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"L.A. Confidential"

by Cari Beauchamp

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"L.A. Confidential" is one of the few major studio films in competition this year -- and that brings back all the historic ramifications of the Hollywood - France love-hate relationships. The studios hestitate to risk a big negative buzz from international critical responjse and the French want the American stars, but they tend to dump on any film damned as commercial.

But Warners made no mistake by premiering "L.A. Confidential" in the competition for several reasons. Director Curtis Hanson is intriguing for his background as an independent known for "Bad Influence" and "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle" and forgiven for "The River Wild." While Hanson is quick to say "L.A. Confidential" is not an homage to film noir, setting the film in early 1950s Los Angeles gives a hint of the Chandleresque aura popular here. And the ensemble cast of "L.A. Confidential" features Cannes favorite Kevin Spacey ("The Usual Suspects" was received well here in 1995); focuses on two new actors in starring roles (a risk worth rewarding) while packing the star power of Danny DeVito and Kim Basinger in feature roles.

A little of this, a little of that and that is just what "L.A. Confidential" is on one level -- "Chinatown" meets "Witness" with a dash of "Big Sleep" on the side. This isn't to dismiss the film which held me intently 2/3 of the way with characters that defy sympathy yet illicit it anyway. As soon as you think you have a character pegged, a new dimension is deftly revealed. It opens with a luscious montage of clips that sets the tone for the exciting and naive place L.A. must have been in 1950 -- boom town just after the war, orange groves still plentiful while houses sread through the valley and the powerful if illusive allure of Hollywood glamour.

Kevin Spacey is divine as the brash, confident cop who advises the television show "Badge of Honor" that promotes the L.A. force as honest and upstanding while on the side he cuts deals with the tabloid king played by Danny DeVito who sets up famous prey to be busted by cop Spacey. James Cromwell of "Babe" is convincing as the head of the chief of police and if there are major roles in this ensemble production, they are played by two new faces to the American screen: Guy Pearce as the up-and-coming Machiavellian prince of a cop, ethical but totally manipulative, and Russell Crowe is very impressive as the muscle man with a soft touch for a woman in danger.

Kim Basinger's talents aren't stretched as the Veronica Lake lookalike, but the always luscious David Strathairn is unperturbable as the gentleman pimp. Hanson does an admirable job fleshing out the characters in the script he wrote with Brian Helgeland from the novel by James Ellroy. And one of the results of seeing so many films each day is that one grows to appreciate production sets, particularly in a period piece, that add important dimensions without overwhelming the actors and Jeanine Oppewall's sets do just that superbly.

In fact, all the behind the camera work is great with the exception of some of the original music which tends to overtly reveal what is coming next with its predictable tones. The end credits had yet to be added or the opening montage polished as it was rushed from the lab to the Palais screening room and that always adds an element of excitement. And while the Warners publicity people quite graciously asked that the plot ending not be revealed in the reviews, I don't think it is giving anything away to say I spent the last third of the film waiting for someone to say "It's Chinatown, Jake." Some will say that is the film's problem -- "Chinatown" presented a similar era with similar sinister characters so wonderfully that anything else is unnecessary, but I think "L.A. Confidential" deserves more than that and will stand up as a genre film worthy of audience attention.

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