Monday 14 February 2011


(Curtis Hanson, 1997)

An object lesson in how to alter the narrative details of a complex literary source in order to preserve its feel and tone, Curtis Hanson's 1950s-set adaptation of James Ellroy's epic novel is one of the finest Hollywood films of the 1990s.
Grand and ambitious in every particular, from the multi-stranded plotting which thrillingly converges in the final reel, through the stately, classical shooting style and lush palette from cinematographer Dante Spinotti to the mix of noir brass and orchestral melodrama in Jerry Goldsmith's superb score, the film is chiefly an exceptional entertainment.
Its pacing is expertly marshalled by Hanson, leisurely in the early stages and then tightening around the plot turns until the last act, in which everything comes together and falls apart in an unhurried blur. The characters are true to Ellroy's iconic archetypes, partly down to Brian Helgeland's terrific script, which is stuffed with sharp lines and indelible moments of quietly telling observation, and partly to the casting. All three leads are perfect, but Russell Crowe first served notice here that he was a movie star, and he stands out as the brute with a heart an a brain, Bud White. Kevin Spacey delivers a quietly mournful faded golden boy with just a few key glances, while Guy Pearce's finds his characters journey to an understanding of justice in a series of minute calibrations of his jutting jaw and strained cheek muscles; he can't afford to relax, ever, until his climactic buddy movie bonding with Crowe frees him finally to laugh. Then there are the likes of Kim Basinger, David Strathairn and James Cromwell, vividly creating characters around the principals.
If the influence of Roman Polanski's Chinatown is obvious, then Hanson's film is much slighter thematically than that dark masterpiece, and far more optimistic in it's outlook, hard though it works to address political corruption and law enforcement. It carries too much of Ellroy's pulp attitude for any high seriousness to stick.
But Hanson comes up with some memorable scenes of his own, including a couple of excellent action scenes and one immortal moment, which Steven Spielberg stole only a few years later for Minority Report, and which anybody who has seen it will recall instantly at the mention of a name: Rolo Tommassi.

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