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L.A. Confidential the movie—20 years later

December 20, 2017

For our last post of 2017 we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter. Here’s Jason’s bio:

Jason Carter is an unofficial Ellroy scholar with 20-years of Ellrovian tutelage under his belt. A devoted follower of Ellroy since the age of 14,  Jason now has the enviable honor of calling Mr. Ellroy his friend.  Although, don’t think of asking Jason for any personal details about Ellroy, as Jason is ferociously protective of Mr. Ellroy’s privacy. Jason, like Ellroy, lives in Denver, Colorado.


“My book, your movie…”  This is James Ellroy’s expeditious way of distinguishing himself and his work from the output of Hollywood…it’s common knowledge to anyone who’s followed the Demon Dog’s work for any number of years.

In Reinhart Jud’s 1993 Demon Dog of Crime Fiction documentary, Ellroy, riding high on the then-newly published conclusion to his L.A. Quartet, White Jazz, left no one in uncertainty about how he views film versions of his books:  “People option my books, they tell me ‘it’s going to be a masterpiece, so and so will direct, so and so will star in it,’ and I say to all of them except James B. Harris, [director of the 1988 James Woods film Cop, a forgettable take on Ellroy’s Blood on the Moon, with Woods as Lloyd Hopkins] HORSE SHIT!   Don’t tell me it’s gonna get made, ‘cause it’s not gonna get made, and chances are if you do make it, you’re gonna fuck it up!”

This skepticism is perfectly consistent with Ellroy’s constant warnings that nothing is ever what it seems in Hollywood, and all is not right; in a phrase, disingenuous verisimilitude, a concept pervading literally every one of Ellroy’s books.

While Ellroy’s books have exposed Hollywood’s flaws with candor and unfettered honesty, he is hardly the only novelist to speak critically of Tinsel Town.  I remember seeing a 1990s television interview with Michael Crichton, in which The Andromeda Strain author lambasted Hollywood as “a business of idiots!” (An astonishing statement, given Crichton’s decades-long friendship with a certain Hollywood A-lister named Steven Spielberg.)  And it’s hard to forget Tom Clancy’s famous quote that “giving your novel to Hollywood is like turning your daughter over to a pimp.”

Curtis Hanson’s 1997 star-studded and Academy Award-winning adaptation of L.A. Confidential recently marked its 20th anniversary earlier this year.  Even after two decades, the film is still the best, and most memorable Ellroy adaptation to date.  (Please forget about over-rated auteur Brian DePalma’s $50 million defecational flop The Black Dahlia in 2006—just forget about it…)

In a making-of featurette attached to an early DVD of L.A. Confidential, Hanson said of the ensemble cast “My hope was to cast actors that the audience didn’t already know… Actors the audience could discover the way I had discovered them.” Both Russell Crowe (Bud White) and Guy Pearce (Ed Exley) were relative unknowns in 1997.  For “Trashcan” Jack Vincennes, Hanson chose an established movie star then at the top of his game:  The recently disgraced Kevin Spacey.

The 2001 Ellroy documentary Feast of Death begins with Ellroy’s declaration that “L.A. Confidential the movie is the best thing that happened in my career that I had absolutely nothing to do with… It was a fluke, a wonderful one, and it is never going to happen again, a movie of that quality.”  Ellroy then tells of a now-famous encounter with an old lady at a Kansas video store that serves as a parable for the Demon Dog’s assessment of Hollywood.  My book, your movie.

Curtis Hanson’s film L.A. Confidential, covering maybe 13% of the book (and roughly four of the novel’s 14 fully developed plotlines), is now 20 years old, and people can’t stop talking about it.  By contrast, James Ellroy’s far more cinematic novel turned 20 in June, 2010, and no one, save for Ellroy himself, and maybe the Demon Dog’s publishers, said a word.

I’ve already told you about the disgust I felt over how Hollywood disingenuously treated my favorite character from the novel, rape victim Inez Soto. When I’ve mentioned this to Ellroy on several occasions in the past, he constantly reminds me that the actress who played Inez Soto in the movie, Marisol Padilla Sanchez, is now 44, and too old for me.  I insist that I’m referring to the far more richly detailed character from the Demon Dog’s novel, but to no avail.  This sardonically humorous exchange between Ellroy and I, coming across like a jazz refrain, makes an appropriate metaphor for the fatuous deference popular culture will blindly pile onto a film, while diminishing, ignoring and eventually forgetting its original inspiration or source.  Ellroy is a master of nuance both on the page and in person, and I can’t help but wonder if this dismissive and odd constant response isn’t his allegorical indictment of mass-market disregard.

Introducing a film screening of L.A. Confidential is nothing new for the Demon Dog; he’s done it on countless occasions all over the world—most recently in Chicago in August, 2017. When Ellroy moved to Denver, Colorado in 2015 and began hosting his dynamite and award-winning monthly film series In A Lonely Place, he kicked off the series in September of that year with L.A. Confidential.

On Monday, December 11, 2017, Ellroy screened a scratchy, off-color 35 mm of his greatest film adaptation (a most non-digital print looking every day of its 20 years) once more, in honor of its 20th anniversary.  With a hefty ticket price that included a copy of Ellroy’s latest novel Perfidia, courtesy of the Tattered Cover Book Store, a legendary Denver institution, the crowd was enormous.

After serenading the audience with a hilariously profane Christmas greeting Ellroy termed “Rudolph the Red Nosed Junkie,” Ellroy segued seamlessly into his timeless “peepers, prowlers, panty-sniffers…” intro and a lengthy recitation of T.S. Elliot’s poem “Four Quartets,” in short, a classic Ellroy introduction.

L.A. Confidential the movie is an extraordinarily witty and lively depiction of L.A. in the 1950s,” Ellroy began.   “It’s not a perfect motion picture, but it makes scandal-rag journalism, and the Sid Hudgens character, played by Danny Devito, fun… It makes the ruining of reputations and the American idiom—who’s a homo? who’s a lesbo? who’s a nympho? who’s a dipso? who fucks black people?—fun.”

This largely positive preamble soon gave way to Ellroy’s razor-sharp criticism.  “[L.A. Confidential] is somewhat over-rated…  It’s better than the over-rated Chinatown, but markedly over-praised.” Ellroy then railed quite loudly against the film’s “BAD miscasting,” declaring that “You feel nothing for Kevin Spacey, and you feel less than nothing for Russell Crowe and Kim Basinger.”

When Ellroy was asked whom he would cast if given free reign, he didn’t hesitate for a second:  “A 1982 William Hurt as Ed Exley… Steve Cochran as Jack Vincennes… Sterling Hayden as Bud White [Crowe has actually cited Hayden’s performance in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing as a model for the Aussie’s performance as White]… and a 50-year-old Albert Finney as Dudley Smith.”

The most titanic irony of L.A. Confidential is that Ellroy wrote the novel with the specific aim to make it as cinema-unfriendly and unadaptable as possible.  In an unwitting mockery of Ellroy’s efforts, the film would go on to win an Academy Award for—go figure—Best Adapted Screenplay.  And while this is a well-known piece of history among the Demon Dog’s most devoted fans, Ellroy once again related the story of his novel’s bewildering journey to the silver screen, concluding with the warning that “If you write novels to be adapted into movies, you’ll always be on welfare…”

L.A. Confidential’s occasional bouts of anachronistically contemporary dialogue—particularly its Leathal Weapon-quality banter between Crowe and Pearce (Good cop, bad cop in 1953?  Really?)—make it difficult to take the film seriously.  However, the timing of this watershed anniversary couldn’t be more apropos, as it runs concurrent to a real world metastatic scandal that vibes paranoia like the best of Ellroy’s plotlines:  The McCarthy-esque sexual assault malaise currently eviscerating Hollywood and the mainstream media, (indistinguishable entities as far as I’m concerned) and ruining plenty of reputations.

With Kevin Spacey in the dubious cross hairs of the on-going scandal, it was impossible not to talk about him.  Ellroy handled the delicate matter with superb rectitude and equanimity:  “I will not comment on the trouble that [Spacey] is currently embroiled in, except to say I could’ve predicted it!

As a new high profile target emerges on an almost weekly basis, this “new McCarthyism” calls to mind the countless allusions Ellroy has made throughout his work to the ruthless sexploitation lurking behind the façade of Hollywood glamour.  (Anyone remember the title of the Tijuana stag film Betty Short is coerced into in The Black Dahlia?  It’s Slave Girls in Hell…Do you need another reminder?)

Juxtaposed against the scandal itself, Ellroy’s nuanced remark about Spacey deserves further scrutiny…  Is Ellroy referring to a personal dislike of Spacey, or the Demon Dog’s career-defining fictional exposure of Hollywood’s pervasive dark side?  As always with Ellroy, the answers are illusive and elliptical.

L.A. Confidential is indeed a uniquely prescient film for these dark times, even if it’s 20 years old.


For what it’s worth, happy 20th , L.A. Confidential.  I was 16 years old when the film debuted and just two years into my Ellrovian Journey.  I loved the film then, and I still love it now, but I’ll take Raymond Dieterling, Wee Willie Wennerholm, Kathy Janeway, and Dream-A-Dreamland (none of which were featured in the movie) any day over “Rollo Tomasi”.

I believe the words of demented patriarch Emmett Sprague from The Black Dahlia are especially relevant right now:  “Hearty fare breeds hearty people…”

Skip the movie and read the book.

29 Comments leave one →
  1. December 20, 2017 2:06 pm

    As with Elroy, Leonard and Waumbaugh, tears flowed and chills were felt with the reading and not the watching. Having lived the real life and written some of it, I get Elroy’s sneering take on screenplay adaptations. The novel is only a sketch of a cop’s joy or terror. Even the best of visual trickery is never to the depth we intend a curious reader’s mind creates.

    • Jason Carter permalink
      December 21, 2017 3:33 am

      Absolutely, Mike! Ellroy crafts his scenes with more deliberation and focus than an entire stadium full of cinematographers and production directors. Take the scene in “L.A. Confidential” the novel where Lynn Bracken says to Bud White, “If you wait in the bedroom, I’ll wash off Veronica and that investment banker…”, and then comes to him naked… There is more sexual confidence in that one single scene than ANYTHING Hollyweird has ever produced… Or when Inez Soto (my favorite character) sees right through Exley’s political machismo, to the coward who wants to step out from under Daddy’s shadow, but is too scared shitless to do so… a concept couched in the metaphor of a robe that doesn’t fit.

  2. David C permalink
    August 10, 2018 5:44 am

    The book isn’t without it’s flaws either Jason. Why did Exley take his father down but not double torture murderer Art De Spain? Why does Inez kill herself – wouldn’t Dieterling have just willed her his empire?
    Why does Preston Exley commit suicide? Bullshit he’s getting charged with murder one; it’s Ray Dieterlings hearsay confession only, no gun or body, and Preston knows Ray D is taking the “honourable” way out.
    Also baffling – Terry Lux in LAC is fit as a fiddle – what happened to the guy Buzz Meeks beat up so bad he had a stroke? Unlikely he stays in the sanitarium business; even accepting that he does his plastic surgery days are over. Where do the stars go to get cut now?
    Karen Morrow never gets wrapped up; ditto her sister.
    In White Jazz Dave Klein is a mob hitman because he’s being blackmailed. They let Vincennes walk around without putting the squeeze on? They covered up his drugged out double murder, presumably to have blackmail shit over him…then never use it?

    Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fantastic book, but it’s just as flawed in it’s own way as the film adaption.

    • August 10, 2018 7:59 am

      Hi David, you raise some interesting points about flaws in LA Confidential. Despite its stellar reputation, critics scholars and readers of Ellroy, are increasingly of the opinion that numerous plot holes and inconsistencies make this the weakest novel of the Quartet. I think its a brilliant work, but would probably agree with Peter Wolfe when he wrote ‘The novel dims much of its own luster by being too big, too sprawling, and too full of its own surge’. For the definitive work in disentangling Ellroy’s plotlines, ironing out inconsistencies and giving character bios I’d recommend Jim Mancall’s James Ellroy: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction:

    • Jason R Carter permalink
      August 11, 2018 3:15 am

      Good comment, David. Ellroy has said repeatedly that he believes in endless perpetuation, which is once again his constant effort to destroy all notion of closure. As the Demon Dog said in 1993 “I don’t ever want to give you a novel where the good guy wins or the bad guy loses, or even a novel where the bad guy wins and the good guy loses… I want you to feel it going on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on….” It’s an obvious reflection of the obsessiveness which defines and drives Ellroy’s work, but also reminds you that noir could not and does not exist without ambiguity and a discomfort imparted to the audience; hence the loose ends present in every Ellroy novel. Read my piece on Ellroy’s Contradictions for further elaboration on this matter:

      I hope this helps.

      • David C permalink
        August 11, 2018 6:46 am

        You’re overthinking it Jason – a fuck ups a fuck up. You can’t have it both ways, he’s either an obsessive perfectionist who hones his books back until they’re literally without an extraneous word. Or he’s a near enough is good enough type.

      • August 11, 2018 7:06 am

        Easy David, no need for Ellroy style outbursts on this blog. I don’t think you can draw an either/or comparison when novels are so personal to the reader and their emotional reaction to it. We’re also talking about works which are thirty years old. Ellroy uncompromisingly followed his vision back when he wrote them. That to me is good enough.

      • David C permalink
        August 11, 2018 7:25 am

        I wasn’t trying to start an argument Steve. I just don’t agree with Jason. Much of your original reply I agree with. “increasingly of the opinion that numerous plot holes and inconsistencies make this the weakest novel of the Quartet”

      • August 11, 2018 8:23 am

        Ok, we’re all fine. I’m probably of the opinion that the film is better than the novel in delivering a compact and fully coherent narrative.


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