Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Day 167: LA Confidential

Curtis Hanson directed LA Confidential and co-wrote the film with Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by James Ellroy (part of his 'LA Trilogy') and it is one of my favourite detective movies.

A box office-disappointment, it received huge critical acclaim and garnered nine Academy Award nominations, winning two: one for Hanson and Helgeland’s screenplay and the other for Kim Basinger’s support role as call-girl Lynn Bracken.

The story is dense, convoluted, weaving in on itself and has us follow three LAPD cops - Officer Wendell “Bud” White (Russell Crowe), Sergeant Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) and Sergeant Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) - all three of whom are caught up in, and investigate the Nite Owl slayings (a multiple murder at a coffee shop).

It’s the early 1950’s in Los Angeles and the lines of corruption, sex, lies and murder, blur, between the law-makers and the law-breakers. It’s equal parts glamour and violence and the body count his high; seems that crime-on-film and the two major cities of California are familiar bedfellows: The Maltese Falcon (San Francisco), Chinatown (LA), Basic Instinct (San Francisco), Vertigo (San Francisco), Bullitt (San Francisco), The Big Sleep (LA?), Dirty Harry (San Francisco), The Black Dahlia (LA), Zodiac (San Francisco).

The plots in most of these stories are complexed and demand several viewings, perhaps that’s why these stories of the ‘dark arts‘ make for my favourite films? I like to revisit LA Confidential again and again, each time, discovering another little piece of the investigative jigsaw that I hadn’t picked up on before. I’m not meant to solve the crime on first watching, that’s an implicit deal that I make with the filmmakers, however, when the architect of the crimes is eventually revealed in the climactic moments, I am meant to nod and think to myself “why didn’t I see that?”

Every time I watch either The Maltese Falcon, Chinatown, The Big Sleep or LA Confidential, I wonder what it is that endears these films to me; stories set in a very different, hard-bolied time and place to that of mine and my life, today? It would be easy to hang it on the sartorial elegance of the detective (private or otherwise) or lazy of me to pin it on my attraction to the smouldering love interest - Lauren Bacall, Faye Dunaway, Kim Novak - but it’s got to be more, something, dare I say it, deeper?

I’ve made a great study of the detective-on-film and, with a few exceptions, they’re all hewn from the same stone: a drinker, smoker, loner, ladies man (with a failed relationship somewhere in the past), a man prepared to step outside the law to get the job done, if he’s a cop he’s often despised by his superiors yet they love the results he gets, he’s violent, troubled, smart, smart-mouthed and lives on the margins of society. The actors that get to play the memorable detectives bring a vital unpredictability to these roles - whether it’s Mark Ruffalo in the recent Meg Ryan vehicle In The Cut or Gene Hackman in Mississippi Burning or Tommy Lee Jones in In The Valley of Elah.

They are volatile men but they are not two-dimensional, their writers and creators give them contradictory character traits: Russell Crowe’s “Bud” White, in LA Confidential, abhors men who beat up on women, but come one of his moments of unguarded rage later in the film and he hits the woman he loves, so becoming the very thing that he loathes. Sergeant White is best deployed -professionally - using his brawn and the brute strength of his fists, yet he metaphorically floors Basinger’s Lyn Bracken with his sincere words in one of the film’s finest moments.

Lyn Bracken is a call girl “cut” to look like a movie star, in her case, Veronica Lake (a femme fatale in many noir films with Alan Ladd); if you are wealthy enough then your money will buy you time with Lynn, doubling as Lake. But Lyn Bracken and Bud White fall for each other and in the moment that clinches Bud’s claim on her, this is the deftest moment of the 3/4 pages of dialogue that take place:

BUD: You fuck for money.
LYNN: There’s blood on your shirt. Is that an integral part of your job?
BUD: Yeah.
LYNN: Do you enjoy it?
BUD: When they deserve it?
LYNN: Did they deserve it today?
BUD: Last night. And I’m not sure.
LYNN: But you did it anyway.
BUD: Yeah, just like the half dozen guys you screwed today.
LYNN: (laughs) Actually, it was two. You’re different Officer White. You’re the first man in five years who didn’t tell me I look like Veronica Lake inside of a minute.
BUD: You look better than Veronica Lake.

Day #167 Tip: Work the dialogue
If I knew what to tell anyone, to ensure that they wrote the greatest dialogue going. d’you think I’d be sitting here, banging out a blog?

The best advice I can give is this (i) follow the method I’ve espoused (of Robert McKee’s) that will lead you to writing ONLY what the characters NEED to say and NO MORE (ii) read scripts and watch great films again and again and again (iii) go back over the dialogue in your script again and again and again, cutting, cutting, cutting (iv) cut all of your CLEVER lines (vi) in the hands of great actors, that might be cast to play your characters, be in on rehearsals and the shoot and cut some more and then some more. When you think you’re done, see if there’s any more extraneous, superfluous, look-how-high-I-can-jump stuff and definately cut that.

It’s a late one today, time for some dinner.

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