Round up the usual perverts

Michael Wood

‘Some men get the whole world,’ Kim Basinger says. ‘Others get an ex-hooker and a trip to Arizona.’ The camera pauses on the man who has got the world, an ambitious, heroic, decorated and promoted policeman. The actor is Guy Pearce, his face narrow and eager, all sharp planes and angles. He doesn’t look too pleased. The film ends.

One of the many attractions of LA Confidential, a glossy, atmospheric movie based on a James Ellroy novel, is its unembarrassed pleasure in this kind of stuff. You get the world but you lose the girl. The girl is damaged goods, but she is Kim Basinger. The other figure in the triangle, played by Russell Crowe, is another policeman, an ex-thug who has learned how to get in touch with his tenderness, or his tender side. Meanwhile, yet another policeman, a smarmy type whose chief activities are leaking gossip to a racy magazine and acting as technical adviser to a TV show that much resembles Dragnet, also manages to turn into a good guy, and earn all our sympathy by dying a sudden death when on the trail of the truth. LA Confidential has been touted as a film noir, or at least as a homage to film noir, but it’s about as black as The Sound of Music; it has amiability written all over it.

A call-girl agency in the movie is called Fleur de Lys, its motto ‘Whatever you desire’, and that might be the movie’s motto too. Do we want slinky whores who resemble movie stars, all sadness and need removed from their lives, who look great even when they have been beaten up? One of Fleur de Lys’s specialities is plastic surgery which converts young women into copies of contemporary actresses, Lana Turner, Veronica Lake and others, so that the clients can screw celebrity simulacra. What the film gives us is better than that: an appearance which is the reality. Kim Basinger looks just like Kim Basinger, and indeed the whole movie looks like a movie. This would be a simple tautology – it looks like a movie because it is a movie – if the case were not so rare. Most current movies look like expensive wind-up toys. Here you feel money has been spent but you don’t hear it rattling. The colours are dark and glowing, the acting is excellent across the board, the narrative is complicated but not impenetrable – another difference between LA Confidential and most films noirs – and the soundtrack is full of the laid-back sounds of the Fifties, Chet Baker, Dean Martin, Johnny Mercer. When Kay Starr’s brassy voice sings ‘Wheel of Fortune’ you return not to the historical time of the song, but to the happy simplicity of the world you imagined when you listened to the song. The clothes and hair-dos have a similar effect. Crew cuts, falling curls, tie-clips, padded shoulders suggest not a reconstruction of a period but a lively party in fancy dress. Kevin Spacey, in particular, as Sergeant Jack Vincennes, the man behind the Dragnet look-alike, plays the whole thing as a charade, fun to do but fatal to take seriously. It’s not that the movie is about movies, littered with allusions to film history, although there is that, too. At one point Kim Basinger looking like Veronica Lake watches This Gun for Hire, with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. When another cop hustles an imitation Lana Turner he is dismayed to discover that she is Lana Turner; or to be precise about our illusions, the actor playing a cop encounters an actress who is supposed to be Lana Turner, as distinct from an actress who is supposed to be a character made to look like Lana Turner.

The main sense we get is of a film so strongly filtered through the notion of the picture of a picture, the reflection in the magazine, in the newspaper, on and off the film set, that image and reputation seem to be almost everything, as if there were nothing but disguise and fancy dress. It’s a film about headlines, we could say – partly because we enter the story through a series of reports of public events in Los Angeles, partly because Danny DeVito is so oozing and ubiquitous as Sid Hudgens, the gossip columnist for Hush-Hush magazine. ‘I want to put out an all-hophead issue,’ he says to Kevin Spacey. ‘Schwartze jazz musicians and movie stars ...’ In the novel he adds: ‘Maybe tie it in to the Commies, this Rosenberg thing has got the public running hot with a thermometer up their ass. You like it?’ But headlines are also a kind of miniature movie, even a destiny. You could live to get into them, or conversely, as a reader, you could fail to get beyond them. What makes LA Confidential such a perfect film of the Nineties is not that the legend takes over from the fact, since that’s almost invariably the case, but that the legend is so knowingly, so unanxiously embraced – as legend.

The characters and the settings of the film come straight from the Ellroy novel, the third in a group he calls the LA Quartet. The others are The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere and White Jazz. The plot of the novel has been compressed and slightly switched for the film, bits of dialogue and the occasional death being reallocated. In both versions a Christmas party at an LAPD station-house gets out of hand, some Mexican prisoners are beaten up, and a number of cops’ careers are over. Others rise. There is a multiple murder, followed by the police killing of the killers, or the people thought to be the killers. Meanwhile the gang scene in Los Angeles is wide open, since the head hoodlum, Mickey Cohen, is in jail for tax evasion, and the plot thickens. And thickens.

But even when the film quotes verbatim from the novel, the effect is quite different. The line about getting the world or the ex-hooker is even more explicit in print, but the sheer clarity of the point makes it sententious and preachy. ‘Some men get the world, some men get ex-hookers and a trip to Arizona. You’re with the former, but my God I don’t envy you the blood on your conscience.’ What the film is saying, I think, is something wonderfully sentimental, about the difference between harsh success and crummy happiness. What the novel is saying is that nothing could redeem or excuse success. Generally, Ellroy doesn’t write as well as the film writes for him; he is too dedicated to the no-frills, declarative sentence and the folkloric argot, as in ‘she didn’t play as a heister’s quail, even if she had been shacking with a cop for years,’ or: ‘the punks hadn’t had time to glom a shyster.’ When people realise something they are said to ‘snap’; when they look they ‘scope’. This is good fun for a while but gets wearing, as if someone were to keep pulling faces and couldn’t stop. It’s downright distressing in Ellroy’s recent memoir, My Dark Places, where he writes about his own mother’s murder in 1958, one of Los Angeles’s lingering unsolved crimes. The clinical or slangy tone must at first have been a defence against feeling, even an evocation of feeling by indirection and understatement. But as there is nothing else, it becomes what we have instead of feeling. The writer of My Dark Places actually reveals less of himself than the writer of the novels, because he is too much like a cramped character in one of those novels. Ellroy not only read Mickey Spillane when he was young, as he tells us he did, he writes like him now that he’s grown up – or writes like him when he isn’t able to allow himself to be fully spooked by his material. ‘It was August’ 46. It was Beverly Hills. It couldn’t be any place else. A swimming pool. Some French-château cabins. A scene from a movie-biz party. My mother was sitting in a deckchair. She was wearing a summer dress. She was smiling.’ Read quickly, this can seem like a snappy piece of writing, designed for crispness and speed. When you pause over it you realise it’s hardly writing at all, it’s verbal building-blocks dropped on the page, Hemingway for people who don’t have the time to be Hemingway.

For an example of Ellroy’s writing which is not like this, and where the sentence rhythms are not so tough and deadly, we could look at the opening of The Black Dahlia. This novel is dedicated to the memory of Ellroy’s mother and is based on another real-life crime, the murder and mutilation of Elizabeth Short in 1947. The dedication reads, ‘To Geneva Hilliker Ellroy 1915-1958. Mother: Twenty-nine years later, this valediction in blood’, and the novel starts:

I never knew her in life. She exists for me through others, in evidence of the ways her death drove them. Working backward, seeking only facts, I reconstructed her as a sad little girl and a whore, at best a could-have-been – a tag that might equally apply to me. I wish I could have granted her a few terse words on a homicide dick’s summary report, carbon to the coroner’s office, more paperwork to take her to potter’s field. The only thing wrong with the wish is that she wouldn’t have wanted it that way. As brutal as the facts were, she would have wanted all of them known.

And of course LA Confidential the film has none of the graphic horror or the wired craziness of Ellroy’s novels – none of the butchery of bodies, for instance, which is one of Ellroy’s fictional trademarks. In The Black Dahlia Elizabeth Short’s corpse appears in this way:

It was the nude, mutilated body of a young woman, cut in half at the waist. The bottom half lay in the weeds a few feet away from the top, legs wide open. A large triangle had been gouged out of the left thigh, and there was a long, wide cut running from the bisection point down to the top of the pubic hair. The flaps of skin beside die gash were pulled back; there were no organs inside. The top half was worse.

I’ll spare you what’s worse. A little later, we get a detailed autopsy of the same body. In the novel LA Confidential, the ancient, hidden crime, the story behind all the stories, concerns the slaughter and sectioning of children and birds in order to make new creatures with wings. Ellroy’s character finds some photos: ‘Children immediately after their dismemberment. Their arms and legs arranged just off their bodies.’ Ellroy’s novels are about police corruption and brutality, about city politics, about the rough and tawdry twilight life of crime in old Los Angeles, but they are also about sheer wildness, and not getting inured to it because it’s so frequent. In the novel (but not in the film), the Danny DeVito character is found ‘hacked up on the floor’, and his friend thinks ‘the mutilations would get written off – just psycho stuff.’ It’s scarcely a joke when someone says of another case that ‘they’ll round up all the usual perverts.’

Ellroy uses headlines, too, and police reports; refers constantly to films and magazines, and the cult of the image, especially among politicians but also among policemen. He says in My Dark Places that homicide cops love the movie Laura – ‘A cop gets obsessed with a murder victim and finds out she’s still alive. She’s beautiful and mysterious. She falls in love with the cop’ – but that Double Indemnity is the flip-side of that film: ‘A man meets a woman and flushes his life down the toilet.’ He then adds, ‘Both scenarios were equally fatuous,’ but what’s fatuous for Ellroy is the neatness and theatricality of the stories. He doesn’t think it’s fatuous to be obsessed by dead women, and he knows there are all kinds of ways of flushing a life down the toilet. LA Confidential, on the other hand, can’t think these scenarios, or its own scenario, are fatuous, because they are embodiments of our desire, and desire, whatever else it is, is never fatuous.

What Ellroy is interested in, finally, is what he calls ‘the brutality of crimes that require absolute justice’. The film is not about brutality at all and addresses the question of justice in a very elegant fashion, giving the master bad guy a violent come-uppance and insisting at the same time on the continuing corruption of the LAPD. But of course this is not Ellroy’s absolute justice. Justice, for Ellroy, is all that matters and even the falseness and strain to be found in his writing at times are side-effects of the elusiveness of what he wants – his books themselves are about not getting it. The movie gives us what we want, and we are grateful. It sorts out the world it has offered to us and it handsomely matches our expectations. We could call this poetic justice if the phrase still had any meaning. It would be absurd to start complaining because a movie was too well-made or too intelligent; or because it had a plot. But then justice in a fictional plot, whether in a movie or elsewhere, is no sort of immediate answer to the ragged yearning left by unsolved crimes, or the rampant craziness of much of the unimagined world.