by Travis Vogt
Curtis Hanson was already a talented and successful filmmaker before the release of his masterpiece, LA Confidential, in 1997. Bad Influence (1990) was a brisk, weird little thriller featuring an enjoyably sleazy performance from Rob Lowe. The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1992) was a surprise box office smash, featuring an enjoyably sleazy performance from Rebecca DeMornay. The River Wild (1994), a technically proficient and logistically challenging survival thriller, made an unlikely (and non-sleazy) action hero out of Meryl Streep. Hanson had been directing films for 25 years when Confidential came out, but it’s greatness still felt like it came out of the blue. It was like a solid, .260-hitting journeyman baseball player becoming a home run king in his 14th year in the big leagues. Competent directors don’t normally become great all-of-a-sudden more than halfway into their careers. Usually, the opposite happens (*cough* *cough* *Rob Reiner* *cough*).
LA Confidential was a years-in-the-making labor of love for Hanson. He poured himself into the writing process and financing. It was well worth it. It won him an extremely deserved academy award for best adapted screenplay, as he and Brian Helgeland somehow filtered the vastness of James Ellroy’s novel into a coherent and satisfying story that was not 15 hours long. It also launched him on a three-film winning streak that brought out his best qualities as a director: exemplary work with actors and creating visibly and emotionally resonant portraits of communities.
I could talk about LA Confidential for ten thousand words. I was originally going to write an article titled “The Top 20 Scenes in LA Confidential” but I had a hard time narrowing it down from my initial 100. It’s one of my 20 favorite films of all time and I’ve seen it close to 30 times. Before I move one with my actual premise, can I just quote what is quite possibly my favorite piece of dialogue in the history of film? Okay, here it is:
BUD WHITE (Russell Crowe): The Night Owl case made you, you wanna tear all that down?
ED EXLEY (Guy Pierce): With a wrecking ball. You wanna help me swing it?
WHOOO. Gives me goosebumps every time. But outside of the incredible dialogue, the brilliant camerawork, the 2nd greatest gunfight of all time (after Heat), the insanely talented cast, and the always relevant, extremely dark law and order themes, what LA Confidential succeeds at the most is creating a coherent community. Using masterful location shooting in some of the most recognizable classic old spots in Los Angeles (The Frolic Room, The Formosa Cafe) and filling each shot with lush period detail…well, that stuff’s nice, but can be achieved by anyone with a proper art department budget. Hanson was able make his canvas much bigger by using cinematography that’s just one click south of showy. His camera moves a lot, but not the point of being intrusive. Think of the brilliantly staged sequence where Russell Crowe sneaks into the house of a crew of suspected murderers. While tracking the action and amping up the tension, Hanson still fills each shot with information about the neighborhood. You always feel like you are in an actual city. He refuses to allow a single shot to be a person in front of a wall—everything is connected to the larger world. When Crowe sneaks upon a naked perp obliviously laughing at his television, we can see an entire city street out of the window in the background of the shot. The world always extends beyond the immediate action, creating a plausible, tangible world outside of our story, which suspends the viewer’s sense of artificiality and raises the stakes.
He also pulls together a vast network of characters, hierarchies and political systems without leaving a thread dangling. Seriously, considering the scope of LA Confidential—a movie that is basically about the soul of Los Angeles, which was a pretty damn big city even in the 1950’s—it’s amazing the level of coherence Hanson was able to bring to the labyrinthine story and the characters’ relationships to one another.
Hanson’s follow-up, Wonder Boys (2000), is completely different from LA Confidential, at least on paper. It’s a shaggy little comedy about a gone-to-seed writer and professor (Michael Douglas) who has been unable to follow-up the success of his signature novel. He wrangles with his agent (Robert Downey Jr), a talented but troubled protege (Tobey Maguire) and his own musty demons. It’s all very literary and quirky and nobody gets shot. Okay, a dog gets shot—but it’s played for laughs. It’s worlds away from the seamy brutality of Confidential, but I still find the two films very similar. Hanson extends his fascination with communities to the liberal arts circuit in the leafy, ancient enclaves of Pittsburgh, PA. I owned the DVD of Wonder Boys, and one of the special features was a charming short documentary in which Hanson spoke about the city’s bridges. I can’t find the DVD or the doc anywhere, so can’t provide quotes, but basically he spoke about how he tried to pack the film with as many shots of Pittsburgh’s bridges as humanly possible. The story, you see, was about a man trying to cross a bridge from his former life to a new one. Sure enough, when I watched the film later, I would point and say “BRIDGE!…BRIDGE! THERE’S A BRIDGE!” Truly great filmmakers understand that the things that you only notice subconsciously can be just as important as the things that are right in front of you. Hanson was always building out into the far reaches of his world.
Eight Mile might, therefore, be the most Curtis Hanson-esque of all of his films. It’s justly acclaimed for all of it’s spectacular on-location photography on the bleak streets of early 2000’s Detroit. Hanson’s Detroit is as beautiful as it it is ugly—a community of people basically living in the ruins of a collapsed civilization. He takes the place as it is: long stretches of grim roadways, trailer parks, abandoned houses and even a formerly opulent theater that has been converted into a dimly lit parking garage. And yet he finds a viable and relatable community of people still trying make lives for themselves in all of this exposed brick and concrete. Curtis Hanson was the ideal director to bring onto the project—his skill with actors even managed to wring a pretty decent performance out of Eminem. At this point in his career, there was basically no challenge too great for the man. His affection for his characters and his fascination with the places they lived was indomitable.
And now, if I may, one more piece of dialogue from LA Confidential:
ED EXLEY: All I ever wanted was to measure up to my father.
BUD WHITE: Now’s your chance. He died in the line of duty, didn’t he?
Travis Vogt is the editor of the Scarecrow Blog. Follow him @travisvogt.