|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 21 April 1998|
Okay, 'Titanic' was the most financially successfully, logistically complicated movie released in 1997. However, the best film of 1997--at least from this perspective--is still 'L.A. Confidential.'
You know the magician's stunt of pulling a tablecloth off a table while leaving the plates and cups undisturbed? Director Curtis Hanson and his co-screenwriter Brian Helgeland have managed the same feat in adapting James Ellroy's massive novel into a juicy, intricate and volcanically active thriller populated by riveting characters and terrific performances. The underlying mystery has been changed around, but they've preserved Ellroy's dense, layered style, finding telling details in even minor events and creating a sense of real unpredictability.
In early '50s L.A., everybody is making deals with everybody else. The cops are on the take, the fledgling tabloid industry is staging its own stories and when the town's top gangster is temporarily put away, there's no telling who's going to grab for his turf. When six people are shot to death in what looks like a coffeeshop robbery gone bad, ambitious young police lieutenant Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) solves the case quickly--only to discover that he's unwittingly participated in a massive cover-up.
The plot twists are plentiful, fast and sometimes literally furious, but the filmmakers are careful to keep us on the same wavelength with the protagonists, so that we neither jump ahead in anticipating what they may learn or lag behind in confusion. The dialogue crackles with muscular zest, sounding exactly right for the people and the period. The story is propelled as much by the individual characters' flaws and virtues as it is by schematics; genuine suspense is achieved as we wonder who will kill whom and for what reason.
The direction-specific sound is excellent, particularly in the Chapter 36 climactic shootout, but don't try skipping through the film until you've seen it at least once from start to finish--the narrative intricacies are good enough to deserve their build-up. Likewise, while the "making-of" documentary is good fun, it contains a few shots from the last scene that will give away key plot points--it's fine for after-movie viewing, but is too much of a tip-off if seen beforehand. One unusual element of the DVD is the inclusion of a music-only soundtrack that allows you to watch the film stripped of dialogue and sound effects, which punches up the irony level considerably in the more violent sequences.
'L.A. Confidential' is worth viewing several times: once simply for the surprise value of the plot and another to see how ingeniously the filmmakers and actors structure their work. The action sequences stand up to repeated scrutiny, the production design is period-accurate and, as director Hanson points out, this is one instance where a '50s setting doesn't mean the whole movie forces us to squint through shadows--this is high-visibility film noir. It's also smart, cynical and a whole lot of fun.