BFI Classics: LA Confidential

Author: Manohla Dargis

LA Confidential was the film that should have failed. For a start, it’s based on one of James Ellroy’s signature Gordian knots of sleaze, death and violence in post-war Hollywood. Reducing several hundreds of pages of that to a screenplay while keeping intact the suffocating intensity was no mean feat, and Manohla Dargis’ entry into the BFI Modern Classics series does an excellent job of explaining how it was done.

Dargis’ main point is that director Curtis Hanson succeeded in turning LA Confidential into an Oscar-nominee by not trying to directly translate Ellroy’s book into moving pictures. She meticulously sets out the differences in plot, dialogue, characterisation and cast of players between book and film and discusses how these changes turn the book and the film into distinct entities. (For example, in the novel the role of Inez Soto is far more prominent.)

In Dargis’ view, and you can’t help but agree with her, Hanson’s version of LA Confidential is more like an homage to the book. This approach allowed him to create a story that was uniquely his own and played to the strengths of his chosen medium – the film relies heavily on facial expression, action and framing devices to drive the plot and characterisations in ways that the book obviously can’t.

LA Confidential emerged almost a full decade before Brian de Palma’s ill-fated attempt to bring Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia to the screen – it’s a shame this little book wasn’t available to him to explain to him how that Hanson kid made it look so damn easy.

Clare Moody

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