Note from Anne Marie: Please welcome again the fabulously talented Margaret, who’s covering The Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot challenge here while I binge-watch Katharine Hepburn movies for TFE. I leave you in her capable hands.
Boys and girls, don’t make the same mistakes I have. Never watch L.A. Confidential when it plays on your local network affiliate. It’s amazing how much the removal of a few f-bombs can ruin the emotional stakes of a scene, especially when you factor in the world’s laziest dubbing. Imagine Russell Crowe’s furious, rain-soaked face bellowing “You [DID] him..you [DID] him!” to a weeping Kim Basinger. Totally ruins the tone.
The uncensored L.A. Confidential is much easier to take seriously. A riff on the dirty Hollywood noir, it focuses on the venal Los Angeles police force of the early 50s, and the paths of Officers Bud White and Ed Exley as they navigate the questionably moral system of their department and uncover a network of corruption.
Crowe’s Bud White is a simple brute. Sure, they try to humanize and sensitize him with his woman-protecting crusade, but he’s a blunt object. Pearce’s Ed Exley, on the other hand, is as sharp as they come. A little too transparently thirsty for status and acclaim in his police force, he’s savvy, cocky, and almost smug about his categorical unwillingness to engage in the seedy culture of his department in the name of “justice.”
(Pearce is so entirely excellent in this movie, I can’t help but wish that he had been the one to become our big bankable movie star, and that Russell Crowe would be relegated mostly to ensemble pieces and the occasional direct-to-DVD. Because I’m mad at Russell Crowe for having the career Guy Pearce should have had, this write-up will have nothing to do with him.)
We’re introduced to Exley in uniform, looking freshly scrubbed and sporting somber rimless spectacles. Twice in the first 20 minutes we hear higher-ups, noting his ambition, advise him to the lose the glasses if he wants to get anywhere.
It may be a kind of Film-school-101 motif, but Exley’s glasses do a great deal to telegraph his arc over the course of the film. We see him wearing his glasses when he’s looking critically at his department the cases in front of him. Every time he narcs on a fellow cop and every time he puts two and two together on a case, the glasses are on. The glasses also help separate him from his peers, and it could be argued that they symbolize his power to see things as an outsider and look critically at the network of corruption around him.
When Exley tries to blend in with the force, and participates in the (morally questionable) antics of his peers, the glasses are off.
As the main case unravels and Exley starts to piece together that his accolades and status in the force have been built on a foundation of cover-ups and lies, he slaps the glasses back on and waxes self-reflective about how he had ‘lost sight’ of what made him want to be a cop.
At the beginning of the movie, Captain Dudley Smith asks him if he’d be willing to shoot a known perpetrator in the back to ensure that he wouldn’t get away with his crimes in the court of law. Firmly, proudly, he said no. Of course, it turns out that Smith is the high priest of the murderous corruption in his ranks, and the moral climax of the movie sees Exley (glasses on) decide that, after all, he can shoot a perpetrator in the back rather than run the risk of seeing him go free.
After all his moralizing, Exley has rolled in the dirt with the people he used to hold in contempt. His prized moral superiority is a thing of the past. The higher-ups want to cover up Smith’s crimes and say he died a hero in the shootout. They size Exley up through the one-way mirror of the interrogation room, suspicious that former ‘Golden Boy’ Ed Exley won’t play ball. Exley, finally warming to the LAPD way of doing things, agrees on the condition that he be named a hero as well. He smirks. He’s shot someone in the back, and he’s taking a hero’s reward for it. His glasses, the main visual cue for his distance from the corruption of his colleagues, are gone for good. He’s given in. He’s one of them: a real L.A. cop.