L. A. Confidential
by Manohla Dargis

[The author begins with a discussion of the talents and onscreen personality of the actor Aldo Ray, an underrated actor of the 50's]

...Until Crowe, few Hollywood actors could embody this masculine-feminine admixture as persuasively as [Aldo] Ray.

Born in New Zealand and raised in Australia, Crowe first came to Hanson's notice in the 1992 film Romper Stomper in which he he starred as a skinhead who steers a gang of neo-Nazis through the usual thuggish mindlessness and ends up a victim of his own nihilism. As he would time and again, and as Aldo Ray had done before him, the actor wore masculinity like a carapace. It was an intensely physical performance, as many of Crowe's are, but which makes it archetypal wasn't the musculature that hardened his shell further, turning his body into a weapon and a shield, but the hurt he summoned up in his eyes. Lacking heartbreaking beauty and innate physical grace, Crowe has emerged as a stirring albeit unlikely creature of passion in whose expressively wet eyes you can catch sight of a mind struggling against flesh, the human in struggle with the animal, the female in struggle with the male. In LA Confidential, the actor's beefy body gives Bud a taurine physicality but the character isn't simply a bull; he is a bull seething with emotions so powerful seems as if they could burst through his clothes.

...Elroy revels in in uncivil society and his Bud is an unreconstructed Neanderthal who doesn't just jump off the page, he rages, making Crowe, a performer with a total commitment to his own seriousness, a perfect fit. But if Bud has no sense of limits its precisely because he himself has been brutalised, first by a father who beat his mother to death, then by a police department that encourages and rewards his worst instincts

[bold face is mine]

The Victory Motel

In one of the film's final scenes, the new partners converge at the Victory Motel, each believing that the other has summoned him to a meeting. The pair realise that they have been set up, probably by Smith, and barricade themselves in one of the motel's abandoned rooms. Lunging from wall to wall amid a storm of wood, plaster and ammunition, Bud and Ed - at last wearing his wayward glasses - are assaulted on all fronts. Slugs fly, casings fall. Moonlight streams between broken laths and through bullet holes pinpricking the room, illuminating the dusty churning air. The noise is deafening and the tension heart-thudding. It's a freakishly beautiful, elegantly choreographed epic of destruction: the wrecking ball is swinging hard. In Ellroy's novel, the big-bang finale sounds aboard a hijacked train (something to do with Mickey Cohen and escaped prisoners), but the bigger bang is the revelation about Ed's father and the depths of his corruption. In the film, Ed simply says, 'All I ever wanted was to measure up to my father.' Bud looks him in the eye. 'Now's your chance. He died in the line of duty, didn't he?'

The lines aren't in the book but neither is the stand-off. With the Nite Owl, the film becomes Hanson's, because it is the first scene in which the way he shoots becomes as important as what he is shooting; it is the scene in which he rises to the challenge of his material and meets it head on cinematically. From the Nite Owl massacre on, L.A. Confidential remains Hanson's not only because of the ways in which the plot deviates from the original text but because of the feeling and the mood he creates through lush visual pleasures rather than a mad rush of words. It's in this sense that the shoot-out at the Victory Motel becomes the apotheosis of Hanson's vision in and for the film. At this stage in the story there's precious little left of Ellroy's original narrative: Hanson and Helgeland have stripped it down to its bones. All that remains for the some seven minutes that comprise the shoot-out is sound, bodies in motion, light and dark, mise-en-scène. As with much of what is great in this film - Bud prowling up a flight of steps to rescue Inez Soto, Ed staring at Dudley Smith upon hearing the name Rollo Tomasi, the smile on Jack's face before he dies - the scene's power doesn't come from Ellroy's language. It comes, rather, from the film-making.

In its sheer conceptual simplicity this deus ex machina becomes an unexpected trump card for the director. Freed from Ellroy's prose, Hanson is able to bring the film to a pure cinematic climax. As such the scene becomes a reaffirmation of genre even as it also, by its very length and its useless beauty, stretches the limits of the form. Everything that Hollywood had taught Hanson seems to be poured into the shoot-out, which could have been lit by the great cinematographer John Alton but was instead lit by an Italian director of photography who, before production began, had never heard the term film noir. For many directors, particularly those working in Hollywood, genre can become a prison from which they never escape. For some, it can be a liberation: American commercial cinema is by design a cinema of rebels and not of revolutionaries. Just as generations of film-makers did before them, the greatest directors working within the contemporary studio system push at film form from the inside. If, during the last several decades, the genres that were so fertile during the studios' golden age now seem exhausted, L.A. Confidential pays vivid testament to the ability of American cinema to, much like the country itself, regenerate through violence.

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