By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com September 19, 2012 at 12:07PM
It's safe to say that "L.A. Confidential" wasn't greeted with especially high expectations in the run up to its release. James Ellroy's 1990 book, the third of his "L.A. Quartet" (preceded by "The Black Dahlia" and "The Big Nowhere," and completed by "White Jazz") was a favorite among crime fans, but hardly a best seller. Screenwriter Brian Helgeland was known only for "Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master" and a rewrite of actioner "Assassins." Director Curtis Hanson was well-liked, but mostly known for mid-level programmers like "Bad Influence," "The Hand That Rocks The Cradle" and "The River Wild." And the cast was led by two virtual unknowns from the Southern Hemisphere, with the most recognizable names in the cast being Kim Basinger, whose career was a little on the outs, comedy actor Danny DeVito and recently Oscar-nominated character actor Kevin Spacey.
On a budget of only $35 million, the film was flying under most radars, and when Hanson wanted to submit it to the Cannes Film Festival, he had to bypass Warner Bros studio executives in order to do so. And yet the film picked up great reviews in France, followed by positively ecstatic ones once "L.A. Confidential" made it to U.S. theaters, and the movie went on to earn nine Oscar nominations and rake in a decidedly healthy $126 million worldwide. And furthermore, as its cast went on to serious stardom and the movie has inspired TV shows and video games, it's only grown greater with age, standing now as one of the very best American movies of the 1990s. "L.A. Confidential" was released 15 years ago today, on September 19th, 1997, and to mark the occasion we've put together five things you may not be aware of about the movie. Read on for more.
Warner Bros had picked up the rights to James Ellroy's novel soon after publication, and Brian Helgeland, who was working on other projects with the studio at the time, pursued the job, but was deemed too inexperienced. But years later, Curtis Hanson -- who as an L.A. resident born and bred, who'd worked with his uncle supplying clothes for movie stars like Natalie Wood and Marilyn Monroe as a teenager, and had a deep connection with the material -- had been hired to direct the film, and Helgeland wrangled a meeting on the set of "The River Wild." The two found that they had a similar take on the material, and at the time Helgeland told the Dallas Observer that the plan was "to remove every scene from the book that didn't have the three main cops in it, and then to work from those scenes out." The result was a model of streamlining, allowing them to adapt a book that some had deemed unfilmable. Ellroy himself paid tribute to them, saying, "They preserved the basic integrity of the book and its main theme...Brian and Curtis took a work of fiction that had eight plotlines, reduced those to three, and retained the dramatic force of three men working out their destiny." Even so, Warners weren't keen for a number of reasons. Period pieces are expensive, film noir was deemed uncommercial, and Hanson wanted to avoid casting stars. The studio tried to convince him to cut two of the three leads, so a big star could play Bud White or Ed Exley, but Hanson refused. Fortunately, the script was passed on to New Regency Productions CEO Michael Nathanson, who loved it, although he concedes in the making of documentary on the DVD that when he later became the head of MGM, that he wouldn't have greenlit the film either. Company head Arnon Milchan was excited by the "contemporary" feel of casting relative unknowns, and by a pitch by Hanson involving vintage photos and postcards of LA (which the director recreates on the DVD), and the project was given the go ahead.
Given the sprawling, multi-character nature of the book, it's no surprise that Helgeland and Hanson had to depart from the source material in their ultimately Oscar-winning screenplay. For one, the book was set over nearly a decade -- between 1951 and 1958 -- but the book shrinks the timeline massively. it opens with the death of Buzz Meeks (the protagonist of "The Big Nowhere") at the hands of Dudley Smith's men, but in the film, Meeks' character is very different, and is killed off-screen. Jack Vincennes has a different nickname and backstory -- he's called "Trashcan Jack" after dumping Charlie Parker in a garbage can during a drug bust, and is haunted by his accidental shooting of two tourists. There's a lengthy subplot involving Bud White investigating a serial killer targeting prostitutes, while Inez Soto (who's kidnapped and raped by the Nite Owl suspects) has a much larger role, and is the focal point of a love triangle between Bud and Ed Exley, which is transplanted to Lynn Bracken in the movie. Perhaps the biggest change revolves around the film's most memorable scene -- the shocking death of Jack Vincennes at the hands of Dudley Smith, at the subsequent pay off of "Rollo Tomassi," the invented name given by Exley to the anonymous mugger who killed his own cop father. Vincennes does die in the novel, but it's almost random, killed by a escaped con after a breakout from a prison train. Smith's role as a gangland kingpin had already been revealed in "The Big Nowhere," and his true motivations are clear throughout the "L.A. Confidential" novel. And indeed, Rollo Tomassi is entirely the invention of Hanson and Helgeland -- Exley's father Preston is a key character in the novel, who eventually ends up taking his own life, but he's amalgamated with his brother, who had been killed, in the film. As such, the ending is very different as well -- Smith survives the novel (one of the few that does), and ends "White Jazz" in a retirement home.