Smoke, Mirrors and Dames – L.A. Confidential
Noir’s style to me is its ink-like darkness and shadows. The colourful L.A. Confidential doesn’t necessarily give you that mood, even the music isn’t as bombastic. When it comes to the visuals, its characters don’t come out like figures in a diorama like it does in classic noir. The rustic colours bring the past image of L.A. infrastructure and fashion to the present, and sometimes red pops out either on a female character’s lips or on her dress, or both male and female characters bled to death, reminiscent of the crime tabloids like the fictional ‘Hush-Hush’ featured in the film. It’s Christmas in Los Angeles after all, and everybody’s neon Christmas lights are up.
The film introduces us to main characters, the letters of their names appearing obviously like it would on typewritten paper. Officer Bud White (Russell Crowe) ‘has a thing for helping women,’ is a guy who gets attention through his tough demeanour, relegated through errands. Sgt. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a detective adviser for a TV show, ‘Badge of Honour,’ with swagger of a narcissistic cop. Sgt. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), is a young cop whose father has also been in the business whose superiors think is too clean-cut to be detective. There’s a fourth character who doesn’t get captions – Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), groomed to look like Veronica Lake.
Their lives are getting more intertwined as two criminal cases come up. The first is a beat-down by multiple officers including White and his partner Bud Stensland against six Mexicans – some racist cops call them ‘spics’ or ‘Poncho’ – probably wrongly jailed for killing a fellow officer and injuring another. The second is a shooting in the Nite Owl that leads to more deaths, more crimes revealed and more tarnished reputations.
The interesting visuals come up fifteen or twenty minutes after the film begins. Crime lord Mickey Cohen’s henchmen and potential successors slowly get mowed down, like Deuce Perkins. Smoke and dust clouds appear occasionally on the screen. When Perkins gets slain, the glass in his house shatters and smoke builds and thins out, two men in the background walk away. A vehicle on the outskirts of the city drives further away. Little trails as White sneaks into a suspect’s house. Police cars approach Exley after a deadly final shootout.
While Vincennes reluctantly agrees to snitching Stensland about the ‘Bloody Christmas’ incident, Exley watches from the adjacent room, his reflection on the screen like an omnipresent reminder. More mirrors appear in this film. One where Vincennes looks at himself before going to a motel to find a young actor murdered. There’s another mirror again between Exley and those observing him after the big shoot out, Exley only able to see his own reflection. The observer’s reflections are bigger, but he’s able to bridge the gap, telling them his conditions.
Lynn – a threatening figure who becomes White’s girlfriend – and other women’s looks have symbolic attachments. She belongs to network of prostitutes groomed, cut and dyed like the era’s movie stars, and tells White that this at least lets them act. Exley mistakes Lana Turner for a prostitute cut to look like the actress. White sees a woman with a bandaged nose, assuming abuse on a woman who has undertaken plastic surgery, commenting on the practice itself. The bandaged woman becomes a Nite Owl victims, a cop comments that she looked like Rita Hayworth, funny since a Margarita Cansino underwent operations to become Hayworth. The film ends with Lynn voluntarily changing herself to look like Marilyn Monroe, the latter herself is a dyed and cut creation of Norma Jean and Hollywood. Prostitutes are actresses are girlfriends, their physical changes mark the times their and their society’s attitude change from urban mystery to an optimistic, domestic retreat.
Background – Passes for Casino Jack came with the package I bought at TIFF. I skipped it for Modra, a Canadian film with hip reviews and hipper people giving out flyers for it. I felt bad about missing Casino Jack since director George Hickenlooper‘s untimely death. My intuition failed, choosing a movie that came to theatres four days before this one, thinking this had better distribution chances. I’m watching Casino Jack in January instead of The Mechanic, ditching a friend in the process :(. I’m a Metacritic slave I so might never see The Mechanic.
On Casino Jack. I have faint recollections of people belonging to the footnotes of history, and the film’s subject, Jack Abramoff (Kevin Spacey), is supposedly a monstrous figure. Instead we get an ex-movie producer quoting movies a lot, with delusions of grandeur and a warped perception of competitive capitalism. The film’s first scene shows him claiming, in front of a mirror, that he works hard so that his family doesn’t have to walk or ride the subway, juxtaposed by him getting stuck in traffic with his daughter, hearing bad news from his partner Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper), hiding from FBI for frauding left and right. Affluence doesn’t mean convenience, especially if your means are illegitimate.
Jack tries to convince us that he’s in the right while the film tries to convince us that he’s either deluded or caught up. He says that his job, lobbying helps congressmen to decide the laws for America. The film knows that it’s audience is smart enough to know that if congressmen wanted to write effective laws, they’d visit their constituents. Almost every character tainted hands in this fictional yet probably accurate portrayal of Washington. Jack uses his laundered money to build restaurants or Jewish schools, our devil’s advocate. We see the embarrassment of riches that he and these usurpers dip themselves into, the trinkets they need to feel accomplished, taking down enemies without knowing the consequences.
Nothing interesting visually in this film. Most of the camera work hides, for example, the blue sky, photoshopping the CN Tower between or behind those condos in ‘Florida’ that I’ve been in, hiding Senator ‘John McCain’ between those Manchurian Candidate-esque TV screens. There’s Spacey transforming himself into Jack in the photos of him, his skin droopier. There are also low angle shots of Jack as he’s being fired and/or interrogated.
Spacey’s never convinced me as a lead actor, and it takes a while for Pepper to settle within a suit-and-tie role, but they’re wonderful to watch in quieter scenes. They’re also a great part of an ensemble, illuminating a script full of pas de deux between characters. Michael’s girlfriend is played by Rachelle Lefevre, making memorable entrances and exits, doing wordplay as efficiently as the men, the film’s Cressida. Adam Kidan is played by Jon Lovitz, complementing the film through ccomic timing. These four are worth a matinée, including Jack’s description of Imelda Marcos, the strangest one I’ve heard.
Somerset Hitting the Books
Before I show my answer, I wanna show my back-ups.
The most elegant/scary opening credits.
Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt) reacts to stuff.
Four reasons why Mills is a terrible person are shown/implied in this shot.
I suppose this is the right space to write about my complaints about this movie, on how Mills, a guy who’s worked homicide for five years is still a moralizing optimist. Or that the murders wherever Mills is from can’t be as bad as the one’s he’s about to see in L.A. I also have problems with John Doe (Kevin Spacey) hating fat people but hating skinny people too. I don’t know about California law but around here if a the defence admits to his counsel of being guilty, the fight is over. I’m also sure that the whore he killed has used condoms while she’s on duty.
Thankfully, my latest viewing of this movie is one when the dominant force is Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman), patient, pensive yet jaded. My answer after the cut.
Director David Fincher‘s always known for his low-light sfumato effect in his films. The same goes for Se7en, where even the ‘white’ shots are wedged in contrast with sharp black. There are, however, instances within Se7en when big dots of colour appear, like here, colour shown behind a car window, made translucent by the rain, looking like a Van Gogh.
The neon signs of the city can advertise anything, including, sadistically, this
But my best shots and two that I can expand upon are these.
Green study lamps, aesthetically pleasing. What a way to visualize enlightenment ignored in a dark, seedy, crass city. Bright objects always get to me.
The library guards are on good terms with Somerset, leaving the books all to himself. He chooses a table, sets the briefcase down, looking at all the books that the guards are ignoring. He eventually addresses this disconnect ‘All the knowledge in the world at your fingertips.’ The guards see his bet and tops it by playing Bach on the boom box, making this trip to the library a relaxing time.
It’s been established that Somerset wants to give up his badge. However, it’s stuff like pulling all-nighters that make others, like the guards in this library, think that he’s eternally linked to this job. He absorbs the information on a handful of books neither with young earnestness nor a yawn. No coffee breaks. The film also establishes this scene as if this might be his last trip to this library, and wants to sit down and take his time with the books.
A guard say ‘Hey Smiley, you’re gonna miss us.’ He responds ‘I just might.’ Interesting nickname.
Also notice the lamps in the second shot are pointing different direction, the mise-en-scene arranged in meticulous disarray.
This post is part of Nathaniel R’s Hit Me with Your Best Shot Series.
- Blu-ray Review: Se7en (seattlepi.com)
- Check Out a Classic Scene From the New ‘Seven’ Blu-ray (cinematical.com)
Image: The Usual Suspects
(Remember when both Stephen Baldwin and W Magazine were still great? ph. MGM)