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« Visual Index ~ L.A. Confidential's Best Shot(s) | Main | "And Emily..." »

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "L.A. Confidential"

When L.A. Confidential premiered in 1997 I was one of the few cinephiles that wasn't overcome with passion for it. I thought it too warm, actually. The happy(ish) ending threw me since most of the noir I was familiar with (not a wide sample I'm afraid) was much more nihilistic, rarely leaving the compromised heroes alive or free. It was the clear critical favorite in its year, though, so I've long wanted to reassess it and spend more time with it. I'm happy to report that I underestimated it the first time around. The screenplay with its hardboiled broad strokes dialogue and characterizations made more sense now that I'm more familiar with its tropes. But above all else it's a "wow" in execution from every department (but yes we're here to talk cinematography).

My clearest memories of the film were three: the smarmy gossip opening "on the QT and very hush hush", that I was enamored of both Russell Crowe and Kevin Spacey's performances, and the (literal) head-turning introduction of Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger in her Oscar winning role) though it should surprise virtually no one who reads the Film Experience that the subplot of the Fleur de Lis girls "whores cut to look like movie stars" was the storyline I was initially most drawn to.  

Whatever you desire.

More after the jump...

I'd forgotten that the film begins at Christmas time. It ain't Merry.

That wasn't the case this time, many years later when Kim Basinger's contributions, as lovely as I think her performance is, was noticeably thinner. The film's mano-a-mano struggle, which I had remembered as being Bud White (Russell Crowe) vs. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is actually far knottier and quadrifurcated. Add Dudley (James Cromwell) and Jack (Kevin Spacey) and then start twisting it around in your hand because it's interesting and tense from any angle no matter which of the four points align. So I'm sad that there was not one shot with all four of them that worked for me to be my "best".

Cinematographer Dante Spinotti's Oscar-nominated work on this film is so gorgeous that I had a plethora of optionsm, though. In the absence of a clear definitive choice -- which is the case this time -- I always narrow it down by which shot I most want to write about so here are three shots I must say something about.

Perfect as the final shot even if it isn't one - there's still a confession and a prologue to wrap things up. It's a classic take on silhouette photography (beloved by noir) but it has thematic power and especially character detail. Detective Lieutenant Ed Exley is a by the book holier than thou officer when the film begins. By the time it wraps he is more than a little tainted but here he is, looking just like a preacher with the holy book in his hand. It's his badge but same difference since the LAPD is his religion and he's just removed the wolf from his flock. 

And Bonus Points: the red lights and extra green foliage bring us full circle back to Christmas. Still not merry. 

I choose reflective shots too often but I love this one

Every single thing about the interrogation sequence early in the movie is a marvel of escalating tension and Spinotti and director Curtis Hanson make beautiful use of reflections. On multiple occasions the black suspects are surrounded by a sea of ghostly white men towering over them, presuming their guilt. It's a punchy image and in this particular moment it's especially sick-making: the suspect is (probably) shouting his innocence but his voice is silenced. We hear nothing and if the cops hear him, they don't seem all that interested. The anonymity of this shot is stupendous, and really all of these men, suspects and cops, are but minor pawns in an elaborate shell game they don't even realize is being played. 

Far grimmer is the realization that no one in the room is innocent. Even these wrongfully accused prisoners though their crimes are different than the ones they're punished for. 

best shot

It's a far more morally murky and even depressing movie than I had realized in the 1997 which is why I'm returning to Lynn Bracken and Bud White to wrap up. They surely find some degree of comfort in each other's arms, but it's not quite happiness - they're both too damaged and weary for that. Hanson and Spinotti and the production designer Jeannine Oppewall make wonderful choices throughout the movie but what I appreciated most about the Lynn Bracken segments today is how much of an oasis they are from the rest of the picture in mood, especially from the light and the performances. This entire sequence is filled with lavender and yellow accents, a gloriously soft and romantic combination And yet, despite the sequence's cool dusky warmth, despite it being miles removed from the harsher imagery of the movie surrounding it, Bud still walks in haunted noir shadows and Lynn is still an abstraction. She hangs back to led Bud enter first and take the lead. She's barely even making this choice, her only autonomous choice in the entire picture.

"Why did you choose me?" He asks her. "I don't know." is her whispered and true response.  


previously on Hit Me With Your Best Shot

the collective edition of all L.A. Confidential entries will be up tonight at 9:00

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Reader Comments (13)

I prefer Kim Basinger having an Oscar over several other questionable performers who are Oscar winners too.

March 25, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

3rtful - oh dont get me wrong i am (mostly) a fan of Kim Basinger who has been undervalued her whole career due to her beauty. But this win was... generous.

March 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

I was kind of stunned Kim won for this, but it was a very movie star performance and she had great chemistry with Russell Crowe.

March 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBia

God that interrogation sequence is just terrific.

And this is clearly hands-down Guy Pearce's best performance ever - he is so good and it is one of the best supporting actor turns of that decade. Pearce is definitely the MVP here with Russell Crowe nipping at his heels. Is it weird that I want them to make another film together.

For all of the flack (some earned but most not) that these actors get - their critics need to re-watch this movie and marvel at their brilliance.

March 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnonny

@Bia - Agreed - and she is stunning in that one dress.

Although Crowe really had great chemistry with everyone in this.

March 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnonny

Nathaniel R - When Crowe punches her and abruptly leaves and we're left with her emotionally pained reaction I believe that sealed it for voters.

March 25, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

God, I want to marry this movie.

Looking at it now, with as many times as I've seen it (at least 50), some of the performances are so massively underrated. I don't think Kevin Spacey will ever get the credit in this film as he should. He's the perfect balance of dirty and clean and is the lynchpin for the big reveal. That performance has aged wonderfully.

But, Danny Devito and James Cromwell are so blindingly perfect for their roles, it makes me mad that they only get these roles once in their careers.

Overall, I'd rank the performances:
1. Crowe
2. Pearce
3. Basinger
4. Devito
5. Spacey
6. Cromwell
7. Straithairn

And that's saying something, because Straithairn was great too.

My God, I love this movie

March 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBen

3rtful - i'd argue that that scene is much more a moment for Crowe than it is for Basinger. It's more about his character becoming what he hates most. After he hits Lynn, his horrified reaction seals the deal rather than the quick shot of Lynn's emotional turmoil.

March 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDerreck.

Derreck - Women on the receiving end of violence whether physical or emotional will always garner the lion's share of attention regardless of the merits of what those moments mean for the male character/actor inflicting them.

March 25, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

The most amazing thing about this generally amazing movie was just how much nuance every single actor brought to his/her role. Some of the most critical moments involved the subtlest shift of expression possible - a flaring nostril, a raised or lowered brow, slightly widened eyes. These were also my favorite moments. Non-exhaustive list:

1. Already mentioned above: Bud before and after he hits Lynn - from pacing like a wounded animal to the bestial look when he hits her, to his horrified look afterwards

2. Earlier in the movie - Bud before and after he tells Lynn she looks better than Veronica Lake: a moment of smitten vulnerability followed by a sudden lowering of his brow as he gets brusquely back to business.

3. Bud's shift from a faraway look when Dudley and another henchman are "interrogating" Sid to the goon pose when Dudley calls him to attention: you can tell it's artificial, and his heart isn't in it

3. Ed Exley's face after Dudley inadvertently reveals that he killed Jack Vincennes. Almost imperceptible, truly mind-blowing.

4. Jack's face and voice when Exley is trying to enlist his help in discovering the truth, even if the lie served his career better: why on earth would you want to do that, "lieu-TEN-ant?"

Jack has a bunch of others, too, but this list is already getting too long. The movie is just that good.

March 25, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterprincesskaraoke

princesskaraoke -- and the crazy thing is that NONE of the men were nominated.

March 25, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

princesskaraoke - I can't believe I forgot about Exley's eyes after Dudley mentions Tomasi. That is my favorite thing in the whole film.

March 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBen

Wow, I pretty much agree with everything you say. I do like the shout-out to Oppewall, I think L.A. Confidential has some of my favorite production design in all of cinema. I especially love how appropriately "used" the Nite Owl looks.

Also, I sent you my post and you didn't link. What gives?

March 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterConrado

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