All summer long, MysteryPeople has been partnering with the Authors and Auteurs book club for ‘Return to Normal,’ a film series highlighting 50s noir in fiction and cinema. Come by the store Sunday, August 6th, at 2 PM for a free screening of L.A. Confidential, followed by discussion of this essential work.
- Review by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery
MysteryPeople’s summer collaboration with the Authors and Auteurs book club ends with a screening and discussion of one of the most ambitious crime film adaptations. L.A. Confidential, James Ellroy’s sprawling, dark, hyper-violent novel presents a challenge for any filmmaker to adapt – the work is over 500 pages long with three main protagonists, and several intricate plots. The result is more about capturing tone and theme than plot.
The novel concerns itself with three cops, milquetoast political climber Ed Exley, brutish Bud White, and celebrity hanger-on Jack Vincennes, in Fifties Los Angeles, chasing leads in their individual investigations (each tied to a mass shooting at a coffee shop) as well as their own demons, and serves as the third book in Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet. The heroin providing the McGuffin first appeared in the previous novel, The Big Nowhere.
L.A. Confidential uses the booming Los Angeles of the fifties, organized crime, and the picture business to look at America’s ‘bread and circuses’ culture; a triumvirate of distractions serving the powers that be as diversions from their own corruption. Ellroy also uses his setting to explore the dark side of male identity as each man is led through hell before he has a chance for his own dark redemption. All themes are portrayed vividly as Exley closes in on a serial murderer.
The story of the killer and many other parts of the novel did not make it on screen in the cinematic adaptation. Ed’s father, who figures prominently in the book, is dead in the film version (although one could argue he plays an important role in the film). Hanson and Hengeland quickly came to the decision that to get the story into a workable script, any plot that doesn’t concern all three main characters needed to be excised. The result is a much more streamlined tale that still remains intricate, creating more of a bond between the three cops, even though, as in the book, they don’t initially care for one another.
Hanson uses both cast and crew to bring out the book’s tone. All three actors, Guy Pearce (Ed Exley), Kevin Spacey (Jack Vincennes), and Russell Crowe in his star making turn as Bud White all convey different forms of male swagger and posturing, with the self-loathing it hides peeking out. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti balances both the Hollywood glitz and the mundane sleaze it covers.
L.A. Confidential shows you don’t have to be true to every plot point of a book to truly capture it. The film may not be able to delve as deep as the novel, yet it manages to hold onto the book’s dark themes. Both have found a way to be the first great epic noirs of their medium.
You can find copies of LA Confidential on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Come by this Sunday, August 6th, at 2 PM for a screening and discussion of LA Confidential, presented by MysteryPeople and the Authors and Auteurs Book Club. The screening is free and open to the public and takes place on BookPeople’s third floor.