Burrows of Deceit

By Steyn, Mark | The Spectator, November 1, 1997 | Go to article overview

Burrows of Deceit


Steyn, Mark, The Spectator


LA Confidential

(18, selected cinemas)

You expect movies to have problems with Jane Austen or Henry James, but what's depressing is the way they seem to have difficulty even managing their own relatively simple genres: every week it seems brings a thriller where not a single thing makes sense. Mel Gibson's Conspiracy Theory is like that: it starts off perfectly fine with a paranoid cabbie, suddenly lurches into Manchurian Candidate territory and winds up with one of those villains who has plenty of opportunity to kill Mel but never does because he wants to toy with him. Like so many films, it's a K-Tel compilation album of bits which work fine in other movies.

It comes as a surprise then that Brian Helgeland, who wrote Conspiracy Theory, and Curtis Hanson, whose directing career to date has consisted of cranking out amiable formula stuff like The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, should have done such a fine job with James Ellroy's dense hallucinatory crime novel of the early Fifties, LA Confidential. You miss Ellroy's chopped-up pseudo-bop voice for about 40 seconds, but, by the time Johnny Mercer's singing 'Ac-cent-tchu-ate The Positive' over the opening titles, you're relishing instead all the qualities a movie can add: the grubby glamour of Dante Spinotti's cinematography, the voluptuous menace in Jerry Goldsmith's score - even the household rodents arrive with a string section.

It's Christmas Eve in Los Angeles: Dino's on the hi`fi, a husband batters his wife under the Yuletide lights, and down at the precinct the LAPD does much the same to a bunch of hapless Mexicans. Some of the names that crop up are real Mickey Cohen, the crime boss whose incarceration prompts a run of gangland slayings by would-be successors; Johnny Stompanato, the thug with the classy dame who wound up in the city's starriest (pre-OJ) murder trial. Ellroy knows this world well: his mother's murder has remained unsolved for 40 years. But most of the characters are his own, especially the three cops: Bud White, a thick-set, seething street tough; Edward Exley, a bespectacled pencil-necked rookie loathed by his comrades; and Jack Vincennes, a morally relaxed dandy who acts as paid advise to a Dragnet knock-off on television by day and plays LA's celebrity crime-stopper by night. The film introduces almost all its characters as types - a suggestion here, a gesture there, and we assume, having seen so many cop thrillers, that we know them already. At which point, ever so unobtrusively, they begin to trade places.

Just as the film blends real events with fiction, so its cast mixes familiar Hollywood faces with complete unknowns. …

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