When the subject of films comes up in my conversations, and I mention my love of them and the reviews I write, lots of people (strangers mostly) ask "So... what's your favorite film?"
Truthfully, I tend to say that I don't have one, or even a few; I've seen a lot of movies, and liked a lot (though certainly not all) of them. But I know myself and my likes well enough to know that the positive feelings for a film are often situational: it's where I was, who I was with, the way that film spoke to a particular moment or feeling I was in tune with at that time. I love sad movies most when I need a good cry. I really loved Truth or Dare when I saw it, but it was also the height of Madonna Madness, and I can't say that it truly holds up to what I thought at the time.
Still, when I say I "have no favorites," it's also a lie; I love movies, and I own a lot of the movies I love and I watch them repeatedly. I go out of my way to see and re-see certain films, certain stars, hear my favorite lines yet again. This afternoon, I caught the final dramatic courtroom denouement of Legally Blond, a film I still admire a lot, for those last lines of Elle Woods as she destroys the real murderer's fake alibi - "And as someone who's had, oh, thirty perms in her lifetime, shouldn't you be aware of the rules of perm maintenance?" Always makes me smile.
In that vein, I've decided, sort of, to stop lying: I'm going to try and make a regular habit of going back over the films I love and why. It's a way to push myself to more regularly write reviews, and also revisit the good stuff, and why it's good. It's also my way of being a better steward of film blogging: people I admire, like Self Styled Siren, who remind me to be passionate about the thing I love.
So first up: a film that speaks to the whole business of loving film - LA Confidential.
For me, LA Confidential was my initial exposure to the work of James Ellroy, who I've come to consider both one of the great mystery writers of our time, a brilliant historian of LA and the role of its police force in the city's development. Ellroy and his dark vision of LA and its law enforcement are the drivers of LA Confidential, but the film works, and works well for more than that: It's the work of the male ensemble, especially two Australians and Kevin Spacey, as well as the brilliant use of Kim Basinger. Stir in Lana Turner, and you've got a film that gives the gloss of Golden Age Hollywood while exposing the city's true darkness.
LA Confidential begins with the imprisonment of Mickey Cohen, the city's crime kingpin, for tax evasion. As the narrator, Sid Hutchens notes, Cohen's imprisonment leaves a hoel at the top of LA's crime sundicate. LA Confidential unravels who might be trying to replace him, and why.
Hutchens is the publisher of "Hush Hush", a tabloid along the lines of Confidential, the notorious fifties era publication that outed Hollywood celbrities and revealed drug use as well as other personal problems among Hollywood stars, thriving in the postwar era when studios lost control of their contract players. Hutchens uses a prominent LAPD Detective named Jack Vincennes to stage drug busts of minor film and TV players. Vincennes sees the whole sleazy business for what it is, but revels in the notoriety, also fueled by his role "advising" the actors on a popular TV show (like Dragnet) who play LA cops.
Vincennes is one of several cops caught up in a violent Christmas Eve altercation with some Hispanic prisoners suspected of assaulting some fellow officers. The cops are ratted out by Ed Exley, an up and coming police officer son of a local cop hero. Exley is ambitious and looking to make a name for himself as a Detective. After being promoted as a result of his high profile turncoat role, Exley stumbles into a major murder case, a mass slaying at a local coffee shop, the Night Owl, where one of the cops he exposed - Dick Stensland - was brutally shot.
Though Exley further burnishes his rep by singlehandedly shooting the three negro suspects of the crime, he has doubts about their guilt, Stansland's ex-partner, Bud White has similar doubts and a blinding dislike of Exley. Menawhile, Vincennes also trips over some curious evidence of drugs and prostitution that may have a role in the Night Owl case. And one of the prostitutes, a Veronica Lake lookalike, Lynn Bracken, starts a romance with White that complicates matters all the more.
In many ways, LA Confidential is pulp fictipon on steroids - hookers, booze, drugs, dirty cops and reams of sleazy business on the edges of decent society. Ellroy has no romance for the past, undercutting every notion that there was a once a simpler time when people were better and good was easier to separate from bad. At the same time, there is a kind of romance at work, a sense that, somehow, back then, crime really was more glamorous, more interesting.
And I haven't even mentioned the nifty way that Ellroy works in Lana Turner and her then-boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, a mob figure who was one of Cohen's trusted lieutenants (shortly after the events of the film, Turner's daughter would stab Stompanato in Lana's bedroom).
Directed by Curtis Hansen (who also wrote the script with Brian Helgeland), LA Confidential revels in all its seedy business, but puts a glamorous sheen on the proceedings, taking full advantage of the moments to pay homage both to classic Hollywood and classic noir (and intertwining the two when Bracken, doing her best Veronica Lake, pretends to be the hard boiled type of dame Lake often played). Basinger also gets to simp around for much of the film in a string of amazing satin gowns, lending plenty of visual glamour.
Indeed, Basinger's performance could be seen as a revelation, though it was more a long absence from the screen before LA Confidential that made her performance such a force. Basinger's always had enormous promise as an actress, and Lynn Bracken was simply the role she'd always been meant to play (and of course, it won her an Oscar), as she managed to both emobody classic Hollywood glamour and the world weariness of an aging hooker who's tiring of the whole business.
Basinger is, though, merely part of an enormous ensemble that's ridiculously strong, right down to Simon Baker as a boytoy TV actor moonlighting as gay trade. The cast is led by the then less-known Australians Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce as White and Exley. James Cromwell - who I've come to appreciate as one of Hollywood's current character actor masters - does some wonderful, sinister work as the Chief of Detectives. But the real revelation to me was Kevin Spacey, who I don't always like, but who really captures Vincennes as a sleazy, soulless shell of a good man. When Vincennes admits that he no longer remembers why he became a cop, Spacey gives the line a toneless sense of self defeat that is sad and hopeless all at once.
I'm one of those who feels, strongly, that LA Confidential was robbed at the Oscars, going up against the juggernaut of Titanic (nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture, Basinger won and Hansen and Helgeland took home Best Adapted Screenplay). Watching it again this week, I was reminded of how well the film is paced, and how wonderfully the mystery unfolds. As dark as Ellroy is, and as cynical as his worldview is, it's amazing how LA Confidential, more than any other Ellroy adaptation (especially DePalma's darker, weirder Black Dahlia) finds a sense of justice and some light amidst the darness and depravity. That's the kind of quality Hollywood delivered at the height of the Golden Age, and LA Confidential is one of my favorites for tapping into that energy.