L.A. Confidential 20th anniversary: five films that influenced the neo-noir classic

One of the milestone American movies of the 1990s, Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential riffed on film noir and 1950s cop movies to create a sprawling epic about corruption in Los Angeles. As it turns 20, we round up five films that helped inspire it.

Leigh Singer

L.A. Confidential (1997)

L.A. Confidential (1997)

Apparently, when James Ellroy heard that his 1990 novel L.A. Confidential had been optioned for film rights, he and his agent laughingly accepted Hollywood’s money, convinced a movie version would never be made. Ellroy was certain that his 500-page crime epic (the third in his sprawling ‘L.A. Quartet’ magnum opus), which spans eight years and intertwines multiple, largely disagreeable characters and snaking, lurid plot-lines, was “unconstrainable, uncontainable, and unadaptable”.

L.A. Confidential (1997)

L.A. Confidential (1997)

Yet, seven years later, 20 years ago, Curtis Hanson’s movie premiered to rave reviews. It’s still considered one of the finest Hollywood films of the 1990s and a marvel of book-to-film adaptation, despite (or perhaps because of?) the fact that it confidently fillets Ellroy’s original. But Hanson’s and co-screenwriter Brian Helgeland’s streamlining still somehow maintains the novel’s dramatic thrust and thematic integrity, without dumbing it down or softening it up. And its own inventions, notably the still shocking “Rollo Tomassi” moment, are the uncompromising equal of anything dreamed up by Ellroy.

Focusing on a trio of troubled cops, showman Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), careerist Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) and bruiser Bud White (Russell Crowe), the film purposefully manoeuvres its antiheroes into accounting for their own morally dubious policing methods, and whether to ultimately take a stand on LA’s citywide corruption. It also hones in on the film industry’s complicity in promoting a seductive, idealised version of its host city. If Hollywood is the dream factory, Hanson takes you out back to see the real manufacturing process, where hopes and aspirations are buried on the slagheap.

Suitably, then, for a neo-noir with Hollywood in its crosshairs, Hanson – himself an LA native – drew on some impressive filmic forbears for inspiration. What’s even more impressive, however, is how L.A. Confidential uses both these and its source novel, yet emerges as its own distinctive vision.

In a Lonely Place (1950)

Director Nicholas Ray

In a Lonely Place (1950)

Humphrey Bogart’s late-career collaboration with director Nicholas Ray, playing a bitter Hollywood screenwriter under suspicion of murder, is one of the actor’s greatest, most unsettling performances. It’s the type of heightened, emotionally naked acting Hanson was looking for from his then-little known stars Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, and he screened the film for them in pre-production. “It feels like a world which is threatening in its darkness and ugliness, and yet there is great tenderness, too,” Hanson said. And the then-contemporary LA setting also offered the type of unshowy period behaviour and everyday locations that the filmmaker sought to emulate.

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

Director Vincente Minnelli

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

At a crucial juncture for Kevin Spacey’s crooked cop, Jack Vincennes, he stands outside a movie theatre, the marquee behind him advertising the title for Vincente Minnelli’s deliciously vicious portrait of Hollywood backstabbing. It might describe Vincennes’ own brand of amoral grandstanding – one that he belatedly tries to atone for. Then again, it keys into the film’s wider mission statement: to look behind the façade of Tinseltown’s glamorous con, where endemic corruption and ruthless power plays prop up an industry built on illusion; one where, if you sell your soul to its wanton escapism, there’s often little chance of escape.

The Tarnished Angels (1957)

Director Douglas Sirk

The Tarnished Angels (1957)

It might appear strange to cite a black-and-white Douglas Sirk melodrama about New Orleans daredevil flyers for a colour film focused on LA detectives, but, visually, this is one of Hanson and cinematographer Dante Spinotti’s key references. Spinotti didn’t cite film noir’s harsh angles and shadows as much as he did Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank’s famous series The Americans, adopting more natural lighting for L.A. Confidential’s more modern look. And Sirk’s subtle, yet composed CinemaScope framing – even stripped of his expressive colour palettes – helped influence Spinotti’s Super 35mm widescreen format and use of spherical lenses to convey that stills photography feeling.

The Lineup (1958)

Director Don Siegel

The Lineup (1958)

Despite its morally compromised males and victimised femme fatales, L.A. Confidential arguably owes less to the existential visions of 1940s film noir and more to the tough cop dramas that followed: B-movies made by no-nonsense studio stylists like Don Siegel and his 1958 feature-length continuation of a popular 50s, San Francisco-set TV police show. Both films shoot unfussily but evocatively on their respective city street locations; both devote considerable attention to brutally unsympathetic characters (here, notably Eli Wallach’s charismatic hair-trigger hoodlum); and both end with thrilling action set pieces – The Lineup’s unfinished freeway chase was also pilfered by the Keanu Reeves actioner Speed (1994).

Chinatown (1974)

Director Roman Polanski

Chinatown (1974)

Like Roman Polanski’s 1974 classic, L.A. Confidential is a film-noir-inspired mystery in vivid colour. Both are steeped in cinematic tradition, set in the past, but shot through with immediacy. Hanson talked of wanting to avoid “the haze of nostalgia,” and both films’ stories of decadence and deceit, systemic corruption (the city’s water supply and freeway construction, respectively) and personal shots at salvation are timeless. Robert Towne’s Oscar-winning Chinatown original screenplay – layered, labyrinthine and eminently quotable – is matched by fellow Academy Award winners Hanson and Helgeland’s expert adaptation. And both films feature seductive, plaintive, jazz-inflected scores by legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith.

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