Copyright © 1998 Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture
All rights reserved.
Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 6(1) (1998) 18-22
L.A. Confidential: A Review
Director: Curtis Hanson
Writer: James Ellroy
Release Information: Regency Enterprises (1997), 136
minutes, 35 mm
MMPA Rating: R
Set in the early 1950's, at a time when
Hollywood's glamour still reigned, L.A. Confidential
is a story about two cops -- one all muscle and good
intentions, the other all brains and big ambitions --
who are thrown into conflict by a murder case that
stretches from an all-night diner where six bodies are
found to City Hall. Along the way, viewers are
exposed to portrayals of various aspects of policing
as well as an interesting story line and exemplary
acting. Based on James Ellroy's celebrated best
seller, L.A. Confidential is a crime drama with the
intelligence, sex appeal, humor, danger, and action to
satisfy a wide audience.
The movie begins with the arrest of Mickey Cohen
(Harvey Keitel), L.A.'s major mob boss, who is jailed
for tax evasion, thus creating a huge gap in the crime
world that has many folks scrambling to take over.
Los Angeles is facing an unprecedented wave of
violence, as members of the Cohen mob are being killed
left and right . . . . and then comes the Nite Owl
Massacre - six victims, one an ex-cop, are gunned down
in the Nite Owl Cafe on Christmas Eve.
Three investigators begin to tackle the case:
Bud White (Russell Crowe), known for his use of
violence, however necessary or unnecessary; Jack
Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), technical advisor to Badge
of Honor, the popular television series about the
LAPD, and not averse to taking bribes for highly
publicized "busts" from Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito),
editor of Hush Hush tabloid magazine; and Ed Exley
(Guy Pearce) determined to do things the "right" way
for justice to be served but hated by his fellow
officers for snitching when Mexican prisoners are
beaten by the police for superficial reasons. Each
character represents a different piece of the "murder
puzzle" that cannot be solved unless they agree to
cooperate with one another. Yet, such cooperation
does not come easy, as none of these three cops like
each other and none are driven by the same motive.
Careerism, love, and a highly-unexpected sense of
guilt all come into play, but not before the viewer is
exposed to the various (and seemingly unrelated) plot
As the detectives begin to see the story unfold
before them, inconsistencies appear and suspicion
begins to form in their minds about the quick
resolution to the Nite Owl case and the people who may
or may not have connections to it. Investigation of
the case leads the detectives on a journey through the
lower rungs and upper-reaches of L.A. society, which
provides the foundation of the movie. [End page 18]
In addition to providing over two hours of
intense excitement, L.A. Confidential exposes accounts
of various policing issues and the roots of several
social problems currently existing in the city. For
example, there's rape, police beatings, a police riot,
gunplay, racism, prostitution, corruption, betrayal,
drug use, fighting, pornographic photos, death, secret
alliances, and paparazzi waiting to get that one
breakthrough picture -- basically a stroll through the
underside of Hollywood. But it's all done in the
service of an interesting story through which several
policing issues appear.
Adler, Mueller, and Laufer (1994: 564) defined
police subculture as a "set of norms and values that
govern police behavior, brought about by stressful
working conditions plus daily interaction with an
often hostile public." According to this definition,
examples of the police officer subculture are abundant
in L.A. Confidential. For example, the aforementioned
beating of the Mexican prisoners and the refusal of
several officers to testify against fellow officers
involved in the incident (as several officers noted:
"I won't testify against my partner or anyone else"
and "No thanks. I'm not a snitch") and the subsequent
chastising of Exley, who tried to prevent the
violence, suggest that the police subculture was
"alive and well" in the LAPD during this time.
Similar portrayals of the police subculture are
provided throughout the movie, including the failure
of officers to report several instances involving
shakedowns conducted by fellow officers and the
general lack of concern amongst the officers regarding
Examples of police corruption appear throughout
L.A. Confidential, mainly because this was a period
when corruptibility and violence were rewarded skills
of police recruits, veteran cops were often "promoted"
from the beat to the mob, and the LAPD was shifting
from a frontier mentality to one modeled on the
military. As can be noted in numerous scenes
throughout the film, police corruption played a
significant role in the LAPD of the 1950's. For
example, the aforementioned illegal beatings of the
Mexican prisoners, Vincennes' practice of taking
bribes, and various violent and non-violent shakedowns
all constitute police corruption, as does hanging a
District Attorney out of a high-rise building by his
feet, framing three African-Americans juveniles, and
executing those "in the know."
Often, when a contemporary movie sets out to be
"hard-hitting" in its depiction of corruption, it
becomes as crude and venomous as the very thing that
it's attacking. By providing an account of a "good
apple's" role (Exley) in a corrupt department, L.A.
Confidential avoids such a practice, clearly
demonstrating the realities of police corruption while
managing to avoid a cheap or cynical attitude and
refraining from overindulgence. In general, the
film's assumption is that although there's small harm
in free booze and a little graft, there are some
things a police officer simply cannot do and live with
himself. Yet, the film's resolution (which could be
understood to be that "power corrupts") is not [End page 19]
directly addressed. In other words, at the conclusion
of L.A. Confidential, particular "bad guys" are
identified, yet the entire system has not changed nor
has the viewer been given any reason to believe that
it will ever change.
L.A. Confidential helps portray the potential
"dangers" that can result from a relationship between
the police and media that is built on corruption.
Garner (1995: 41) notes that "considering the many
mutual benefits to be gained from getting along,
cooperation (between the police and media) is a win-
win proposition for both sides." Problems occur when
the cooperation is based upon, or incorporates,
unethical, illegal, and/or immoral behaviors. Such a
situation is one of the main sub-plots of L.A.
Confidential. For instance, the first glimpse the
audience gets of Vincennes involves him taking money
to arrest two small-time actors on marijuana charges,
with the whole scene having been set up by Hush Hush
magazine. Out of this deal, Jack receives fifty
dollars and is featured in the magazine's next issue,
while the magazine gets a famous cop on its cover
making an arrest.
While the present discussion is restrained to
accounts of the police subculture, police corruption,
and the police-media relationship, several other
policing issues are apparent in the movie as well.
Depictions of how the seeds of racism that would yield
riots 15 and 40 years later were being sown are
evident, as are portrayals of the lack of diversity
within the department (e.g., there were no portrayals
of female or minority officers on the LAPD).
Similarly, there was limited consideration of officer
family-life, which could be a product of the script or
an accurate depiction of a problem sometimes faced by
police officers. Finally, we see evidence of the
"good cop/bad cop" phenomenon. Exley, who is referred
to as "college boy" and scores well on the civil
service exam (i.e., a "climber" within the department
based on his intelligence, who was told that he "had
the eye for human politics, but not the stomach"),
portrays the model police officer (having won a medal
of honor, yet apparently discouraged because "true"
justice wasn't served), while White resembles the bad
cop, mainly due to his violent behavior throughout
much of the film. In general, there are few policing
issues that go unrecognized in the film.
L.A. Confidential has been compared to the movie
Chinatown, largely because both films have as their
basis an understanding that corruption is not
extraordinary in its evil, but rather comes about as a
series of initial compromises that evolve into greater
compromise. Similarly, just as Chinatown used real
estate scams of 1930's Los Angeles to enrich its film
noir story, L.A. Confidential uses police corruption
and mob influence of the 1950's as the basis for crime
drama. Yet, others might suggest that, aside from the
obvious noir detail and the setting, the only thing
the two movies really have in common is that
absolutely nothing about the crime is what it
initially seems to be. We leave it up to the viewer
to decide. [End page 20]
Finally, a brief mention of the film's portrayal
of societal disruption in Los Angeles is required. In
attempting to understand the underlying cause of such
great disruption in Hollywood during this period, one
must consider Durkheim's (1897/1951) assertion about
the functions of crime. While mob boss Mickey Cohen
was alive, there appeared to be "normality" in
Hollywood. Police, gangsters, the media, and the
public appeared to understand their places and/or
roles in society. Yet, with the arrest of Cohen,
violence ensued, leading to the disruption of
"normality." While the "normality" that existed may
not have been visible, just, fair, and/or ethical,
nevertheless there was not the disruption, violence or
chaos that existed (both within and outside of the
LAPD) after his arrest. Such a situation leads to:
(1) the question of whether the LAPD would have been
better served "leaving well-enough alone" and (2) the
need to more clearly define what it means to "serve
and protect." L.A. Confidential attempts to address
these issues, although it is the nature of policing,
and society in general, that fully satisfying answers
are not forthcoming.
Ronald Burns and Jason Seals
Texas Christian University
 While we would like to think that adverse effects
resultant from the police officer subculture in the
LAPD (and other departments as well) have diminished
since the 1950's, the findings of the Christopher
Commission and the recent attack upon security guard
Abner Louima by New York City police officers would
 For a discussion of familial problems in
policing, readers are directed to Alpert and Dunham
(1988), Arrigo and Garsky (1997), and Dempsey (1994).
 For the purposes of this review, we refrain from
further discussing "normality" other than to suggest
that it is those conditions which appear normal or
ordinary. For a more detailed discussion of
normality, the reader is referred to Henslin (1993).
Adler, F.; Mueller, G. O. W.; & Laufer, W. S. (1994).
Criminal justice. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Alpert, G. P. & Dunham, R. G. (1988). Policing urban
America. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
Arrigo, B. A. & Garsky, K. (1997). "Police suicide:
A glimpse behind the badge." In R. G. Dunham &
G.P. Alpert (Eds.), Critical Issues in
Policing (3rd Ed.). Prospect Heights, IL:
Dempsey, J. S. (1994). Policing: An introduction to
law enforcement. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing.
[End page 21]
Durkheim, E. (1897/1951). Suicide: A study in
sociology. (Trans. J. A. Spaulding & G. Simpson).
New York: Free Press.
Garner, G. W. (1995). "Meeting the press." Law and
Order, (December), 41-4.
Henslin, J. M. (1991). "The survivors of the F-227."
In J. M. Henslin (Ed.), Down to Earth Sociology
(7th Ed). New York: The Free Press.
[End page 22]