Exley: “How’s that going to look in your report?”
White: “It’ll look like justice. That’s what the man got.”
If ever a city had a thesis, Los Angeles’ is that beauty is only skin-deep, but ugly goes all the way to the bone.
In L.A. Confidential (1997), winner of Best Picture, the “Wait, he was in this?!” award, and probably the best script structured around a trio of heroes since The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, that constant conflict between the shiny veneer and the seedy underbelly is evident right from the first scene. That elegant script by Brian Helgeland and director Curtis Hanson also hammers home another point, paralleled across the tales of our three snappily dressed cops: Hollywood is so rotten that the image of virtue and heroism is more prized than actually doing good.
And if you want to do what’s right, well. Good luck.
Even the classic heroes boasted about their great deeds of arms—Achilles’ self-promotion machine was impressive—so it’s not unprecedented that two of our three main characters can’t get enough of the camera.
It’s Los Angeles in the early ’50s, and vice lord Mickey Cohen has been thrown in jail, leaving a dangerous power vacuum in the L.A. underworld. Straight-laced young cop Ed Exley (Guy Pearce in his breakout role) has the reputation of his slain father to uphold, and when we meet him, he’s accomplishing it by getting his picture snapped and undergoing a fawning interview with the press. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey before he exclusively played hammy villains) is introduced schmoozing with starlets as the police consultant on cop show Badge of Honor, taking a sleazy payoff from gleefully corrupt tabloid writer Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito) to set up a pair of actors for a public drug bust and the screaming headline it will generate. (Besides the woeful period-appropriate racism and violence against women, the most jarring thing is the thought that any publication would be able to regularly shell out fifty 1950s dollars on payoffs.)
While Vincennes and Exley are getting their empty press pops, Bud White (Russell Crowe) and his slovenly partner are doing pretty much the exact opposite. White makes a habit of checking up on abusive husbands. He just happens to be snooping on one who is in the midst of shouting and slapping around his wife. White promptly smacks the shit out of the guy, threatens him with prison rape, and stalks off. Laying aside how wrongheaded an approach to alleviating domestic violence this is, the film is positing that White might not have an easy manner with other humans, but he’s actually out there doing the dirty work of protecting the people.
These inter-cut introduction sequences work so well because they do so much work to tell us what drives our trio: Exley is gunning for advancement and recognition, Vincennes craves the spotlight, and White has some righteous rage he wants to get out. When these various desires come together to put all three men in the police station on Christmas Eve when a bunch of drunk police brutalize captive inmates for something they didn’t even do, we even see how their different temperaments get them involved in the fight: Exley’s preening is the reason the reporters are there to make the thing public in the first place, White flies off the handle at an insult (about his mother, of course). and Vincennes holds back until somebody gets blood all over that slick white suit jacket of his.
Smith: “Are you prepared to be despised within the department?”
Exley: “Yes, sir, I am.”
The department censures everybody but Exley, who knows how to turn stool pigeon on the right cops, and we get to see how they each process the aftermath. Exley jumps at the chance to grab any major case as everybody at the department sneers at him. White takes on a special assignment beating the sin out of mobsters trying to muscle into the power vacuum under the supervision of his crooked boss, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell, playing the last word in brogue-ing police chiefs). Vincennes chomps at the bit, kicked off his TV show and relegated to working petty vice cases that give him zero chance of juicy headlines.
It’s at this low point that the plot shifts to the Nite Owl murders. Exley and Vincennes-our spotlight seekers-both jump at the chance to get a high-profile collar, and when Exley overhears Vincennes saying he might have a good contact, he muscles himself into a partnership and the two detectives follow a trail of false leads to three young black suspects. As Exley uses underhanded interrogation tactics to get them to implicate themselves, one lets slip that they’ve harmed a girl and White flies off the handle.
Smith unleashes White on the house where the kidnapped woman is being held, and White again does violence in secret to sate his own wrath by killing her unarmed captor in cold blood.
The three suspects escape, and Exley rushes off to apprehend them (so quickly that he is both literally and figuratively blind, since he neglects to bring along his spectacles). He kills all of them in a disastrous shootout that catapults him to fame, glory and even, finally, acceptance within the department.
Things are suddenly looking up for all three of our heroes. Exley basks in his newfound recognition and the flashy medal that goes with it. Vincennes gets to consult on Badge of Honor again. In poking around for details on his disgraced former partner’s death at the Nite Owl Café, White has stumbled across high-class prostitute Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger) and found some solace in her embrace even as he suspects he’s being distracted from the case.
Exley: “Rolo Tomassi is the reason I became a cop. … Why did you become a cop?”
Vincennes: “I don’t remember.”
It’s now, with the heroes resting on their laurels, that they become dissatisfied with the tidy story of triumph. Exley learns from the victimized woman that she doesn’t actually know if the suspects left the house in time to commit the Nite Owl murders—she was just taking what justice she could. Vincennes’ willingness to help Hudgens set up the same gullible wannabe actor gets the young man killed and fills Vincennes with the desire to help Exley find the truth. Even White becomes disillusioned with his role as a thuggish enforcer and seeks the truth behind his partner’s slaying at the Nite Owl.
Vincennes, exhausted, filled with doubt, but determined to finally do the right thing, visits Smith.
“I’m trying to make it right,” Vincennes says of the case, and it’s at this point, when he’s finally committed himself fully to doing actual good instead of playacting like he is, that Smith shoots him dead. It turns out he’s been setting himself up to fill the void in the narcotics empire left by Mickey Cohen.
The camera lingers on Spacey’s face as Vincennes realizes he’s been killed, and his last act is to smile as he sets a trap for Smith by uttering the made-up name Exley gave the anonymous purse-snatcher who shot his father: Rolo Tomassi—“the guy who gets away with it.” Vincennes plants the clue that breaks the case wide open for Exley and in doing so becomes a much realer hero than the one who advises actors on how to talk like a cop or slaps the cuffs on struggling actors who are doing some weed.
But finding the truth killed him.
White: “The Nite Owl made you. You want to tear all that down?”
Exley: “With a wrecking ball. You want to help me swing it?”
Once Exley and White are able to lay aside their differences in the service of bringing the pain to Smith and his small army of crooked triggermen, the two are lured to a motel in the middle of an oil field and the plot is resolved in a cathartic hail of lead. With White shot to ribbons (even now, I can’t help but wonder if his survival wasn’t a last-minute reshoot), Exley manages to get Smith dead to rights. It appears as if the ambitious young Exley might be about to let Smith talk his way out of an arrest. Instead, Exley pumps Smith full of buckshot—a far cry from the start of the film when he told Smith point blank that he wouldn’t be willing to shoot a bad guy in the back.
Exley sits in the interrogation room behind one-way glass, delivering his dead-pan recitation of the convoluted scheme at the center of the film as the brass laments the inevitable destruction of the department’s reputation. It’s worth noting that Exley is sitting in the very same hot seat where he tried to extract false confessions from the Nite Owl suspects, giving out the real truth behind events.
There’s no need to worry about him, though. Exley gets his glory in exchange for promising to bury the truth behind what happened and protect the corrupt bureaucrats who need to make sure Hollywood can keep selling the image of the “city of the future.” He gets a second ill-gotten medal and is lauded in the papers. Outside with Lynn, we find that White has somehow managed to survive his case of lead poisoning, but it looks like just barely—bandaged, bloodied, and in evident pain, he can barely manage a bro-y handshake with Exley.
“Some men get the world,” Lynn says. “Others get ex-hookers and a trip to Arizona.”
That’s the closest to a happy ending you get in the City of Angels. Exley gets to live a glorious lie. White gets to hobble off into the sunset, cared for but unrecognized. Vincennes may be a hero, but the in memoriam on his beloved cop show will never truly tell people why.
I still think White comes away with the best deal, and not just because he gets a road trip with Kim Basinger. He got off relatively light. In this movie, the spotlight kills the soul, but the truth will put you in the ground.
Kenneth Lowe is a media relations coordinator for state government in Illinois. His work has appeared in Colombia Reports, Illinois Issues magazine, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.