About halfway through my umpteenth viewing of Curtis Hanson's 1997 film L.A. Confidential, I turned to my girlfriend (her first viewing) and answered the question she'd asked of me about 10 minutes earlier:
Amanda: What do you love about this movie so much?
Me: (10 minutes later) I think what's so great about this movie is that no matter how many times I watch it I can never remember what's going to happen next.
The plot (or lack of plot) in L.A. Confidential is indeed what makes it great. It begins as a series of episodes involving three LA cops (circa 1953). They are the hardened tough guy Officer Bud White (Russell Crowe), the Hollywood smooth operator Sgt. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), and the self-reightous political player Lt. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce). And their stories don't really seem related at first. In fact, nothing seems to relate to anything in the first hour + of this movie. One thing leads to another then another then another and all seem to circle back to a millionaire investor and dealer in "smut" and hookers "cut to look like movie stars," Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn) and his involvement with a couple of ex-police officers and missing mafia drugs. There is, in the beginning, the incarceration of a mob boss and his missing heroin, the introduction of Patchett and his prized girl Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), who is a Veronica Lake look-alike, and a brutal bloodbath at the Nite Owl (a local diner) in which an ex-police officer and one of Patchett's girls are victims.
The viewer is constantly guessing who-dun-it, but what has been done and why do we care? The answer to the first part of that question doesn't really matter. It's not who-dun-it we care about. It's the characters. We care because we are so seamlessly brought into this world that we glide along with these detectives through the glitz of '50s Los Angeles, eventually understanding that this is not a standard police procedural where the big bad man is finally unveiled.
Even though that is exactly what happens in the end, L.A. Confidential is quite the opposite of any standard formula, even for film noir. It gets into not only the time period (its look, its feel, its colors, its characters), but it gets into the minds of its three protagonists. Consider a shot near the beginning with the suspension of the Crowe character, Officer White. The Police Chief, when White refuses to testify against his parter, gives him the standard, "Your badge and gun, officer!" The look on the young officer's face (masterful acting by a young Crowe) is one of surprise, shock, anger, and confusion in one glance. Then consider two scenes later when his Captain, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), gives it back. Curtis Hanson is obviously great with actors. He seems, especially in this film, to find just the right reaction shots. His camera is filled with the great look of this period but also the internal motivations of three LA police officers. All of them at different ranks, following different leads from different crimes, and somehow bringing them all together as three men, who really just want to be, simply, good police officers.
At one point, Exley (Pearce) tells Vincennes (Spacey) of why he became a cop, a story about the death of his father and revenge with proper justice. He then asks Vincennes, "Why did you become a cop?" To which Vincennes replies, "I don't know anymore." We sense here that these men have consciences and, ultimately, want to be honest policemen in a world of pure corruption. Furthermore, this is, in many ways, a film about an era in Los Angeles that represents the beginning of police and the media, when the gap between the everyman and the public eye was just starting to slightly close. Vincennes, whose favorite part of the job is being a consultant on TVs "Badge of Honor," represents this and Exley and White are brought into it as part of the game being played by Patchett, Lynn (the movie star hooker), the corrupt police force, and the gossip columnist Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito).
All of the many tunnels of this labyrinth are eventually brought together with the big third act plot twist and a violent shootout, but this movie does not sell out like I make it sound. In fact, by the end, we have almost forgotten where we began only to finally remember that we started with three flawed protagonists, who have now become what they wanted by doing what they thought they never would. They have each taken on the worst (and best) in each other leaving the viewer to ponder about not only the masterful "plot" but the arc of their psyches, the warm L.A. nights, and the beautiful call girl who didn't need to be "cut" to look like Veronica Lake.