To Live and Die in Los Angeles

L.A. Confidential, a not too brilliant movie by Curtis Hanson, stages James Ellroy’s urban ghosts, the greatest contemporary noire writer. Violence and death with no redemption for the cops that dig in the dirt.

Somehow like an abyss. If you look at it from above the "City of Angels" looks like a bottomless pit, bright and obscure at the same time. The eye searches for a somewhere else that doesn’t exist anymore, than strays to the orizon’s indefiniteness. As Robert De Niro in Michael Mann’s Heat watches the hill’s agglomerate, he seems to be getting lost in a quiet magma, pulsating with its intermittent dazzle. Yet, down there, life flows. Death flows. Just like in the gettos several times gutted by the guerrilla, with the whites contemplating the black’s hell and invoking an apocalypse. Than, broken up men, corrupted cops, serial killers, terminal drug addicted, crossing lives on streets whose innocence is forever lost. They are not ghosts, only man, evoked from the urban damnation. James Ellroy is their poet. Stories written in "blood letters", as Elloy himself says; a fauna of recurrent characters mixed to real figures (such as the mafia boss Mickey Cohen and his acolyte Johnny Stompanato) in the background of the dream factory, Hollywood, which is instead built on a foundation of nightmare. In a saga composed of four books (Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz) he describes the red-hot reality of the 50s, which means cold war, emerging criminal organizations, drug dealing that for the first time becomes extensive and well-organized, stars that, like Mitchum, get often caught stoned or about to hook a girl. A neon-bright heart of darkness. Ellroy’s language reflects his torment his pain, the memory and the fear of blood. Because, unlike other contemporary noire writers whose stories are created after having been "witnesses" of a reality that turned into an inspiration source (that’s the case of Andrew Vachss, social worker in risky neighbourhoods before becoming a writer), James Ellroy has a direct experience of the loathe he tells about. In the "dark places" of his mind the image of the murdered mother is still clear: the scars of his youth odyssey, persecuted by horror, shoved into alcohol abuse, violence, drug addition. "Habit to death" he calls it. Then, on the edge, a gleam, the occasion of getting rid of the ghosts of his subconscious through writing, throwing out the absolute evil that brings darkness to the heart. From that lacerated darkness comes the bloody energy of the words, the brutality of the descriptions. Ellroy is like a pranotherapist of himself: he rips off his own inner suffering and, instead of dissolving it into liberation and redemption, he transmits it to the reader who, as he closes the book, is left dismayed, dealing with ghosts that are not his own. Charm and pain directed to a not too imaginary world headed to moral dissolution. Yet the pages don’t define the edges of the "good". Ethic is too hard to be found on the burning Los Angeles boulevards.

L.A. Confidential, the movie that Curtis Hanson took to Cannes, has been quite freely taken from the novel by Ellroy. The script (by Brian Helgeland and the director, supervised by Ellroy himself) concentrates only on a part of the complicated plot of the novel, completely ignoring the gloomy child massacre and the shady Raymond Dieterling, a Walt Disney with a hidden ghost. The ending part shows the books prologue in which Ed Exley and Bud White substitute Buzz Meeks. For those who know the novel, these are not small licences, but turning an Ellroy’s novel into a movie is not an easy task. It has been tried before by James B. Harris with Blood on the Moon; he cleaned up the riginal text without erasing the inner trouble of the main character Loyd Hopkins. Hanson is not that skilled: L.A. Confidential has an out-of-fashion taste that makes it look like an old "feuilleton", its only charm residing in the characters’ literary depth. Sure the photograph director [I hope it is the right term in English] makes some miracles and the general scenic reconstruction is well architected. But the novel’s fierceness is missing, even the context’s cynicism seems to smoothed out. «Either we made the movie like this or we renounced making it» said Hanson during the press conference. Ellroy consented «the transposition is perfect and finally I could give a precise look to the characters, In particular to Dudley Smith. From now on I will not be able to think about him without remembering James Cromwell’s face». Old Dud, Irish captain that holds the city in his hand, included the mafia bosses. The reckoning for him is set in the fourth book, White Jazz. Hanson anticipates it: he is Irish, but he has a story of ordinary American corruption. The "fenian" humanism of John Ford’s sergeants looks a thousand miles away. Characters. L.A. Confidential (the movie) is not a masterpiece, the director couldn’t reach the classical perfection he wished. Sometimes the movie feels like a TV series. The fresco of Polanski’s Chinatown could have served as a model but... Still the characters can’t be discussed. Ellroy praised Cromwell, we point our finger to Russell Crowe and Kevin Spacey. The first is Bud White, a bull of a cop. If he happens to see a man beating a woman he loses control, the you’d better stay off him. He falls in love with Lynn (Kim Basinger) and, in a rage outburst, he beats her. As often happens in Ellroy’s novels, the personal obsession of the characters (in Bud’s case the hate for the violence on women) retorts upon themselves. Crowe is physically massive, perfect for the part. Kevin Spacey is Jack Vicennes, the dandy-cop that likes to be photographed by Sid Hudgeons (Danny De Vito) while accomplishing miserable made-up actions. He unmasks some actor smoking joint or some big guy spending his time with boys looking for money and success. Everything ends up on the pages of the worst scandal magazine, Hush-hush. Spacey is great because of the way he can enlighten the character’s duplicity (by the way, Jack is the only one that ends up looking for some "expiation").

Thanks to the actors, L.A. Confidential preserves some of the book’s mystery. Yet it leaves a sour taste: billion dollars couldn’t render visually Ellroy’s hell. Few essential components. «Red ink mutilations... an ink-pot dripping blood... Colored inks: red for blood, green for corruption money... And black for the night’s light».

L.A. Confidential
Director: Curtis Hanson
Script: Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland, from the James Ellroy’s novel
Photography: Dante Spinotti
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Montaggio: Peter Honess
Production: Arnon Milchan and David L. Wolper
Length: 140 min.
Cast of actors: Kevin Spacey (jack Vicennes); Guy Pearce (Ed Exley); Russell Crowe (Bud White); Kim Basinger (Lynn); Danny De Vito (Sid); James Cromwell (Dudley Smith); Davis Straithairn (Pierce Patchett); Phil Guilfoyle (Johnny Stompanato); Ron Rifkin (Loew) The Plot: 1950s: three cops dealing with intrigues, corruption and murders in Los Angeles’ hell. Bud White is full of grudges, Ed Exley is too ambitious, Jack Vicennes is slimy and burdened with some remorse. In L.A. are happening strange facts, apparently not in connection: prostitutes that look like cinema stars attracting clients just like honey attracts bees, a murder in a bar, the boss Mickey Cohen that seems to have lost the top. maybe Los Angels found a new boss?

Duel, July-August 1997

courtesy Silvia Elisa Costa(many thanks to her for taking the time to translate the whole thing!)

Duel is an Italian film magazine