Every generation has a crime writer that supersedes those that have come before. In a post-Raymond Chandler world James Ellroy is that crime writer. Self-styled as the “demon dog” of crime fiction his work shatters taboos and wraps readers up in intricate plots. He tackles both the crime and the masculinity of his chosen era – mid-20th Century America – with prose as fine and sharp as piano wire. His complex plots and era accurate dialogue are perhaps why his novels have proven so hard to adapt to the screen.
L.A. Confidential is the third novel in Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet and undoubtedly the most complex. Where The Black Dahlia took a deeply personal approach to the most famous murder of the 1940s and The Big Nowhere cast its gaze over power hungry cops and Communists in 1950 L.A. Confidential stretched between 1951 and 1958 taking in everything from police brutality, racial politics and the rotten heart of the American justice system.
Lieutenant Edmund Exley is a political animal and a ladder climber with his sights set at the top of the LAPD. Officer Bud White is a dumb brute with a hatred of wife beaters and a propensity for violence. Sergeant Jack Vincennes is more celebrity than cop serving as an advisor to the TV show Badge of Honour while he rousts celebrities on drug busts to keep his superiors and tabloid editor Sid Hudgens happy. After a Christmas prison brawl and a late-night killing spree dovetail into one another all three men find themselves unravelling a plot to take over the L.A. underworld.
The novel L.A. Confidential is far more complex than its 1997 adaptation. For one thing the film – starring Guy Pearce as Exley, Russell Crowe as White and Kevin Spacey as Vincennes – seems to take place over several months rather than the near decade taken up by the book. For another the back stories of the three main characters, except Bud White, are severely reduced.
L.A. Confidential was a runaway success at the box office. Had it not been in competition with Titanic it probably would have won more than the two Oscars – Best Adapted Screenplay for Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson and Best Supporting Actress for Kim Basinger – out of the nine it was nominated for. It also birthed the infamous alias Rollo Tamassi.
In the book Rollo doesn’t exist and Exley’s father, famous detective and construction magnate Preston Exley, is still alive. In the film he’s dead, a beat cop killed by a mugger Ed nicknames Rollo Tamassi. While that adds to the complexity of the book for reasons I won’t spoil it gives the film a good through line as to why Edmund Exley is such a dedicated cop and an ostensible force for good. I reckon James Ellroy hated it.
Ellroy hates most of the adaptations not written by him but I’d say he hates L.A. Confidential the least. It’s an exceptionally well cast and lovingly made movie but like every mainstream Hollywood movie in the 1990s it needed good guys and it needed bad guys. The story and plot could be complex but the characters couldn’t. With that in mind L.A. Confidential loses so much of both its staying and stopping power in its transition from page to screen. In a James Ellroy novel there is no black and white only varying shades of grey splashed in blood red.
For instance, in The Black Dahlia main character Bucky Bleichert holds a woman hostage in order to escape the Mexican police. In The Big Nowhere the aspiring and heretofore honourable Police Captain Malcolm E. Considine beats his wife so badly he shatters most of her teeth. Exley’s concept of ‘absolute justice’ ultimately does more harm than good throughout L.A. Confidential. In White Jazz protagonist David Klein moonlights as a mob enforcer and is in love with his sister in all the wrong ways. So you see for an Ellroy protagonist to be wholly good is completely at odds with the filthy crimson vision Ellroy presents under the thin plaster walls and gorgeous architecture of 20th century America. For them to be wholly evil however, is another story…
“Lieutenant Dudley Smith, LAPD Homicide. Tall, beefside broad and red-faced; Dublin born, L.A. raised, Jesuit college trained. Priority case hatchet man for every L.A. chief of police dating back to strongarm Dick Streckel.”
The villain for much of the LA Quartet Dudley Smith is a vicious killer and an even more vicious racist. Unsurprisingly the two often dovetail into each other. He’s a great detective but a better criminal mastermind. Before his ignoble exit in White Jazz he is basically in control of the L.A. underworld and engaged in a power struggle with Exley over control of the LAPD. In the film he’s not the blackheart rogue with a lilting brogue but closer to a corrupt cop you’d see in a Dick Tracy comic. With that said James Cromwell pulls off an incredible brogue.
At this point it’s fair to say that the book supersedes the film in most ways but that’s because L.A. Confidential isn’t really adaptable as a film. It’s better suited to a TV series which has been tried and failed twice, in 2003 and 2018. It’s complexity in terms of its central mystery alongside the characters and their backstories can’t comfortably fit into a two-hour film. That said Kim Basinger’s portrayal of Lynn Bracken, a Veronica Lake lookalike prostitute, feels like it was lifted off the page. Only Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia did better service to one of Ellroy’s few female characters and that was the Dahlia herself Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner).
Even without Ellroy’s characterisation and detail L.A. Confidential gets at something Ellroy only eluded to. Ellroy, in all his public appearances and interviews, styles himself as a conservative loose cannon as if he’s writing himself as much as he is his books. It’s why a great deal of his characters are unapologetic in their racism, anti-Semitism and misogyny.
He leaves enough room for readers to be able to see these as major character flaws but his love for the noble Los Angeles policeman, no matter how vile, corrupt or psychopathic, always shines through strongest. By depicting the systemic racism of the LAPD Hanson’s L.A. Confidential cracks open the City of Angels façade to reveal the pulsing rotting organs within.
L.A. Confidential, in both written and filmed form, ends on a sunny day but only one ends happily. The ending of the novel is basically the inverse of The Godfather Part 2. A man has been on a journey to legitimacy for his entire life. Upon finally achieving his dreams he realises he has lost everything and everyone truly important to him. Nothing but scorched earth and the dead. Both the book and film end with Exley looking at White through a car window from the outside. Both scenes have Lynn Bracken say the line “Some men get the world; some men get ex-hookers and a trip to Arizona” but only the book has the gut punch additional line of dialogue.
“You’re in with the former, but my God I don’t envy you the blood on your conscience.”