If you've ever seen James Ellroy in person you have some inkling of what a weird impression he can make. I'm not a big fan of the noir genre in crime literature, but Ellroy holds down a strong position among the "hardboiled" (or maybe fried) contingent. Never one to pull punches or soften a blow, he can be counted on to choose always the most emphatic or tough approach to any situation or expression.
Ellroy's been obsessed with the LA crime scene all his life, in part as a result of the murder of his mother when he was ten, a crime that was never solved. Ellroy's early life was troubled, with petty crime, substance abuse, poverty and rootlessness. Self-educated, he published his first novel in 1981 (based on his experience working as a golf caddy). In 1987, he published the first volume of his "L.A. Quartet" which includes L.A. Confidential (1990). His mature writing is complexly plotted, and features a dense colloquial "telegraphic" style that reads like a combination police-blotter and rap patois. It takes some getting used to, and isn't to everyone's taste.
The movie telescopes much of the detail and plot into a little over two hours, but still manages to feel a trifle cramped and hurried in places. A tale of corruption inside the Los Angeles Police Department involving a high-ranking Captain (James Cromwell as Dudley Smith, in probably his finest role ever, vamping as the smooth Irish operator with a black heart) and a small group of goon subordinates, it pits three unlikely confederates--Russell Crowe as Bud White, a tough-guy with a chip as big as a bowling ball on his shoulder, Guy Pearce as Ed Exley (also a career role), the ambitious young would-be chief-of-police trying vindicate his late cop-father's memory, and Kevin Spacey as the "celebrity cop" Jack Vincennes. Each of these unlikely heroes finds his virtue just in time, though the Spacey character is off'd by Captain Smith well before the movie's violent climactic scene at an abandoned motel out among the oil derricks.
Smith is trying to consolidate and take over the drug and prostitution rackets from a crumbling crime empire of recently imprisoned boss Mickey Cohen, and bumping off anyone who threatens to bar his way. Both Spacey (Vincennes) and Pearce (Exley) stumble accidentally onto disturbing contradictions in separate murder cases, while Crowe (White) is dragooned (as the heavy) into Captain Smith's illegal brutality sessions. The plot's thickened by the machinations of smut and scandal peddler Sid Hudgens (played by Danny DeVito), and spiced up by high-class hooker Lynn Bracken (played beautifully by Kim Basinger, who won the academy award for best actress here).
Jerry Goldsmith's original score, leavened with contemporary clips from the swing and torchy hits of the time, and punctuated with eerie sound-effects, is brilliant. The music, combined with the framing device of having DeVito's scandal-sheet voice-over touting the chamber of commerce attractions of the new sunlit suburbia and movie-land glamour gives the film its nostalgic identity: Real police department scandals of the 1950's form the basis for this typical good-cop/bad cop corruption trope. The film is like a bridge between the heavy black and white noir cliches of the 1940 crime films, and the later "atmospheric" evocations like Chinatown or Goodfellas. Ellroy's mood restores the punch of the older style, while incorporating some of the neglected sleaze (homosexual prostitution, raw racial violence).
Kevin Spacey, as usual, steals the show with his slick portrayal of the compromised detective, taking payoffs from DeVito to set up "celebrity arrests"--but Cromwell (Captain Smith) is so menacing, and smooth, he ought to have gotten an Oscar himself. The film owes something to Scorcese in its flat-plane, cartoonish cubism, where characters and sets become one-dimensional, but there's something deeper going on here: Crowe/White's past of being raised in an abusive household drives a primitive rage in him, expressed both as violence in his work, and profound affection for Bassinger/Bracken. Crowe plays it straight in a part that doesn't allow him to show much intelligence--along the lines of how he played it in Gladiator. There's a clear relationship between the White character, and Ellroy's own real-life obsession about wife-abusers--the emotional core of the drama. There's a saying in the academy that the definition of a novel is "a book that has something wrong with it."
One could make the same statement about Ellroy's books, and by extension, the movies made from them. His troubled childhood, difficult youth and brushes with madness, crime and pornographic obsession gave him a bird's-eye view of the social and psychological stress that would become the formulaic game-board of his fictional world. L.A. Confidential is like a valentine to the noir genre, by a man who, to some degree, lived the reality of it. Authenticity may get lost when the person who tells the story is too close to the material, but Ellroy's outsider stance is the perfect imaginative position. His characters may at times seem like cartoon versions of people, but that's part of their power. Real life can seem like a dream, or, as with Ellroy, a nightmare filled with unsolved mysteries, abandoned verdicts and unpaid debts. And then fiction can serve as the court of last resort in a personal code of justice.