Sunday, June 29, 2008

Don't Make a Scene: L.A. Confidential

The Set-up: "Tell me a Story." During the month of July, we'll be showcasing scenes that feature a story in the midst of the narrative. That story may couch the plot in a new light; it may illuminate themes or present a back-story. Here, it plants a clue.

It's another great performance by Kevin Spacey, who runs the risk these days of becoming the new Brando, squandering his talent on junk. In this movie, based on the James Ellroy novel, his character Jack Vincennes is a sleaze (Director Curtis Hanson told Spacey that if he was casting someone from the era, it would be Dean Martin), who has just enough memory of integrity to sleep at night. Sometimes Spacey's eyes go blank as if he's looking inward to do a "soul-check" (he does it a couple of times in this scene), which pays off mightily in one of the creepiest scenes ever pulled off by an American actor--a scene this one sets up.

One of the interesting things about doing this series is seeing how the directors and actors pull off "telling" moments. Here the actors are doing all the work. And director Hanson? He's doing straight one-shots back and forth, back and forth, and I thought "Man! There's nothing here! But it seems really familiar, somehow." And I thought "this is how they frame things when movies go to television." Then I thought, "Yeah, it could almost be television direction," and then it hit me with a "Dun-da-Dun-dun."

It looked exactly like an episode of "Dragnet," which in James Ellroy's world of "L.A. Confidential" is called "Badge of Honor," and it's the series that Spacey's character Jack Vincennes is the technical consultant for. Damned clever. For series star and frequent director Jack Webb, this simple style was an economical way of shooting his series fast and unpretensiously, without complications of fancy lighting or other considerations that might slow down production, raising costs.
That's fine for technique, but what's the story? Here, it's a small aside in a conversation, "assigning motive" as they say on the cop shows, and it spurs the sleeping conscience of the older, savvier Vincennes. It's also a "plant." The unusualness of the name Ed Exley attaches to his father's killer ensures that we'll remember it, and that when it pops up again, we'll remember it. A bunch of people are gonna regret the day they heard the name "Rollo Tomasi."

The Story: The killing-spree at the Night Owl coffee shop was a massacre. It killed Officer "Bud" White's (Russell Crowe) partner, it's bloody resolution made a name for pain-in-the-ranks Det. Lt. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), and it's even touched the work of Det. Sgt. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), who's currently being punished for his recent activities by temporarily suspending his duties as technical advisor to the tv-cop show, Badge of Honor. None of these cops like each other much, but the "Nite Owl" gives them all pause. And even though the ambitious Exley has recieved a citation for his work that resulted in the deaths of three black men suspected of the killings, something's bothering him. And "bother" is something Exley seems to spread around. Action!

Ed Exley: Vincennes, I need your help with something.
Jack Vincennes (tosses down a copy of Hush-Hush magazine he'd been reading): I'm busy right now. Why don't you go ask some of your boys in Homicide.
Ed: I can't. I need someone outside of Homicide. I want you to tail Bud White 'til he comes on duty this evening.

Jack: Why don't you do me a real favor and leave me alone?

Ed: Do you make the three Negroes for the Night Owl killings?

Jack: What?

Ed: It's a simple question.

Jack: Why in the world do you want to go digging any deeper into the Night Owl killings...Lieutenant?

Ed: Rollo Tomasi.

Jack: Is there more to that or am I supposed to guess?

Ed: Rollo was a purse snatcher. My father ran into him off-duty. And he shot my father six times and got away clean. No one even knew who he was. I just made the name up to give him some personality.

Jack: What's your point?

Ed: Rollo Tomasi's the reason I became a cop. I wanted to catch the guys who thought they could get away with it.

Ed: It was supposed to be about justice. Then somewhere along the way I lost sight of that.

Ed: Why'd you become a cop?

Jack: (pause) I don't remember.

Jack: What do you want, Exley?

Ed: I just want to solve this thing.

Jack: Night Owl was solved.

Ed: No, I want to do it right.

Jack: Even if it means paying the consequences?

Ed: Mm-hmm.

Jack: (puts on his coat) Alright, college boy. I'll help. But there's a case your boys in Homicide don't care about. They think it's just another Hollywood "homo"-cide. But I don't. You help me with mine, I'll help you with yours. Deal?
Ed: Deal.
"L.A. Confidential"

Words by Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson

Pictures by: Dante Spinotti and Curtis Hanson

"L.A. Confidential" is available on DVD from Warner Home Video

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