James Ellroy’s thoughtful and appreciative note on the late Curtis Hanson in Variety sent me back to take another look at the adaptation of L.A. Confidential. It’s a very good movie, especially good for the era, but not worthy of inclusion in the pantheon. The movie attempts to invoke gritty crime films from the Seventies and the film noir from the Forties but inevitably offers a homogenized product from the Nineties.
I admit my criticism is mostly informed by my admiration of the book, which remains one of Ellroy’s finest achievements.
SPOILER WARNING: I’m about to give away all the surprise plot twists for both book and movie.
The very first scene in the book stars Buzz Meeks in a massive shootout at a hotel, which Meeks doesn’t survive:
Dudley Smith stepped through flames, dressed in a fire department greatcoat. Meeks saw his suitcase – ninety-four grand, dope – over by the mattress. “Dud, you came prepared.”
“Like the Boy Scouts, lad. And have you a valediction?”
Suicide: heisting a deal Dudley S. watchdogged. Meeks raised his guns; Smith shot first. Meeks died – thinking the El Serrano Motel looked just like the Alamo.
“Alamo”: a massive shootout is indeed a trope of the classic Western, which Ellroy subverts by placing at the beginning of his story and killing off the first protagonist. It also subverts the idea of a conventional whodunit, as Ellroy tells us right away that Dudley Smith is a villain. The movie restores the conventional mystery plot and Western ending.
At the conclusion of the movie shootout, the two remaining heroes live and Smith dies with a bullet in the back from Exley. In the book, Smith stays active, essentially untouchable. He is never completely killed off or dishonored, not even in Ellroy’s sequel, White Jazz.
Dudley Smith’s demise is framed as a way for Exley to play by Smith’s rules. Early on in the movie, Smith tells Exley he shouldn’t become a homicide detective unless he is willing to shoot a guilty man in the back if that man couldn’t be convicted in court. Exley eventually “makes good” on Smith’s rules. This is conventional, even hokey movie writing.
In the book, Exley is driven mostly by ambition. He wants glory for himself within the LAPD, partly because he is competing with his decorated police officer father. It is his father who delivers the sermon about shooting men who can’t be convicted, but Exley already knows how game the system: He’s supposed to be a war hero who killed a lot of Japanese but actually Exley faked the evidence.
In both book and movie, Exley shotguns three black men (innocent of the Nite Owl murders but guilty of rape) after they escape prison. In the book Exley is on a secret solo mission and the culprits are meek, unarmed, with their hands in the air. In the movie, those deaths become a shootout where the black men shoot an officer before Exley returns fire. The director wants the hero to be less complex, more of a clear “good guy.”
In the movie, Bud White has a big fight with Exley over a woman. The rather sad truth is that in the book, women are just not that important for any of the men. White and Exley are at odds with each other, both have an affair with Veronica Lake look-alike Lynn Bracken, but the crime story brings them together to solve their differences. They don’t butt antlers like two stags over a doe. This big explosion of male passion rather undoes the ending of the movie: what do all the men and the women now feel about each other? In the book, there was less passion on the table — even the “movie actress look-alike” conceit helps show how women exist only on the surface for these heartless men — so the organization of the couples for the final wave goodbye makes a little more sense.
Another big movie fight, where White and Exley join forces to beat up D.A. Ellis Loew, isn’t from Ellroy. Indeed, Exley’s snarky line, “Was that how you used to run the ‘Good Cop-Bad Cop?’” seems lifted out of a banal crime film starring Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson. In Ellroy, when White wants an answer from a recalcitrant but essentially harmless witness, he just shoves the man’s hand into a garbage disposal, a shocking technique again unacceptable for a hero in a Hollywood movie.
Ellroy’s slick Jack Vincennes is has various reasons to feel guilty but his waters may run deepest: Vincennes is finally drawn into becoming a valuable detective partly because he is aroused by perverted smut linked to the Nite Owl massacre. He achieves a kind of redemption before a random shot from a tangential criminal kills him off.
Before Vincennes dies, though, he joins a meeting with Exley and White where they figure out the whole conspiracy together. This is a great scene, one of the best “chain of logic” scenes in crime fiction. In the movie, we never see the three protagonists come together. This is really the whole moral of Ellroy’s story, such as it is: three dark men find a little light when they join forces against a greater evil, with brainwork and teamwork being the most important binds between them.
Admittedly, Vincennes does have a good death with a good clue in the movie. It works so well that it was lifted wholesale by Steven Spielberg a few years later for Minority Report, a cinematic adaptation likewise considerably less dark and complex than Philip K. Dick’s short story. Still, it is rather frustrating that this shocking death of a main character has to “mean something,” at least when compared Ellroy’s hard-core existentialism. In the original, Vincennes dies not to leave a clue, but simply because he is in a story by James Ellroy.
I’m not saying all movies need to follow the book: Point Blank veers from The Hunter to wonderful effect; The French Connection dwarfs the source. There is an argument that the recent adaptation of No Country for Old Men could have actually used a little more license taken by the Coen brothers..
I’m coming on so strong because I think Ellroy’s esoteric vision is worth standing up for. The reason to read Ellroy — the reason to spend time in that sewer — is to look unblinkingly at tarnished souls. Do we dare redeem these rogues? Is it acceptable to root for a hero that has a rotten core? How can there possibly be a satisfying ending to this sadness?
Making the heroes and the plot more conventional demean the ethics of the author. “There is no Hollywood sign!” proclaims Ellroy: with Hanson’s adaptation, that Hollywood sign gets a fresh coat of paint.