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