Published September 1, 1997
Anyone who may still be treasuring fond memories of the 1950s has got to have a hard time of it in coming up against the tendency of late 20th century culture—which seems to be obsessed with the notion that that decade was a horrible time in America’s history. Well, you may think as I do that they protest too much. It is because those who are old enough to remember know the inaccuracy of the politically correct version of the 50s—as the last gasp of patriarchy and racism and sexism and hypocrisy—that the cultural progressives must work so hard to convince us of it. That is why, when Hollywood returns to that period, it so often goes out of its way to convince us that Ozzie and Harriet America is not the ideal but the anti-ideal—a sinister mask for all that is ugliest in the human spirit.
If it is “Ozzie and Harriet” which is so often the target of the decade’s detractors, it is “Dragnet” which is getting the same treatment in L.A. Confidential, a new film directed by Curtis Hanson from the novel by James Ellroy. Here the show is thinly disguised as “Badge of Honor” and it occupies a place in the background of the action for the sole purpose of showing up the fraud, as these film-makers see it, of any idea of “honor” being attached to the LAPD. It is, of course, now well known that the pre-riots LAPD was corrupt and racist and violent, but L.A. Confidential is here to tell you that you had no idea of how far it went, of how, after having protected the gangster and tax-evader, Mickey Cohen, for years, the LAPD decided not only to take over his rackets themselves but to summarily execute any rivals left over from the Cohen empire. Threatened with exposure, the bad cops (who, the final scene seems to suggest, were all the cops except two) ruthlessly murdered those who knew anything about their malefactions.
What? You don’t remember reading this story in the history books? Well, some licence has been taken with the facts ( “Just the facts, ma’am” is here only a comical catch-phrase from “Dragnet,” brought in at a key moment in order to discredit the show further). Instead of the 1950s style of “just the facts, ma’am,” L.A. Confidential has just the speculation and theory and conjecture and paranoia, ma’am, of the 1990s, and we are supposed to think it a beneficial exchange.
For some reason, the cast is dominated by Australians. James Cromwell, the lovable farmer from Babe plays Dudley Smith, a sinister police Captain who is in charge of the massive conspiracy. Guy Pearce plays Lt. Edmund Exley, an idealistic young officer whose father was killed by a perp and who wants to live up to the old man’s brilliant promise. Russell Crowe plays Officer Wendell, “Bud,” White, a sensitive soul under a ruthless exterior who saw his father beat his mother to death with a tire iron and ever since has had a thing about wife-beaters: he hates them and beats them up every chance he gets. He also beats a lot of other people up. He falls hard for Kim Basinger, a prostitute who makes her living by impersonating Veronica Lake for her johns. In addition, Kevin Spacey plays Sgt Jack Vincennes, the technical adviser to “Badge of Honor” and rather a preening peacock, but in the end one of the few good guys, while Danny De Vito plays the gossip columnist, Sid Hutchens, the editor of a scandal sheet called Hush Hush.
There is a lot more, but the story is much too long and convoluted to re-tell. You will know all you need to know about it if I tell you that it involves the following:
An incident of police brutality against Mexican Americans, for which a suitable scapegoat is found to bear all the blame.
Police solidarity against “ratting out” any colleague, however guilty, which only Exley willingly breaches
A mass murder which the cops pin on three young black kids, though in fact the cops do it.
The discovery by Exley, White and Vincennes of Smith’s evil racket and the final face off in a gun battle between the two good cops left alive and, seemingly, the rest of the force.
In a final moment of irony, the idealistic Exley, after having explicitly denied to an amused Smith (for whom it is obviously standard procedure) that he would shoot someone in the back whom he knew to be guilty but couldn’t convict, must decide whether or not to shoot Smith in the back. What do you think he does?
It’s a long way to go round in order to discover that maybe things haven’t changed so much since the 1950s after all. It doesn’t really matter anyway. All that matters is stoking up the paranoia of the 1990s.