At the time, Australian actor Guy Pearce and New Zealand actor Russell Crowe were relatively unknown in North America, and one of the film's backers, Peter Dennett, was worried about the lack of established stars in the lead roles. However, he supported Hanson's casting decisions, and this gave the director the confidence to approach Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger and Danny DeVito.
The film grossed $126 million worldwide and was critically acclaimed, holding a 99% rating at Rotten Tomatoes and an aggregated score of 90 out of 100 on Metacritic. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning two: Basinger for Best Supporting Actress and Hanson and Helgeland for Best Adapted Screenplay; it lost every other category to Titanic. In 2015, the United States Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the National Film Registry, finding it "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
In early 1950s Los Angeles, Sergeant Edmund "Ed" Exley, son of the legendary LAPD detective Preston Exley, is determined to live up to his father's reputation. His intelligence, insistence on following regulations, and cold demeanor contribute to his isolation from other officers. He exacerbates this resentment by volunteering to testify in the Bloody Christmas case against his fellow officers in exchange for a promotion to Detective Lieutenant. This goes against the advice of Captain Dudley Smith, who states that a detective should be willing to shoot a guilty man in the back for the greater good. Exley's ambition is fueled by the murder of his father, killed by an unknown assailant, whom Exley nicknames "Rollo Tomasi".
Officer Wendell "Bud" White, whom Exley considers a "mindless thug", is a plainclothes officer obsessed with violently punishing woman-beaters. One such incident leads him to confront a former cop named Leland "Buzz" Meeks, a driver for Pierce Patchett. White comes to dislike Exley after White's partner, Dick Stensland, is fired due to Exley's testimony in the Bloody Christmas scandal. Smith wants White to torture the out-of-town criminal element that attempt a foothold in Los Angeles when gangster Mickey Cohen is imprisoned for tax evasion. The Nite Owl case, a multiple homicide at a coffee shop, becomes personal after Stensland is found to be one of the victims.
Sergeant Jack Vincennes is a narcotics detective who moonlights as a technical advisor on Badge of Honor, a popular TV police drama series. He is also providing Sid Hudgens, publisher of the Hush-Hush tabloid magazine, with tips about celebrity arrests that will attract more readers to Hudgens' magazine. When he becomes involved in Hudgens' scheme to set up actor Matt Reynolds in a homosexual tryst with L.A. district attorney Ellis Loew, and Reynolds is killed as a result, Vincennes becomes determined to find the killer.
Three African Americans are initially charged with the Nite Owl murders, and later killed in a shootout. Although the Nite Owl crime initially looks like a botched robbery, Exley and White individually investigate it to discover indications of corruption all around them. White recognizes Nite Owl victim Susan Lefferts as one of Meeks' escorts which leads him back to Pierce Patchett, operator of Fleur-de-Lis, a call girl service that runs prostitutes altered by plastic surgery to resemble film stars. He begins a relationship with Lynn Bracken, a Veronica Lake look-alike prostitute. The body count rises when White searches a storage room under Lefferts' mother's house, and finds the decomposed corpse of Meeks.
When Vincennes approaches Smith with the evidence he has found with Exley, Smith realizes his scheme to take over Mickey Cohen's heroin empire is threatened. Smith shoots Vincennes, who utters "Rollo Tomasi" before dying, the origin of which Exley told Vincennes in confidence. Exley's suspicions are aroused when Smith asks him who Rollo Tomasi is. During an interrogation of Hudgens, Smith arranges for White to see photos of Bracken sleeping with Exley, which sends White into a rage. Confident that White has gone after Exley to kill him, Smith kills Hudgens. Exley investigates and discovers Meeks and Stensland used to work closely with Smith. White drives to the police station and begins to fight Exley, but Exley is able to convince White that Smith is corrupt and has set them both up. The two decide to team together to take down Smith. They are able to obtain evidence against Smith by threatening Loew, and later find Patchett murdered. Exley and White realize that Smith himself has been taking over after Cohen, and the killings have been Smith tying up loose ends.
Exley and White are set up with a trap against Smith and his hitmen. After a gunfight that kills all the hitmen, Smith shoots White in the face, but then is forced to surrender to Exley. As police arrive, Exley shoots Smith in the back, killing him. The LAPD cover up Smith's crimes and say he died a hero in the shootout to protect the department's image, and in exchange Exley bargains to also be hailed a hero and receives a medal for his bravery. Upon leaving City Hall, Exley sees Bracken, who tells him she is returning home to Arizona with White, revealing White survived the shooting. Exley and White shake hands and Bracken drives off into the sunset.
Curtis Hanson had read half a dozen of James Ellroy's books before L.A. Confidential and was drawn to its characters, not the plot. He said, "What hooked me on them was that, as I met them, one after the other, I didn't like them - but as I continued reading, I started to care about them." Ellroy's novel also made Hanson think about Los Angeles and provided him with an opportunity to "set a movie at a point in time when the whole dream of Los Angeles, from that apparently golden era of the '20s and '30s, was being bulldozed." Screenwriter Brian Helgeland was originally signed to Warner Bros. to write a Viking film with director Uli Edel and then worked on an unproduced modern-day King Arthur story. Helgeland was a long-time fan of Ellroy's novels. When he heard that Warner Bros. had acquired the rights to L.A. Confidential in 1990, he lobbied to script the film. However, at the time, the studio was only talking to well-known screenwriters. When he finally did get a meeting, it was canceled two days before it was to occur.
Helgeland found that Hanson had been hired to direct and met with him while the filmmaker was making The River Wild. They found that they not only shared a love for Ellroy's fiction but also agreed on how to adapt Confidential into a film. According to Helgeland, they had to "remove every scene from the book that didn't have the three main cops in it, and then to work from those scenes out." According to Hanson, he "wanted the audience to be challenged but at the same time I didn't want them to get lost". They worked on the script together for two years, with Hanson turning down jobs and Helgeland writing seven drafts for free. The two men also got Ellroy's approval of their approach. He had seen Hanson's films, The Bedroom Window and Bad Influence and found him to be "a competent and interesting storyteller", but was not convinced that his book would be made into a film until he talked to the eventual director. He later said, "They preserved the basic integrity of the book and its main theme. Brian and Curtis took a work of fiction that had eight plotlines, reduced those to three, and retained the dramatic force of three men working out their destiny."
Warner executive Bill Gerber showed the script to Michael Nathanson, CEO of New Regency Productions, which had a deal with the studio. Nathanson loved it, but they had to get the approval from the owner of New Regency, Arnon Milchan. Hanson prepared a presentation that consisted of 15 vintage postcards and pictures of L.A. mounted on posterboards, and made his pitch to Milchan. The pictures consisted of orange groves, beaches, tract homes in the San Fernando Valley, and the opening of the Hollywood Freeway to symbolize the image of prosperity sold to the public.
Then, Hanson showed the darker side of Ellroy's novel with the cover of scandal rag Confidential and the famous shot of Robert Mitchum coming out of jail after his marijuana bust. He also had photographs of jazz musicians Zoot Sims, Gerry Mulligan, and Chet Baker to represent the popular music people of the time. Hanson emphasized that the period detail would be in the background and the characters in the foreground. Milchan was impressed with his presentation and agreed to finance it.
Hanson had seen Russell Crowe in Romper Stomper and found him "repulsive and scary, but captivating". The actor had read Ellroy's The Black Dahlia but not L.A. Confidential. When he read the script, Crowe was drawn to Bud White's "self-righteous moral crusade". Crowe fit the visual preconception of Bud. Hanson put the actor on tape doing a few scenes from the script and showed it to the film's producers, who agreed to cast him as Bud. Guy Pearce auditioned like countless other actors, and Hanson felt that he "was very much what I had in mind for Ed Exley." The director purposely did not watch the actor in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, afraid that it might influence his decision. As he did with Crowe, Hanson taped Pearce and showed it to the producers, who agreed he should be cast as Ed. Pearce did not like Ed when he first read the screenplay and remarked, "I was pretty quick to judge him and dislike him for being so self-righteous ... But I liked how honest he became about himself. I knew I could grow to respect and understand him."
Milchan was against casting "two Australians" in the American period piece (Pearce wryly commented in a later interview that while both he and Crowe grew up in Australia, he is British by birth, while Crowe is a New Zealander). Besides their national origins, both Crowe and Pearce were relative unknowns in North America, and Milchan was equally worried about the lack of film stars in the lead roles.
However, Milchan supported Hanson's casting decisions and this gave the director the confidence to approach Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito and Kevin Spacey. Hanson cast Crowe and Pearce because he wanted to "replicate my experience of the book. You don't like any of these characters at first, but the deeper you get into their story, the more you begin to sympathize with them. I didn't want actors audiences knew and already liked."
A third Australian actor unknown to American audiences at the time, Simon Baker, later to star in the TV series The Mentalist, was cast in the smaller but noteworthy role of Matt Reynolds, a doomed young bisexual actor. He was billed as Simon Baker Denny in the film's credits.
Hanson felt that the character of Jack Vincennes was "a movie star among cops", and thought of Spacey, with his "movie-star charisma," casting him specifically against type. The director was confident that the actor "could play the man behind that veneer, the man who also lost his soul," and when he gave him the script, he told him to think of Dean Martin while in the role. Hanson cast Basinger because he felt that she "was the character to me. What beauty today could project the glamor of Hollywood's golden age?"
To give his cast and crew points and counterpoints to capture Los Angeles in the 1950s, Hanson held a "mini-film festival", showing one film a week: The Bad and the Beautiful, because it epitomized the glamorous Hollywood look; In a Lonely Place, because it revealed the ugly underbelly of Hollywood glamor; Don Siegel's The Lineup and Private Hell 36, "for their lean and efficient style"; and Kiss Me Deadly, because it was "so rooted in the futuristic '50s: the atomic age." Hanson and the film's cinematographer Dante Spinotti agreed that the film would be shot widescreen, and studied two Cinemascope films from the period: Douglas Sirk's The Tarnished Angels and Vincente Minnelli's Some Came Running.
Before filming took place, Hanson brought Crowe and Pearce to Los Angeles for two months to immerse them in the city and the time period. He also got them dialect coaches, showed them vintage police training films, and introduced them to real-life cops. Pearce found the contemporary police force had changed too much to be useful research material and disliked the police officer he rode along with because he was racist. The actor found the police films more valuable because "there was a real sort of stiffness, a woodenness about these people" that he felt Exley had as well. Crowe studied Sterling Hayden in Stanley Kubrick's The Killing "for that beefy manliness that came out of World War II". For six weeks, Crowe, Pearce, Hanson and Helgeland conducted rehearsals, which consisted of their discussing each scene in the script. As other actors were cast they would join in the rehearsals.
Hanson did not want the film to be an exercise in nostalgia, and so had Spinotti shoot it like a contemporary film, and use more naturalistic lighting than in a classic film noir. He told Spinotti and the film's production designer Jeannine Oppewall to pay great attention to period detail, but to then "put it all in the background". L.A. Confidential was shot on location.
Jerry Goldsmith's score for the film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Dramatic Score, but lost to James Horner's score for Titanic.
The film was screened at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival. According to Hanson, Warner did not want it shown at Cannes, because they felt that there was an "anti-studio bias ... So why go and come home a loser?" However, Hanson wanted to debut the film at a high-profile, international venue like Cannes. He and other producers bypassed the studio and sent a print directly to the festival's selection committee, which loved it. Ellroy saw the film and said, "I understood in 40 minutes or so that it is a work of art on its own level. It was amazing to see the physical incarnation of the characters."
L.A. Confidential was released on September 19, 1997, in 769 theaters, grossing $5.2 million on its opening weekend. On October 3, it was given an expanded release in 1,625 theaters. It went on to make $64.6 million in North America and $61.6 million in the rest of the world, for a worldwide total of $126.2 million.
On Rotten Tomatoes L.A. Confidential has an approval rating of 99%, with 107 out of 108 reviews being positive. The site's critical consensus reads, "Taut pacing, brilliantly dense writing and Oscar-worthy acting combine to produce a smart, popcorn-friendly thrill ride." On Metacritic the film received a score of 90 out of 100, based on 28 critics, indicating "universal acclaim". On CinemaScore, audiences gave the film an average grade of "A–" on an A+ to F scale.
Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and described it as "seductive and beautiful, cynical and twisted, and one of the best films of the year." Later, he included it as one of his "Great Movies" and described it as "film noir, and so it is, but it is more: Unusually for a crime film, it deals with the psychology of the characters ... It contains all the elements of police action, but in a sharply clipped, more economical style; the action exists not for itself but to provide an arena for the personalities". In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "Mr. Spacey is at his insinuating best, languid and debonair, in a much more offbeat performance than this film could have drawn from a more conventional star. And the two Australian actors, tightly wound Mr. Pearce and fiery, brawny Mr. Crowe, qualify as revelations." Desson Howe, in his review for The Washington Post, praised the cast: "Pearce makes a wonderful prude who gets progressively tougher and more jaded. New Zealand-born Crowe has a unique and sexy toughness; imagine Mickey Rourke without the attitude. Although she's playing a stock character, Basinger exudes a sort of chaste sultriness. Spacey is always enjoyable."
In his review for The Globe and Mail, Liam Lacey wrote, "The big star is Los Angeles itself. Like Roman Polanski's depiction of Los Angeles in the '30s in Chinatown, the atmosphere and detailed production design are a rich gel where the strands of narrative form." USA Today gave the film three and a half stars out of four, saying of the screenplay, "It appears as if screenwriters Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson have pulled off a miracle in keeping multiple stories straight. Have they ever. Ellroy's novel has four extra layers of plot and three times as many characters ... the writers have trimmed unwieldy muscle, not just fat, and gotten away with it." In his review for Newsweek, David Ansen wrote, "L.A. Confidential asks the audience to raise its level a bit, too—you actually have to pay attention to follow the double-crossing intricacies of the plot. The reward for your work is dark and dirty fun." Richard Schickel, in his review for Time, wrote, "It's a movie of shadows and half lights, the best approximation of the old black-and-white noir look anyone has yet managed on color stock. But it's no idle exercise in style. The film's look suggests how deep the tradition of police corruption runs."
In his review for The New York Observer, Andrew Sarris wrote, "Mr. Crowe strikes the deepest registers with the tortured character of Bud White, a part that has had less cut out of it from the book than either Mr. Spacey's or Mr. Pearce's ... but Mr. Crowe at moments reminded me of James Cagney's poignant performance in Charles Vidor's Love Me or Leave Me (1955), and I can think of no higher praise." Kenneth Turan, in his review for Los Angeles Times, wrote, "The only potential audience drawback L.A. Confidential has is its reliance on unsettling bursts of violence, both bloody shootings and intense physical beatings that give the picture a palpable air of menace. Overriding that, finally, is the film's complete command of its material." In his review for The Independent, Ryan Gilbey wrote, "In fact, it's a very well made and intelligent picture, assembled with an attention to detail, both in plot and characterisation, that you might have feared was all but extinct in mainstream American cinema." Richard Williams, in his review for The Guardian, wrote, "L.A. Confidential gets just about everything right. The light, the architecture, the slang, the music ... a wonderful Lana Turner joke. A sense, above all, of damaged people arriving to make new lives and getting seduced by the scent of night-blooming jasmine, the perfume of corruption."
L.A. Confidential was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won two, Kim Basinger for Best Actress in a Supporting Role and Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland for Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay). It was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Dramatic Score and Best Sound Mixing (Andy Nelson, Anna Behlmer and Kirk Francis), but lost all the categories to Titanic. Basinger tied for the Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role – Motion Picture with Gloria Stuart from Titanic at the 4th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards.
TIME magazine ranked L.A. Confidential as the best film of 1997. The National Society of Film Critics also ranked it as the year's best film and Curtis Hanson was voted Best Director. The New York Film Critics Circle also voted L.A. Confidential as the year's best film in addition to ranking Hanson as best director, and he and Brian Helgeland with the best screenplay. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Board of Review also voted L.A. Confidential as the year's best film. As a result, it is one of three films in history to sweep the "Big Four" critics awards, alongside Schindler's List (1993) and The Social Network (2010).
It was also voted as the best film set in Los Angeles in the last 25 years by a group of Los Angeles Times writers and editors with two criteria: "The movie had to communicate some inherent truth about the L.A. experience, and only one film per director was allowed on the list." In 2009, the London Film Critics' Circle voted L.A. Confidential one of the best films of the last 30 years.
American Film InstituteAFI's 100 Years...100 Movies—Nominated
AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills – Nominated
AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition)—Nominated
A DVD was released on April 21, 1998. In addition to the film, it included two featurettes, an interactive map of Los Angeles, a music-only track, a theatrical trailer, and three TV spots.
A two-disc Special Edition was released on DVD and Blu-ray on September 23, 2008. Both sets contain the same bonus content. In addition to the features from the original DVD, included are four new featurettes, the 1999 pilot of the proposed TV series starring Kiefer Sutherland, and film commentary by critic-historian Andrew Sarris, James Ellroy, Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Guy Pearce, James Cromwell, Ruth Myers, David Strathairn, Kim Basinger, Brian Helgeland, Jeannine Oppewall, Dante Spinotti and Danny DeVito. Some sets included a six-song sampler from the film's soundtrack.
On September 26, 2017, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, the current distributor and part owner of New Regency, will re-release the film on Blu-ray as part of its 20th anniversary. The Blu-ray's special features include the unaired TV pilot, From Book to Screen, music-only tracks and audio commentaries.