Director Curtis Hanson and his co-writer, Brian Helgeland, have taken a massively complex novel by James Ellroy and boiled it down to a no-flab screenplay that still eludes easy synopsis. A mass murder in a downtown cafe sets off an investigation that will spiral off in many directions, ultimately encompassing a prostitution ring that features girls surgically altered to resemble movie stars, drug-running mobsters, celebrity gutter journalism, police corruption, political blackmail, the racial biases of the LAPD and even a good, sexy love story.
FROM BOOK TO SCREEN
It assumed form. Curtis Hansen’s final form, as a world that, yes, I created, but as a world that I could not have imagined.
During the period portrayed in Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland’s adaptation of L.A. Confidential, the Los Angeles Police Department was a notoriously corrupt institution. At the time, I’m sure that was hard to imagine, but real life’s not black and white. Good guys aren’t necessarily good. James Ellroy’s novel, the third of his L.A. Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, White Jazz), fictionalizes ill-favored facets of LAPD history in an expansive, seventy-eight chapter masterstroke that covers a wide array of characters and events from the years 1950 to 1958. Screenwriters Hanson and Helgeland took a great deal of liberty with Ellroy’s structure. The consolidation and reorganization of the novel is a study in multiple characters developing around clear, unifying goals.
The novel opens on a shootout in an abandoned auto court. Dudley Smith emerges victorious and retrieves Mickey Cohen’s stolen heroin from Buzz Meeks’ cold, dead hands. An exercise in the unbound limits of adaptation, this event was placed in the film’s climax, albeit with different characters and different motivations (more on that later). The film opted instead to set the tone with Sid Hudgens’ mordant, hepcat narration: In the Los Angeles of the fifties, there are blurry lines between truth and illusion.
In the early morning of December 25, 1951, a Christmas celebration was well underway at Los Angeles’ Central station when a rumor ignited the room and set off the alcohol fueled tempers of the hard-partying officers like a powder keg. Many believed that a fellow officer had lost an eye during a brawl with six prisoners held in detention. The truth was that the officer had only suffered a black eye. Nevertheless, these upholders of justice weren’t going to let something as trivial as due process get in the way of vengeance. The prisoners (four Hispanic and two white) were savagely beaten by over fifty officers for ninety-five minutes. They were then transferred with their broken bones and ruptured organs to Lincoln Heights Jail and beaten again. Initially covered up by the department, Mexican-American advocacy groups refused to keep quiet and let it be another incident swept under the rug. The ensuing media blitz led to the first grand jury indictments and criminal convictions for excessive force in L.A.P.D. history.
James Ellroy fictionalizes Bloody Christmas for L.A. Confidential and the screenwriters use it as the event to set the story in motion. In both the novel and film, the Bloody Christmas scandal plays out with Exley trading his testimony for a promotion. He earns his snitch stigma and makes an enemy of Bud White, but in the novel, White’s partner Dick Stensland is sent to prison, and two years later, gets the gas chamber at San Quentin for a string of liquor store robberies that ended with two people dead. The script uses the initial conflict between Exley and White, but ties it to the Night Owl slayings; the event that redeems Exley in the eyes of the department and motivates White to seek justice for his dead partner.
I know you mean well, Dudley, but I don’t need to do it the way you did. Or my father.
Rollo Tomasi is the reason Ed Exley became a cop. Rollo’s the name he gave the person who got away with his father’s murder. He’s also a creation of the film’s screenwriters. As a dramatic device, it serves three purposes within the scope of the narrative:
- Helps the audience sympathize with Exley and understand his behavior.
- Reveals Dudley as the film’s antagonist.
- Delivers Vincennes’ message from the grave.
In the book, Exley’s father Preston Exley isn’t killed by a petty thief. He kills himself at Disneyland. It’s Exley’s older brother Thomas that takes the bullet from an unknown purse snatcher and rots in his grave without justice served. The adaptation makes a clear distinction: the brother’s career was cut short while the father had established a legacy. Aligning his father’s legacy with values of the antagonist makes Exley’s arc more profound. Though Thomas Exley denied justice to many, he still deserved it. In the end, Exley came to the conclusion that Dudley Smith didn’t.
The Film’s Climax
Would the adaptation be as satisfying without Exley shooting Dudley in the back? Here’s where the film detours from a noir convention. A Chinatown or Double Indemnity ending wouldn’t have served it well. In Ellroy’s novel, there isn’t enough evidence to convict Dudley in the Nite Owl case. It isn’t until the next novel, White Jazz, that Dudley receives his punishment when he’s viciously attacked by Wylie Bullock, a man that robbed one of his protected drug families. He suffers brain damage so bad that it requires him to be hospitalized for the rest of his life. Similar to L.A. Confidential’s epilogue, Exley uses the event for political means and turns Dudley into a hero. He even goes to the extent to secure special funds for Dudley’s pension so the man can live out the rest of his days in a proper sanitarium.
Truth vs Illusion
SID HUDGENS’ VOICE
Come to Los Angeles. The sun shines bright, the beaches are wide and inviting, and the orange groves stretch as far as the eye can see. There are jobs aplenty and land is cheap. Every working man can have his own house. And inside every house, a happy, all-American family. You can have all this, and, who knows, you could even be discovered, become a movie star, or, at least, see one. Life is good in Los Angeles. It’s paradise on earth. That’s what they tell you, anyway, because they’re selling an image. They’re selling it through movies, radio, and television. In the hit show, Badge of Honor, the L.A. cops walk on water as they keep the city clean of crooks. Yep, you’d think this place was the Garden of Eden, but there’s trouble in paradise...
The Los Angeles depicted in L.A. Confidential is a treacherous, duplicitous city. But that’s something that every character seems to be keenly aware of. In fact, they use it to their advantage. Ed Exley may walk and talk like a straight-laced cop, but he’s willing to exploit a rape victim to further his career. Bud White kills a kidnapper in cold blood and makes it look like justifiable homicide. Jack Vincennes busts Matt Reynolds for felony possession of marijuana and pockets the dope for himself. And those are the good guys. Pierce Patchett seems like a respectable businessman, but he’s nothing more than a drug dealer and pimp. There’s no telling how many lives he’s ruined for a dollar. The D.A., the man appointed to prosecute all criminal offenses in the city, valued his career over justice with Matt Reynolds’ murder (playing the politician, Exley’s also guilty of the same offense in the epilogue). Of course, then there’s the fact that the police captain runs Mickey Cohen’s old drug ring. Every character’s actions are often 180 degrees from the way they present themselves.
Law and Order vs Vigilantism
I didn’t mean to hurt her. Maybe she’s okay.
Okay? These people are all in the morgue. They were dead when you left them.
I just wanted to lose my cherry. She don’t die so I don’t die. She don’t die so I don’t die.
Exley can’t hide his surprise at this.
Who are you talking about? Was she at the Nite Owl? Who is she?
But Fontaine is gone. Head lolling, eyes squeezing out tears. The interrogation has taken a U-turn.
Louis Fontaine is baby-faced, most likely the youngest of the Nite Owl suspects. It’s quite plausible he was coerced into raping Inez Soto, naively believing it the only way to defend his manhood. He’s the only one who expresses remorse. He’s also the first to die. There’s no gun in his hand when he takes a shotgun blast to the chest. He simply knocked over a bottle in a room with raw nerves and itchy trigger fingers. He’s the only character whose death gives me pause as justifiable. I have my doubts as to whether a jury would have chose to end his life for the crime. The script brilliantly characterizes him as broken and guilt-ridden, qualities befitting of a young man capable of rehabilitation.
Where would you draw the line if you were put in Exley’s shoes? Courts let guilty people off on technicalities. Juries and officials are susceptible to bribes. I’m sure each of the main characters realized those facts at one time or another. Bud uses his job working for Dudley to punish women-beaters. While Dudley’s motivations are financial or political, Bud’s originate from his moral code. He watched his mother killed at the hands of his father. Exley’s inexperience turns his moral code upside down. Caught in the stress of the moment, he blasts an unarmed suspect with his shotgun as the man flees into an elevator. When Inez Soto reveals she lied about the times the suspects left her, he realizes he may have killed the wrong man. He may have not killed a murderer, but he killed a rapist. But he also killed someone’s son, brother, grandson, nephew, and good friend. Did the crime fit the punishment? Did Exley become someone’s Rollo Tomasi?
L.A. Confidential introduces Bud White, Jack Vincennes, and Ed Exley with their own scenes in the first ten minutes of the film. Bud White thrashes a wife beater, threatening him with phony charges if he ever touches her again. Jack Vincennes, a narcotics detective with a cush assignment as technical adviser on the television show Badge of Honor, takes a kickback to arrest a celebrity for a tabloid. Ed Exley makes it clear to his captain that he doesn’t believe in bending justice to ensure the guilty are punished. The emotions they exhibit in these scenes are challenged as the narrative unfolds. This is each character before they’re twisted, turned, and burned.
But you remember the times, right? In your statement, you said the suspects left you at midnight.
It might have been.
I don’t know when they left me. I wanted them dead. Would anyone have cared that they raped a Mexican girl from Boyle Heights if they hadn’t killed those white people at the Nite Owl? I did what I had to for justice.
As Exley’s head swims... Up ahead, the press have spotted them.
Exley’s all about his career. If you operate outside the rules, your situation deserves no consideration. His ambition is paramount up until the point he questions his principles. Inez Soto’s admission makes his head swim. Did he kill men innocent of murder? Were their deaths justified for the pain and torment they inflicted upon her? The audience can’t help but empathize. How would you feel if you had endured those horrors? What if she were family or a friend? I bet a lot of people would think they got what they deserved. When Dudley’s exposed as the antagonist, it certainly makes you think he wasn’t all bad. He did wipe filth from the streets. It’s plausible he eliminated more than he created. Philosophical debates aside, it gives the protagonist pause…and sets him on a new path.
Lynn’s tracing finger stops at a white star.
Where’s this come from?
When I was twelve my old man went after my mother with a bottle. I got in the way.
So you saved her?
Not for long.
A bitter memory.
I’m sorry, Bud. It’s --
He tied me to the radiator. I watched him beat my mother to death with a tire iron. He left me there with her. Three days till a truant officer found me. They never found the old man.
They look at each other a moment. Lynn reaches out, touches his face. Bud starts to pull back, but then lets her do it.
Is that why you became a cop, Bud? To get even?
I don’t know. Maybe.
Bud is muscle for Dudley, but I doubt it’s a job he particularly enjoys. It’s more a means to an end; a license to bash the skulls of men who abuse women. If you’re deranged enough to beat your wife or girlfriend, he’ll have you violated on a kiddie raper beef after he’s done kicking your ass. His method of interrogation will have you playing Russian roulette with yourself until you decide it’s in your best interest to give up the girl. He would probably remain a mystery if it weren’t for Lynn. Her character shares intimate moments with a private and violent man, maybe more than he’s ever shared before. She uncovers Bud’s guilt for not being able to save his mother. It’s a key moment in the film. When he partners with Exley (another character both driven and haunted by his past) to tear down Dudley’s corruption, he’s also tearing down his purpose in life. Men like Exley running the department wouldn’t tolerate Bud’s extra curricular activities. The way their stories merge is integral to Bud’s arc.
Do you make the three negroes for the Nite Owl killings?
It’s a simple question.
You should be the last person who wants to dig any deeper into the Nite Owl, Lieutenant.
Exley watches as Jack starts away.
Jack stops, looks back at him.
Is there more to that, or do I have to guess?
Rollo was a purse snatcher. My father ran into him off duty. He shot my father six times and got away clean. No one even knew who he was. I made the name up to give him some personality.
So what’s the point?
Rollo’s the reason I became a cop. I wanted to catch the guys who thought they could get away with it. It was supposed to be about truth and justice and Rollo. But somewhere along the way I lost sight of that... How about you, Jack? Why’d you become a cop?
Jack looks like he might cry, but smiles instead.
I don’t remember.
When Exley asks Vincennes why he wanted to become a cop, all he can do is hold back the tears and smile. He says he can’t remember, but it’s not hard to imagine why. Both Exley and White, though flawed in their own right, chose law enforcement for noble reasons. Maybe Vincennes grew up poor. Maybe women ignored him. Maybe — and this is my sentimentality getting the better of me — Big V’s mommy didn’t love him enough. Whatever the reason, he found comfort in the fringe benefits. The real reason, if it were genuine at all, was from a man he couldn’t recognize in a line-up; a man with traits he’d consider naive. Hearing Exley’s story reminds him of that. Perhaps he’s too ashamed to answer.
Exley, White, and Vincennes’ stories push forward from the Bloody Christmas incident. Exley uses it to further his career. Job be dammed, White exhibits loyalty over livelihood. Vincennes plays the best angle for himself. It’s the event that upsets the balance, informs the audience of each man’s character. The second act unfolds with Exley and White, men who stand on opposing sides of justice, investigating the Nite Owl, both for different reasons, and Vincennes digging into Fleur-de-Lis, hoping it will be the major case he needs to get his old life back. As the plot thickens, all three men will come to crossroads where they find themselves questioning their values and aligning with those who were once enemies.
Exley’s story is the glue that holds the film together. His story, from an external point of view, deals with two plot elements:
- To further his career
- To bring justice to the Nite Owl victims
Throughout the first seventy-five minutes of the film, Exley’s all about his career. His promotion to detective lieutenant was traded for testimony that made him an enemy of every cop in the department, but he eventually found respect for his interrogation and extermination of the Nite Owl suspects. It certainly puts a little bite into Dudley dubbing him “Shotgun Ed.” I’m sure he never thought twice about killing the final suspect, that is, until Inez Soto’s confession. It’s a brilliant scene with all of the press lined up, presumably, just as Exley had planned. He’s not the same man after that. Though he was determined to uphold justice, he didn’t. He was played. Someone was a few steps ahead of him. The second half in Act II showcases the character’s determination in solving the case. It’s not until the death of Jack Vincennes that Exley’s enemy reveals himself.
The Final Turn
Edmund, a word with you. We’re trying to get a lead on an associate of Vincennes. A records check reached a dead end.
What’s the name?
Exley tries to look like he’s thinking as Jack calls from the grave. Screaming the name DUDLEY!
Have you ever heard Vincennes mention him?
No. No I haven’t.
It may be nothing, but keep your ears open.
As Dudley moves off, Exley watches him go. Scared.
And that’s the corner Exley finds himself in as the final act starts. He’s scared out of his mind. The only man on the department he could trust has been killed at the hands of the police captain. Dudley owns the force and without a doubt would have buried Exley had he not made a fatal mistake in betraying Bud White. When Exley and White team up, Exley not only uses Dudley’s best muscle against him, but also pushes himself toward realizing his true internal goal of taking justice into his own hands. The next sequence unfolds with Exley using White to muscle the D.A. for info on Reynolds, Patchett, and Dudley, in effect, tap dancing on the blurry line between justice and abuse of power. The final sequence, the Victory Motel shootout, leaves Exley with no choice. White is out of the picture and he knows Dudley is too powerful. In that moment, Exley’s external and internal arc is complete: He solves the Nite Owl case and administers justice for its victims.
Bud’s story, from an external point of view, deals with two plot elements:
- To solve Stensland’s murder
- To take down Dudley
Let’s face it: Bud White is an easy character to like. Vincennes uses his authority to ruin folks for financial gain. Exley’s wound too damn tight. Bud’s insteresting. He’s a private man. There’s a lot we don’t know about him. Stensland may have been his only real friend on the force and his murder hits him hard. Though he seems like a mindless brute on the outside, his loyalty to his partner, both before and after the Nite Owl, only strengthen our appreciation. Even when he executes a criminal and frames him, we don’t feel like he’s done anything appalling. We’ve seen the state the man left Inez in as he shoved cereal down his throat and watched cartoons. Bud only arcs because of Lynn. He shares moments with her he’s probably never shared. That’s probably why her betrayal affects him so. With all the women he protected, he never asked for anything in return. They never had the chance to be human, to have logical reasons for their actions. Roughing-up Lynn makes his disdain for Dudley much more profound. Like Exley, he was played. Though siding against Dudley would certainly destroy his life no matter the outcome, Lynn’s love and faith in his character represents a glimmer of hope. He became the thing he despised the most. A beautiful marriage of external and internal goals, she’s his shot at redemption and he’ll die to make things right.
Vincennes’ story, from an external point of view, deals with two plot elements:
- Get back to the narcotics squad and Badge of Honor
- Solving Matt Reynolds’ murder
Vincennes is smart enough to play the Bloody Christmas scandal for minimal collateral damage to his career and reputation. When he’s assigned to vice, he needs to crack a major case to get his old life back. It’s the only logical reason to partner with Exley. He knows the man is driven to succeed and succeed he does. Then, just when the Big V gets his life back in order, he comes to a moral fork in the road courtesy of Sid Hudgens. I guess there comes a time when the Hush-Hush money isn’t worth the guilt. He’s not gonna let Hudgens profit from and ruin yet another naive kid’s life, dammit: He’s gonna feel good about himself for a change. But, as fate would have it, that’s not the case. When he finds Matt Reynolds in Room 203 of the Hollywood Center Motel with his throat slit, Vincennes feels enough responsibility to change. The trajectory his story takes makes his the most compelling in the story. He’s not promoted and given another Medal of Honor, nor is he rewarded with a gorgeous hooker with a heart of gold. No, Vincennes pays for his guilt with his life. And that’s too bad, ’cause there’s no doubt he had another ten to fifteen years with a fat wallet, the best drugs money can seize, and just as many up-and-coming starlets to bang as Brett Chase. That poor, dumb sonuvabitch.
David Ansen’s quote resonated with me. L.A. Confidential is a movie about a mass murder, but it’s not easy to describe in a short synopsis. Is the story about corruption, drug running mobsters, gutter journalism, blackmail, and race? Sure it is. Ed Exley, Bud White and Jack Vincennes hold our interest because they’re tied to clear story goals. But emotional goals are at stake with every major beat, too. As the plot thickens, so do their internal struggles. And that combination is what makes a man with little time on his hands write about a film over fifteen years after its release.