Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential, an adaptation of the third novel in James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet, was one of the high points of neo-noir. In a sense, it was less neo-noir, which by this stage had almost entirely collapsed into the erotic thriller, than revisionist noir, unfolding in the early 1950s, like much classic noir, but with the melancholy of hindsight. The story revolves around three cops in the LAPD – Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), Bud White (Russell Crowe) and Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), who find their paths overlapping when a group of civilians, and an ex-police officer, are murdered at the Nite Owl, a 24-hour coffee shop. As they try to piece together what happened, they must contend with three other characters – Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), their precinct captain; Sid Hudgeons (Danny DeVito), the editor of the gossip rag “Hush-Hush”; and Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), a call girl and aspiring actress.
Hanson was directing L.A. Confidental at the very peak of his career, so every mise-en-scene is perfectly composed, much as Brian Helgeland’s screenplay draws out Ellroy’s novel as a meditation on mise-en-scene itself, and its relation to the police force at the time. Before we get to that, however, Hanson and Helgeland take some time to demystify police brutality, defining the three cops (four, if you count Dudley) in terms of how they balance the rules of the force with their own sense of personal integrity. Ed is the most straight-laced and sees himself as a reformer, while Jack is overtly on the take, and Bud is somewhere in between, prepared to bend the rules whenever it serves his own brand of justice. As their superior, Smith advocates integrity, but only as one part of his team’s assets, since he admits that “adherence to violence” is a “necessary adjunct of the job,” one quality among many others.
While all of these characters negotiate the path between procedure and justice, Hanson is as cautious as Ellroy about ennobling their struggle. Rather than validating those who stick to the letter of the law (like Ed) or those who stick to the spirit (like Jack) or even those who strike out on their own (like Bud), Hanson instead focuses on the role of the police force in regulating cinematic experience. Early in the film, the LAPD are associated with a series of cinematic motifs, along with a restless scopophilic compulsion. When Smith tells Bud to take orders without question, and asks “do you follow my drift?” Bud responds, “In Technicolor, Sir.” Technicolor cinema, the cutting edge of big-screen spectacle at this time, becomes a cipher for everything that can’t be said aloud about the systemic corruption of the LAPD. Similarly, the first police meeting starts with everyone examining centrefolds, while most police exchanges involve some kind of noir citation. When Dick Stensland, a corrupt cop played by Graham Beckel, has to leave the force as a result of Ed’s testimony, his equally corrupt mates comfort him with the title of a film released only five years before: “Raw deal.”
To some extent, these endless citations, and cinematic recursions, are par for the course in 90s noir, which was obsessed with reworking and revising the 40s and 50s in its own image. However, Hanson, like Ellroy, takes it a step further, suggesting that both Hollywood and the LAPD were complicit in a new image regime – a nascent hyperreality – that eventually exceeds all of the characters. In order to make that shift compelling, however, Hanson and Ellroy have to start with the opposite premise, presenting each of these characters in a state of false confidence in their ability to regulate and distribute images in their capacity as LAPD officers.
As a result, all three of these characters are introduced in profound postures of watching. Due to his traumatic upbringing, Bud is always on the watch for domestic violence, whatever the crime scene in question happens to involve. Ed is just as scrupulous in scrutinising the police force for corruption, exuding such a penetrating stare that he’s asked to remove his glasses before the grand jury that kickstarts the narrative. Between these two characters, Hanson sets the scene for a film that depends upon vivid networks of gazes, elusive thresholds between different visual planes, and a LAPD heavily invested in regulating visual experience. However, Jack, Spacey’s character, embodies these tendencies most vividly. While Jack’s day job is being a cop, his vocation is being the technical advisor and inspiration for Badge of Honor, a long-running television series. We first meet him bragging to a woman about his on-screen alter-ego, introducing himself as a “celebrity crimestopper” who single-handedly mediates the relationship between the police, the public, and the Los Angeles they all inhabit.
Yet Jack simply takes Ed and Bud’s projects to their logical extreme, since all three men treat the LAPD as a way of framing and determining visual reality in precisely the same way as the Hollywood studio system. Being a cop means establishing the conventions for visual realism in the same way as a Hollywood studio, inducing Hanson to introduce each character, through a particular act of framing, and through a particular window. When we first meet Bud, in the opening scene, he’s standing outside a window decked with Christmas ornaments, watching a domestic violence dispute unfold with such compositional clarity that the entire display seems to be a projection of his feverish mind – even when he storms inside and drags the perpetrator onto the front lawn Similarly, in Ed’s first major scene, he watches the interrogation of Dick Stensland, the corrupt cop, through a one-way window. Dick knows what’s happening, drawing our attention to this threshold by periodically glancing towards it, while on the other side of the mirror, Hanson shifts between Ed and his reflection in the glass.
Both of these moments draw heavily on The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, Hanson’s most exquisitely directed film before this moment. That film was driven by a continuous recursion of glassy thresholds, windows that Hanson alternately approached from each side to make their permeability and porosity ramify in ever more evocative ways. We see a continuation of that process in Ed and Bud’s windows – or, more accurately, in the way that Ed and Bud relate to these windows as both vehicles for their own spectatorship and media that they have to orchestrate. Two years after the release of L.A. Confidential, Richard Grusin and Jay Bolter developed a theory of mediation that depended on two key concepts – immediacy and hypermediacy. New media were immediate, they argued, because they aimed to remove any sense of mediation, but they were also hypermediate because of their compulsion to draw attention to this very process. We see this same bind in the windows of L.A. Confidental – they are so immediate that they seem to be projections of Ed and Bud’s minds, and yet both men feel a compulsion to hypermediate these windows too; or at least take pleasure in knowing that they own agency is felt as a determining factor on the other side of the glass.
In the very process of regulating and determining the reality-field of Los Angeles, Ed and Bud start to glimpse a new, hyperreality-field, one that was peaking by the mid-90s. We see this hyperreality-field even more acutely in Jack’s window, which he orchestrates along with Sid, the editor of Hush-Hush. Upon learning that a certain Hollywood celebrity has been smoking pot, they stake out his house, waiting for the maximum spectacle. They hit the jackpot when he has a woman over, and leaves the curtains open – again, framing the scene so perfectly that it seems to have been set up exclusively for their benefit. Still, that immediacy isn’t enough for Jack, who takes care to stage the police bust-up with the Westwood Village Theatre in the background, and times the arrest so it coincides with a major movie premiere. As this scene suggests, Sid is less an independent gossip columnist than an extension of the LAPD’s image machine, dropping them tips about actors and actresses so that they can stay one step ahead of even Hollywood, and claim the image management of the city as their own.
As the first act unfolds, then, each of the three characters develops a different relationship to the LAPD-as-film. Ed is like the director in his meticulous organisation and his demands that even the most minor details of every operation are accounted for. Bud is more like a runner, responsible for all the grunt work behind the scenes, where he organises the logistics in a modest and direct way. Finally, Jack is the actor, since the only thing he really values about the LAPD is the way it brokers his access to Badge of Honor. Again, this makes Spacey the most resonant of the three actors, since he’s effectively playing his own star image, or playing the myth of Hollywood itself – and this reminds you he has always had Hollywood in his bones.
While these three men differ in temperament, and avoid each other’s company when possible, they reflect a well-oiled LAPD – after all, the director, runner and actor don’t necessarily have to get along to make a great film. However, they’re drawn together when they’re presented with an image, a body, and a scenario that defies their image-making power – and this ushers in the second act. Bud first encounters this new image regime, in the form of Susan Lefferts, played by Amber Smith, who he glimpses in an automobile outside the Nite Owl. Since Susan’s nose is bandaged, Bud assumes she has been beaten, and gets ready to defend her honour. However, she’s accompanied by Pierce Morehouse Patchett, a prominent businessman, played by David Straithairn, who assures Bud that he’s mistaken. As the car rolls off, Bud gazes through the windows – the first moving windows we see in the film, unsettling the windows of the first act, which all presume a stable and stationary vantage point. The next day, Ed and Jack learn that there has been a shoot-up at the Nite Owl later that same night. A cluster of employees and customers are dead, including corrupt cop Dick Stensland.
If that last paragraph reads as plot summary more than analysis, it’s because this sequence is remarkably difficult to “read” as it unfolds, for both the cops and the audience – except as a series of productive misreadings. These peak when Susan’s mother comes in to identify her daughter as one of the victims at the Nite Owl, in the same way that the audience have experienced the last scene – tentatively, uncertainly, in a strange state of ontological freefall. First, she realises that Susan has dyed her hair red, and then she deduces that she has had plastic surgery to change the shape of her nose. This folds back into Bud’s own misrecognition – what he read as domestic violence was actually the aftermath of plastic surgery. His ability to “read” the windows of the first act, and establish a realistic cinematic field, has now been thwarted by a more direct cinematic intervention, since we learn that Susan had the nose job to make her more employable as an actress, albeit what kind of actress we don’t yet know.
This sequence subliminally warps the reality-field of the film, evoking a hyperreality-field that has eluded the cinematic command of those opening windows. Sure enough, when Ed takes over the case, and starts to investigate, he’s presented with a building that fortifies itself against window-gazing as emphatically as the earlier bungalow structures invited it – the only modernist house in the film, home of Pierce Morehouse Patchett. This house unleashes more hyperreality, as Patchett reveals that he runs a high-end cabal of women who undergo radical plastic surgery to look like famous film stars – Jane Russell, Marilyn Monroe, Lana Turner. With no windows to anchor his gaze, and a collapse of reality back into cinema, Ed, and the other cops find themselves unable to collaborate on the LAPD-film they originally envisaged.
They don’t accept this immediately, however, doubling down over the second act in an attempt to recover the splendidly isolated framing devices of the first act. Hanson mirrors this process in this own direction, shifting from Patchett back to our first black-and-white footage, as if to contrast his simulacral stable of sex workers to a putative cinematic “real.” As Jack’s on-screen alter-ego moves across the screen, the LAPD appears to have restored its command over images, only for Lynn Bracken, Basinger’s character, to recline in front of the screen (which we now realise is a television set) in the most hyperreal spectacle so far – a concatenation of luridly blonde hair and stylised makeup that makes Jack’s series seem like a relic of the past, and is even more disorienting for this being the first time that we meet her.
When Bud arrives a moment later, he immediately falls in love with Lynn precisely as an emblem of this hyperreality. He’s even more aroused when she confesses that she’s the only member of Patchett’s brothel who didn’t require plastic surgery, since she already looked like Veronica Lake, apart from her hair, which she had to dye blonde. In that confession lies the precipice of this second act, since it initially fascinates Bud by suggesting that Lynn is somehow more “real” than the other sex workers, only for him to assert that it makes her “more real” than Veronica Lake as well. At the very moment Bud validates Lynn for being less of a slave to images than the other sex workers, he recognises that she embodies a new hyperreality-field where there is no “realistic” reference point outside of images any more, meaning that Lynn might as well be Lake if she looks enough like her (much as Ed casually mistakes the “real” Lana Turner for one of Patchett’s simulacra later on in his investigation).
Bud’s fixation on Lynn/Lake indicates that the libido of the film is already turning in the direction of this new hyperreality-field, even as the three cops resist this impulse as well by drawing on their different skill sets to contain the Nite Owl murders within their own image management. All of their endeavours depend on racism and homophobia, as if their inability to exclude this imminent hyperreality means that they have to exclude specific groups of people from their own waning-reality field. After a few scrappy clues pointing towards a gang of African Americans, Jack gets the ball rolling by drawing on all his actorly skills to convince a black man to provide them with a critical lead, promising to help out his brother in exchange for the information. Never breaking his role, even when they’ve acquired the lead, Jack drifts out of the scene in character, leaving it just possible that he might fulfil his promise. Bud steps up next, doing the grunt work of planting a gun in a black man’s hand in order to lay the foundation for an elaborate police tableau that starts to unfold out the window behind his back – the first static window, and complex window-bound scene, we’ve seen during this act.
Finally, Pearce steps up as director, separating the various black suspects into a series of interrogation rooms, and moving rapidly between these discrete room-scenes until he’s crafted them into a compelling and coherent narrative. His main plot device is to orchestrate the microphones in each room so that the men all cast aspersions on each other’s sexuality and hear each other doing it. Rather than have the story end with them cast as “sissies,” they all confess to crimes they clearly didn’t commit, although by this stage the success of Ed’s project is cemented by the sheer number of police officers who are watching on breathlessly, as Hanson continually cuts back to their reaction shots and Ed hits his final directorial stride.
As this scene makes clear, Ed’s integrity, at this stage, is really just directorial precision – an aesthetic integrity more than an ethical integrity. It becomes clear, in a new way, that if Ed is the director, Bud is the runner, and Jack is the actor, then Dudley, Cromwell’s character, is the producer, calling the shots behind the scenes. Earlier in the film, Dudley suggested that integrity was just one asset among many, but now that declaration feels more like a producer acknowledging that a director, however talented, is just one part of a team, every bit as important as the blunt import of Bud’s grunt work. In fact, Ed’s friction with Bud now feels like the kind of creative difference that can make a movie better – and make the LAPD’s image management more robust. While Ed might harangue Bud for putting the gun in the black man’s hand, he’s quite content to direct the scenes that follow – and actually follows in Bud’s footsteps soon after, even more directly, when he shoots an unarmed black man in the back.
The second act thus feels like a tentative conclusion. All three men have reclaimed the LAPD as image machine, with black folk as collateral damage. In the process, they have overcome their differences, and recognised that their shared contribution to the LAPD-film is more important than their individuality, especially in the face of the hyperreality-regime that lingers around the edges of the action. Hanson now collapses those black lives into the total darkness whence Jack emerges to greet his alter-ego on set for the first time, cementing the synergy between police and camera, before Ed’s directorial frenzy produces a flurry of civic energy – a montage sequence depicting the opening of the Santa Monica Freeway and the election of the next District Attorney. Civil society, it seems, depends upon the LAPD’s image control.
This is the point, in a regular noir, where the femme fatale would emerge to undercut our assumptions. However, Hanson, like Ellroy, more or less disposes of the trope, instead opting for a more elusive emergence. In the process, both artists suggest that the femme fatale was always a cipher for visual possibilities that were impossible for noir to process – namely, the nefarious conditions of its own production, but also its grasp on a new and disorienting Los Angeles that exceeded the sweep of mid-century cinema. While Lynn is bound up in all the machinations that follow, she’s never a femme fatale, and actually turns out to represent a world outside of Los Angeles, and a flight from the noir optic, during the film’s closing scenes.
In place of the femme fatale, this emergent shift in the film’s tone revolves around Jack’s relationship with Hush-Hush, the image branch of the LAPD. At the start of the third act, Sid tells Jack that he’s come up with the best story in a long time – a Hollywood “homo-cide” in which he plans to send an aspiring actor, Matt Reynolds, played by Simon Baker, for a liason with District Attorney Ellis Loew, played by Ron Rifkin, who’s infamous for his liaisons with men. Once Matt arrives, Sid suggests, they’ll burst in and take a photograph, making it easier for the police force to manipulate the District Attorney, while garnering themselves a juicy gay story about Matt, even if they end up keeping the D.A. anonymous. This ushers in the most mercurial moment in the film, as Jack registers a subliminal shift in the tone of his relationship with Hush-Hush – an ineffable sense that the LAPD-film he once served is now working against him in ways that he can barely register, let along articulate to himself. Hanson mirrors this with a long pan, following Jack’s gaze as it lights on his on-screen alter-ego, the District Attorney, and finally Sid again, as if he’s recalibrating the way they all hang together.
This shot, which represents Jack’s sharpest glimpse of the hyperreality-regime on the horizon, is also the most metacinematic in the film, collapsing Spacey into his character, and bleeding Jack back into Spacey as the most notoriously closeted actor at this point in the 90s. Jack’s acting becomes indistinguishable from Spacey’s acting, leaving both men in a strange suspension that propels Jack, as if half-consciously, to the assigned motel in an effort to save Matt, the young bi-curious actor, from the District Attorney’s grasp. Upon arriving, he finds Matt has already been killed – and this ushers in a gradual dissolution for all the characters, who start to lose their control over the image economy of Los Angeles despite their brutalisation of black men in the first act. In the process, Ed becomes less righteous, Bud less brutal, and Jack less indifferent, as they opt for a new flexibility to combat the new image field that sees Ed mistaking the “real” Lana Turner for her simulacrum in an eerily comic scene.
Over time, these fugitive moments coalesce into their recognition that Dudley, operating through Hush-Hush, is the real enemy, meaning that the film they have been creating, and the cinematic reality they have been establishing, is simply one ingredient in a more ambitious reality field helmed by the higher echelons of the LAPD. All of them, it turns out, are grunt workers, even or especially when they flatter themselves with a directorial or actorly affectation, as the corruption of the LAPD inexorably converges with this new hyperreality-field. The function of the LAPD, as the three cops now come to understand it, is to promote hyperreality until it cloaks their activites entirely, or reduces them to an endless recursion of images that can be just as endlessly managed and manipulated through Hush-Hush. Not only does Dudley use Hush-Hush to turn Ed and Bud against each other (and almost induce them to kill each other), but he kills Jack because he becomes too intimately associated with the gossip publication. Yet Jack still has the last word, and reclaims the chain of gossip, by delivering a clue in his dying breaths to Dudley, which gets back to Ed and alerts him in turn.
This entire process corresponds with a single Hush-Hush cycle, ending with the publication of the pot-bust photograph that Jack orchestrated at the start of the film – the same location where Dudley now stages Sid’s death, in order to exert total control over the magazine. With Jack and Sid dead, Hanson moves towards the film’s haunting conclusion, which unfolds in the Victory Motel, the motor engine of Dudley’s operations – the place where he organised the driving spectacles of the film before distributing them back across the Los Angeles cityscape. In contrast to the splendidly defined windows of the opening act, windows are now a liability, as Ed and Bud find themselves ambushed with police crowding in from all sides, covering every sightline, aiming rifles at every window. In order to elude the windows that once empowered then, Ed and Bud have to draw on the oblique angles of classic noir, which Hanson reimagines as so many (literal) lines of flight from the conditions that produces noir in the first place. As the shots rattle through the glass, and Bud and Ed adopt weird positions to stay alive, the striated lighting and distorted sightlines of noir come into full force as noir’s own efforts to escape its fatalistic drive towards the hyperreal future that Hanson occupies.
Only now, in this final scene, when Dudley comes in for one last confrontation, do we learn the full truth – that he was behind the Nite Owl shootings, whose main target was the “good old boy” he defended against Ed’s career-killing testimony. Dudley also cops to blackmailing city officials, ordering hits on people, and personally murdering others, since he believes he’s going to walk away here, as the film starts to turn into a prehistory of present-day Los Angeles. While Ed and Bud manage to kill him and escape, the sense of victory is pretty qualified, as every other cop now seems to register: “This’ll stain the Department for years.” “Decades.”
That scepticism turns into full-blow pessimism when Ed realises there’s no option but to co-opt the hyperreality-field on the horizon as an LAPD asset. In the eerie final scene, we cut to him alone in an interrogation booth, smiling at himself in the one-way mirror, as if confident of his ability to pre-empt the spectacular machinery of the Department, much as he agrees to publically eulogise Dudley as a hero if he can get a promotion: “they’re using me, so for a little while I’m using them.” Rather than Lynn fulfilling a femme fatale role at the death, she meets Ed outside police quarters, en route to Arizona, her home state, with Bud at the wheel – leaving Los Angeles far behind, while Ed has to negotiate the unwinnable game he has started to play. In these closing moments, there are only two options – to police hyperreality, and in doing so turn it into a police tool, or depart Los Angeles altogether, and the film ends in the melancholy space between them, suspended between the end of noir and the end of the 90s.