'L.A Confidential' was written by James Ellroy, and is the third book in his unofficial 'LA Quartet', as well as being central to his trio of books featuring Dudley Smith. It was published in 1990 and, like the majority of Ellroy's works, features the Los Angeles Police Department in the 1950s. It is a huge work1 and incredibly complex, both in it's plot and in it's characters. The size of the work led to its distinctive style (one which Ellroy has since honed) as it was 100 pages over length when he had completed it. Rather than fiddle with the actual content he began to deconstruct his sentences, removing all unnecessary words. In its terseness his style, therefore, complements the cold, harsh, film noir world he creates.
Although the book is central to Ellroy's development of Dudley Smith, this subversive, intriguing character is not the obvious focus of the novel. Ellroy tells his story through three very different cops: Bud White, Ed Exley and Jack Vincennes. All three men have potentially fatal flaws, and yet each has a desire he doesn't fully understand to solve his own individual case. The plot apparently originates in, and revolves around, a mass shooting in the Night Owl Café. As the story develops it becomes clear that this is not a simple crime, but that it has its origins in cases 'solved' before the war. It is intricately linked to the corruption found at the heart of the LAPD, and involves the shady sides of the three men trying to solve their cases. This leads to the heart of the novel.
Ellroy manages to make his three lead characters compelling to his readers, and encourages an attachment to them, despite their unattractive sides being the main focus. The author is fascinated by the seedy side of human nature and on the ideas of justice and betrayal. These main themes are explored individually in the three cops and in their relationship to Dudley Smith: Exley's rivalry, White's position as protégé and Vincennes' disinterest. The plot of the novel is too complex to summarise, but suffice it to say that the catalyst - the Night Owl massacre, barely touches the surface, and it becomes necessary to flick backwards and forwards whilst reading just to check that you're keeping up with all the developments and ideas.
By the end of the novel Ellroy has the crime wrapped up, in a messy conclusion that allows certain strands to remain to aid a continuation of the Dudley Smith story. At the same time Ellroy leads his main characters out of the darkness of their souls, bringing them to a state of redemption, although with hints that they are not unsusceptible to another fall.
While on first reading 'L.A Confidential' may appear a nightmare to film, the director Curtis Hanson achieved the impossible. He managed to condense the plot of the novel to fit a 2hr15 movie, without losing any of the atmosphere of the original novel. On its release in 1997 it became a critical success and, in many eyes, fell prey to the American Academy's worst leanings towards excess and away from 'complex' cinema as it lost out to 'Titanic' in the best picture category. It did, however, win the adapted screenplay Oscar and the award for best supporting actress for Kim Basinger in the films' only full female role. Both were fully deserved.
Hanson and his co-writer, Brian Helgeland, pared Ellroy's massive plot down to the bare minimum, focusing purely on the investigation surrounding the Night Owl Massacre, and the role of Dudley Smith. The trio of cops were portrayed by three of the most interesting and independent actors working in Hollywood: Guy Pearce (Ed Exley), Russell Crowe (Bud White) and Kevin Spacey (Jack Vincennes), while James Cromwell provided a menacing yet subtle Smith.
The condensed plot provides ample space to explore each individual character and the journey they make through the crime, without ever seeming sparse on its own. Exley appears as the hero of the piece but, in many ways, this is all in the characters' own mind, as Pearce appears as a man desperate to succeed whilst still looking good. He alienates all around him, including the audience, as he tries to race up the LAPD ladder, not caring who he steps on, as he doesn't intend to come back down. Realistically it is White who emerges as the hero, as he desperately tries to prove that he can cut it as more than a thuggish cop, and forces desperately for a conclusion. Meanwhile, Spacey steals the film in his scenes as the contradictory Vincennes, on a crusade against drugs and surprised by his own absorption in the case, yet desperate to maintain his high profile as 'Hollywood Jack'. The film allows a full view into Ellroy's grimly amoral world, but perhaps wraps up the plot a little too neatly to fit with the view of the world created in the novel. However it somehow fits the movie, perhaps because, as Ellroy himself stated:
'It's bulls**t. But you know what? It's inspired bulls**t.'