The miracle of L.A. CONFIDENTIAL is just how Curtis Hanson and co-writer Brian Helgeland squeezed James Ellroy’s third chapter of the massively complex LA QUARTET into a deliciously digestible retro thriller. They kept the characters, reveled in the period setting, and scrambled the plot until it baked into a discernable story. For those attempting to adapt the great American brick, look to Hanson & Helgeland’s efforts as the crowing achievement in cinematic variation. L.A. CONFIDENTIAL manages to find something different, but as equally exciting as James Ellroy’s plunge into the cesspool of southern California’s b.s. paradise. Where Ellroy flipped the rock to watch the roaches scatter, Hanson and Helgeland used the novel to travel back to the golden age of Film Noir heavies. Less anger, more adulation – L.A. CONFIDENTIAL is a sumptuous celebration of Hollywood where police brutality works even when it doesn’t, and the hookers with cut faces are there to soothe their crooked souls.
Curtis Hanson spent a career elevating genre cinema beyond its B-movie budgets, and L.A. CONFIDENTIAL is his ultimate conquest. He entered the art co-writing a psychedelic cheapie revision of H.P. Lovecraft’s THE DUNWICH HORROR. That led to his directorial debut of SWEET KILL, a silly slasher precursor starring Tab Hunter that barely satisfied producer Roger Corman’s necessary recipe of T&A. In 1982, Hanson supplied the script for Sam Fuller’s horrifyingly ugly WHITE DOG. This Criterion selection plumbs the depths of mankind’s fear of the other by detailing the rehabilitation of a canine trained to kill black people. It’s a story so violently hideous to watch that it simply never had a chance to reach beyond its financial limitations and find an audience.
The eyes wouldn’t turn his way until he tackled what should have been nothing more than a Lifetime movie. THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADDLE is a nearly farcical terror in which Rebecca De Mornay’s nanny plots hysterical revenge against the family she blames for her miscarriage. In the hands of another director, the film could have easily been a forgettable flop discarded to the bottom of video store’s dollar bins. Instead, Hanson channeled Hitchcock, and eked an infinite string of tension from the theatrics.
THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADDLE caught the attention of Meryl Streep who tapped Hanson for her own dive into the deep end of wannabe Hitchcock, THE RIVER WILD. Hanson never apologized for ludicrous plot devices, and proved on CRADDLE that the only way to convince an audience of the absurd is to embrace it fully. As the desperate crook on the run, Kevin Bacon chews through every line of dialogue, going toe-to-toe with Streep’s water rafting champion, and never drowning under her wave of talent. It’s a battle of performance as much as anything else, and it’s the film that brought the director to L.A. CONFIDENTIAL.
Curtis Hanson would go on to direct more traditional dramas with WONDER BOYS, 8 MILE, IN HER SHOES, and CHASING MAVERICKS. I could probably have spent most of my time here appreciating the underrated joys of Michael Douglas’s apathetic Dude professor in WONDER BOYS, but for me, Hanson will always be that guy you brought in to elevate the ridiculous. As the blockbusters break out of the summer movie season, and elbow their way into all year round entertainment, we could use more filmmakers like Hanson to spruce up our A-Movies with B-Movie hearts. Can you imagine Curtis Hanson’s TRANSFORMERS: UNICRON RISING? At the very least he would keep the camera steady on the action, and get us squirming with a ticking time bomb in Bumblebee’s trunk. No apologies, just craft.