Skip to main content

The Best LA Detective Movie: LA Confidential

With Gangster Squad coming to theaters this Friday, we've decided to take a look at some of our favorite Los Angeles detective stories, and what they tell us about the city they depict. Yesterday, Katey Rich sang the praises of Robert Altman's 1973 noir The Long Goodbye. Today, Mack is tackling L.A. Confidential.

The world may have changed quite a bit in the six decades since men like Bud White, Ed Exley and Jack Vincennes roamed the California streets with badges, but a handful of things haven’t moved an inch. A simple, well-tailored suit is still the epitome of men’s fashion, and the exterior and interior images of Los Angeles have remained two different sides of the same coin. As Danny DeVito so precisely points out in his opening narration of L.A. Confidential, there is the Los Angeles the movies are invested in selling you, and there is the seedy underbelly that remains hidden to outsiders.

Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential works, and works extremely well, because it has a fundamental understanding of its title city. It realizes all the glitz and glamour of Tinseltown requires a messy and dangerous generator to run it, that behind every Veronica Lake is a Veronica Lake lookalike willing to prostitute herself and behind every Badge Of Honor is a dirty cop consultant willing to testify against his fellow officers as a means to retain his one small connection to fame. It’s a strange and perverted take on Simba’s Circle of Life. Every element is needed, even if all involved pretend otherwise.

Tabloid journalist Sid Hudgens may have destroyed some careers in his day by paying off police officers like Vincennes to conveniently bust Hollywood favorites in front of the glaring eyes of the camera, but in his own way, he adds more money to the pot too—just like Pierce Morehouse Patchett’s “celebrity” hookers and Mickey Cohen’s illegal ordered chaos. Whether by direct path or winding tributaries, it all flows together like rivers to the same dumping ground, and the same idea applies to the police force too. To truly fire on all cylinders, it needs Vincennes’ smooth talking, White’s brutal intensity and Exley's interest in playing by the rules. They all affect one another, and they all push each other more toward the middle.

L.A. Confidential is filled with brilliant acting and wonderful characters. A strong case could be made that a dozen or so actors from James Cromwell to Kim Basinger to David Strathairn squeeze the most out of every single line they’re given, but even amdist all of those wonderful people, the one true stand-out is the city of Los Angeles. Just as today, the sprawling destination is a hodge podge of vaguely-connected people, places and ideas. It is a cesspool and/ or the picture of prosperity, depending on what angle and with what glasses one looks at it from. It is everything and nothing, filled with the most famous people on Earth and millions making money within the shadows they cast. L.A. Confidential gets that, and it unfurls its vision around a wonderful and engaging mystery that proves you can’t have the light without the dark, the surgery without the scars or the truth without layers and layers of lies.

Los Angeles is the most beautiful place on Earth. That it’s also a corrosive hell hole is simply a detail for the insiders to deal with. No movie better understands that than L.A. Confidential, the greatest LA detective story ever told.

L.A. Confidential is available to purchase at Amazon.

Mack Rawden
Mack Rawden

Enthusiastic about Clue, case-of-the-week mysteries, the NBA and cookies at Disney World. Less enthusiastic about the pricing structure of cable, loud noises and Tuesdays.