Exley gladly testifies against the advice of his immediate superior Captain Smith; Blue Lives Matter = Cops who rat out other Cops are traitors. Exley isn’t stupid nor naive, in exchange for his testimony, he gets the Chief to promote him to Homicide and the rank of Detective Lieutenant. Vincennes is forced to cooperate since the DA needs at least two officers to corroborate and Exley provides the means to the Parker to make it happen: his TV consultancy. Vincennes agrees to do it as Parker just hands him brief suspensions from the show and a short-term transfer to to Vice but he’ll be back in Narcotics within a year. White is suspended indefinitely while Stensland is fired with his pension revoked. So many cops want to kill or disgrace Exley.
Some weeks pass. Captain Smith has White reinstated, namely to be on his special task force to keep the Mafia out of LA now that Mickey Cohen is going to prison and all of Mickey’s lieutenants keep getting whacked. Exley deals with the resentment he’s receiving from Homicide, he pretends he’s made of stone. Vincennes makes the best of “boring” Vice by trying to figure out a phone number on a business card he found during that infamous Christmas arrest.
The main story kicks off when Exley answers a call from a patrol car asking for Homicide’s assistance. He responds and joins the uniformed officers at a diner called The Nite Owl. The patrollers frequent the place for coffee and food but they quickly realized something was wrong when nobody greeted them. They then found the staff and guests’ murdered corpses in the diner’s walk-in. Appears to be a straightforward robbery gone wrong with ex-cop Stensland amongst the dead.
I fell in love with Confidential immediately and it converted me into a fan of the whole Noir genre, both film and novels. The gun battle in the last act is one of my favorite action sequences ever made too. This movie is nearly perfect in numerous elements:
- The cast! Kevin Spacey before we knew he was a child molester. James Cromwell using his new fame from Babe! Danny DeVito in a non-comic role. Kim Basinger doing something good for a change. Lesser knowns Russell Crowe and David Strathairn got Babe-level career boosts. Guy Pearce’s path has been more critically acclaimed stuff, Momento but I loved in him Iron Man 3.
- The details! Recapturing the fashion and styles after WWII which was before the Fifties as we know it congealed. Sadly, the racism, the sexism, the violence and all the horrors cops could do with impunity before Miranda Rights are there!
- The story succeeds in surprising the audience in its twists and turns. A couple plot points seem obvious in how they’ll be resolved…won’t they? The three key ones involve Captain Smith and Vincennes. If you read the book, sadly, no. You have a solid idea how everything will roughly come together.
- The mix of fact and fiction. Was there a Nite Owl slaughter just as there was an unsolved Black Dahlia murder per Ellroy’s novels? No. However, before I left to live in Austin, there was a gruesome murder at a Brown’s Chicken in the Midwest resembling it. Some characters in the movie were real people: Mickey Cohen, Police Chief Parker, Johnny Stompanato and obviously Lana Turner. The leads are fictional. And other supporting characters are fictional versions of actual people: Sid Hudgens is Robert Harrison, one of the first to publish scandal rags, literally his was named Confidential. I wouldn’t know about the rest, they were probably excised from the novel to save time.
If you’ve never seen L.A. Confidential, watch it. If you haven’t a long while, watch it again and take notice of some cool things, namely what this writer brought up. I completely agree with the author, being seriously unfaithful to Ellroy’s novel was a rare instance of it working out. I’m really bummed out even more with the death of Chadwick Boseman as an original sequel to this was scrapped by Warner Brothers. It was going to take place in 1974 with Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe returning as Exley and White respectively, Boseman as a younger cop, probably discovering some ugly truth the old two know about. I’m also guessing Exley would be the Chief or the elected representative he was in the end of White Jazz. White? Not sure, at the end of the movie, he was too injured to be a cop anymore and was on his way to live with Lynn in Arizona. The most shocking part was getting James Ellroy to help out. I’ve met him twice and he’s never been shy about how much he hates the movie version of this novel.