' ' Cinema Romantico: Dissecting a Scene from L.A. Confidential

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Dissecting a Scene from L.A. Confidential

I am not a fan of the end of “L.A. Confidential.” I have made this well-known over the years, typically in lockstep with an argument about how “Titanic” did deserve the 1997 Best Picture Oscar, yes, absolutely, thank you very much, move along. The end of “L.A. Confidential”, and I’m talking about the post-Victory Motel shootout scenes here, is a near abomination, and one that oddly, or perhaps not, often goes unmentioned in discussions about the movie, like no one wants to acknowledge the damage it renders to all the wondrous material preceding it. William Goldman wrote the definitive takedown of the end, how it works both sides of the street, opting for cushy Hollywood-isms when everything preceding it told us that evil walked the earth. But I apologize. Here I am, in the wake of Curtis Hanson’s passing last week at the age of 71, going on about the end again. And that’s not what I want to do. Because as much I bellyache about the end I never talk about how much I love the beginning!

I am not, mind you, talking about the opening montage, which I also love, with a voiceover from Danny DeVito’s Sid Hudgens, publisher of a local gossip rag, and which Hanson puts together like a newsreel you might have been before a movie back in the day. No, I’m talking about the first scene after that montage, the introduction to Russell Crowe’s officer Bud White. I actually thought about these beginning scenes after “Independence Day Resurgence”, weird as that may sound, because “IDR”, like so many modern blockbusters that just pass out eye candy willy nilly, haven’t even the foggiest of basic storytelling, failing to even properly, let alone entertainingly, introduce main characters. “L.A. Confidential’s” introduction of Bud White is a master class.

Let’s break it down.

This is the first shot, a close-up of Bud White sitting in his squad car, and boy is it always gutsy to forgo a nice, easy establishing shot to open your movie for a close-up instead. And it is crucial that Hanson does this because he is making plain from frame one that while the movie will be rather narrative heavy, it is nonetheless principally about the people.

This is what is in Bud White’s line of vision. It is a domestic dispute. And the house, all lit up for Christmas, provides the perfect ironic framing.

Hanson cuts back to the squad car, a wider shot this time so we can see Bud’s partner, Dick Stensland (Graham Beckel), sitting in the backseat. And that he is in the backseat is a wonderful detail because it sort of evokes the idea that Stensland, who quickly turns out to be maybe be not so nice, is a perp.
(He is also drinking on the job.)

White calls in the dispute. “Have central send a prowler to 4216 Evergreen. Parole violation. Assault arising from a family dispute. We won’t be here. They’ll see him.”  

At this last line, Stensland laughs. He knows how his partner do.

Indeed, White gets outta the car with all kind of purpose and marches across the lawn.

As he does, something catches his eye.

That something is the Santa and his Reindeer display up on the roof.

White grabs the display’s electrical chord and yanks it with a righteous fury.

The display comes tumbling down...

...and lands with a rickety thud on the front walk.

The Wife Beater (Allan Graf), which is how he is billed in the script, inside hears this and literally tosses his wife aside like a rag doll.

White settles into wait and Crowe has him assume this look that is kinda like the look Craig Bierko as Max Baer gave Crowe when Crowe was James Braddock.

The guy on parole appears at the door. Hanson keeps White in the frame. A showdown looms.

And Stensland eagerly leans forward, like a spectator ringside on the edge of his seat.

“Who the hell are you?”

“The ghost of Christmas past.” And I love how Crowe has White pace to his right, winding up to throw down. 

Then White moves in, workmanlike, and slices half of the wife beater out of the frame, cutting him, shall we say, down to size.

Punches him.

Throws him into the bushes.

Cuffs him to the front stoop railing.

The violent frenzy in White’s eyes as he warns the Wife Beater of what will happen if he touches his wife again.

And then the wife and the wife beater get a moment alone, and you can see her shock transforming into “Yeah, you reap what you sow.” 

And for as much rage as he contained just instants ago, White calms right down, asks her if she has somewhere she can stay.

And then - and this is my favorite part - as she turns to go, he lifts up the electrical chord to the lighted display so she can pass below it, like he’s laying his topcoat over a puddle, this prop that was just implemented to provoke hostility now utilized in a moment of tenderness.

“Merry Christmas,” she says to White.

“Merry Christmas, ma’am,” he says, earnestly, foretellng a character whose monotone bursts of aggression come from a place of  kindly concern.  

1 comment:

Alex Withrow said...

Great breakdown. I love this scene; such a perfect character introduction. I love the way White calls in the address and opens his car door without looking toward the house. It's such a swift movement. Homeboy is ready to rumble. And the speed in which he dodges that asshole's first punch is ace.