Neo-noir II: ‘This Gun for Hire’ and ‘Roman Holiday’ in ‘L.A. Confidential’

In 1997, four years after Robert Benton’s Twilight, Curtis Hanson made the early-’50s period piece L.A. Confidential. The movie garnered a lot of praise: Oscars for its screenplay (adapted from James Ellroy’s novel of the same name) and Kim Basinger’s performance, and Best Picture nods from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review. (It got beaten out for the Academy Award by the juggernaut Titanic.)

A quarter-century on, the movie holds up pretty well, and one of the best things about is the way it depicts L.A. of the time as so wrapped up in the Dream Factory that it doesn’t know what’s real and what’s Hollywood fantasy. This is clear from the opening-credit sequence, narrated by the gossip-purveyor played by Danny DeVito (another of the best things about it).

Badge of Honor is a fictional show, clearly based on Dragnet, with its valorizing portrayal of the LAPD. But the the titles on the marquees that appear just about every time the characters take a stroll are of real films, judiciously selected by Hanson for maximum ironic effect.
Danny DeVito and Kevin Spacey, as a bent cop; “When Worlds Collide” in the background.
For more on the movie back-lighting Russell Crowe, see ‘The Bad and the Beautiful’ in ‘Two Weeks in Another Town’

Mild spoiler to follow. At the center of the plot, and Exhibit A in the fantasy-reality mixup, is an enterprise (apparently based on a real one) in which prostitutes are made up, or have had plastic surgery, to resemble movie stars. Basinger’s character is supposed to be Veronica Lake, and her john is apparently so into the deception that he insists on screening Lake movies at their assignations — here, the noir This Gun for Hire. Fans of Taxi Driver should pay attention to the first words out of Alan Ladd’s mouth.

It’s a delicious moment, but as L.A. Confidential goes on, the movie-in-movie moments get a bit obvious. Not once, but twice, cops bust open the door to scenes of degradation and violence to find a TV tuned to something anodyne (in one case the 1932 cartoon “Noah’s Outing,” in the other, Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall). And (another spoiler) when tormented cop Crowe and heart-of-gold hooker Basinger fall for each other, is it any surprise that their date movie is Roman Holiday? Yup, we get it: they want to escape to a world that’s less, well, noir.

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