This is the City of Angels and you haven't got any wings.
Remember, dear readers, you heard it here first. Off the record, on the Q.T. and very
— Sid Hudgens
There is a mass murder at The Nite Owl restaurant, including a former LAPD officer. Detectives Bud White (Russell Crowe
), Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce
), and Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey
) all get caught up in the case, which turns out be part of the power struggle in organized crime after Real Life
mobster Mickey Cohen is imprisoned for income tax evasion.
The 1990 book by James Ellroy
was adapted in 1997 into a film
by Curtis Hanson
, costarring Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, James Cromwell
and Kim Basinger
. It greatly condensed the plot and time frames of the book, but was widely praised for keeping almost all of the drama and noir feel.Curtis Hanson
and Brian Helgeland
won the Academy Award
for Best Adapted Script and Basinger won Best Supporting Actress. It was nominated in several other categories (including Best Picture) but lost every one to Titanic
Remember, dear tropers, you read these tropes first. Off the Internet, on the keyboard, and very Hush-Hush.
- Actually Pretty Funny: When Ed Exley mistakes Lana Turner for a lookalike hooker, Jack Vincennes is trying hard not to laugh, but finally cracks up in laughter after they leave. After a few moments, an embarrassed Ed starts laughing as well.
- Adaptation Distillation: The movie takes an insanely complex book and boils it down to the absolute bare essence of the story, which is still plenty complicated on its own. The writers actually wrote every plot point on index cards and laid them all on a table, so that whenever they took something out, they could try to rearrange everything else until it all made sense again.
- Affably Evil: Dudley Smith, which is what makes him so chilling.
- Alliterative Name: Ed Exley, Pierce Patchett and Wendell "Bud" White.
- Ambition Is Evil: Averted with Exley in the movie. The books zig-zag the trope all over the place, though.
- Anachronism Stew: Generally averted in an extremely well-researched film. However, in condensing the time-frame of the story from the source novel, one anachronism appeared. The film begins on Christmas 1951 and appears to take place over the course of several months to a couple years from then onward, as none of the cars in the movie have a model year later than 1953. Yet Johnny Stompanato is seen dating Lana Turner, despite the two not meeting until 1957 in real life.
- Answers to the Name of God:
Bud: Jesus fucking Christ!
Patchett: No, Mr. White, Pierce Moorehouse Patchett.
- Anyone Can Die: And they do, oh how they do. Specifically, Dick Stensland, Matt Reynolds, Jack Vincennes, Sid Hudgens, Pierce Patchett, and Dudley Smith.
- Arc Words: "Rollo Tomasi", in the movie.
- The Atoner: Jack Vincennes in both the book and the movie.
- In the movie, Vincennes genuinely tries to help Matt Reynolds. He feels guilty for going along with Sid's desire for headlines, and ruining Matt's life in the process.
- In the book, Vincennes accidentally kills a young couple, and to make it up to their kids, sends money each month.
- Back-to-Back Badasses: Bud and Ed at the climax of the film.
- The Bad Guys Are Cops: Captain Dudley Smith and a large group of his men are setting themselves up as the new LA drug kingpins after Mickey Cohen goes to prison.
- Bad Cop/Incompetent Cop: Despite the squeaky clean image that the LAPD tries to maintain, most of the cops are stupid, violent thugs who do little more than pay lip service to the spirit and ideals of the law. The senior cops controlling them (save for Exley) are criminally corrupt.
- Batman Gambit: Dudley Smith is a master at manipulating his officers into doing what he wants, including sending Exley on a wild goose chase in his desire for glory and manipulating Bud into wanting to kill him later to tie up lose ends. It's his underestimation of Bud's ability to think for himself that proves to be Dudley's undoing.
- Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Averted big time with Lynn and Exley after Bud completely loses it. Both of them have visible, ugly-looking swellings, scrapes, and bruises on their face that last for the rest of the film.
- Berserk Button: Do not mistreat women in the presence of Bud White.
- Big Bad Friend: Dudley Smith.
- Blackmail: The routine trick by which Pierce Patchett blackmails a politician into approving the freeway project with compromising pictures of him with Lynn Bracken.
- Brick Joke: The box of heroin stolen from Mickey Cohen's lieutenant in the opening montage is barely mentioned for a large chunk of the movie, but then turns out to be the key MacGuffin that sets off the entire plot.
- Bring My Brown Pants: Exley's interrogation strategy on the three black suspects, tricking them into thinking they're snitching on each other, is enough to make one of them piss in his pants.
- Broken Pedestal: In the book, Exley has a case of hero worship/one-sided rivalry with his father, a legendary LAPD detective turned construction magnate. A big chunk of the story is Ed learning his father was not the paragon of virtue he thought him to be.
- Byronic Hero: Jack Vincennes.
- The Cavalry Arrives Late: In the climactic showdown at the Victory Motel, Bud is already wounded and Ed cornered before the cavalry shows up. Even then, the cavalry doesn't realize that one of their own has been behind the entire thing.
- Celebrity Impersonator:
- Played straight with the various whores in Pierce Patchett's stable.
- Also subverted as noted below under Reality Is Unrealistic, when Ed Exley mistakes the real Lana Turner for a lookalike hooker.
- Color-Coded for Your Convenience: Lynn's wardrobe reflects a lot about her character. She is a Woman in Black when she first meets Bud and is a suspect in Susan Lefferts' death, she wears soft greens and blues during her domestic scenes with Bud, she wears all white during the scene where she seduces Ed, and when she shows up at the end ready to leave for Arizona, she's dressed in a bright yellow amid the sea of blue at Ed's ceremony.
- Composite Character: Matt Reynolds is a combination of Tammy Reynolds and Rock Rockwell (the kids Jack busts for smoking pot in the beginning) and Billy Dieterling (tragic young gay actor, whose life is ruined by one of the main detectives - Jack in the movie, Ed in the book).
- Conversation Casualty: Dudley Smith shoots Jack Vincennes mid-conversation without so much as a word of warning.
- Cop Killer: With ex-cop Stensland killed at a diner massacre, the suspects do get treated somewhat aggressively while in custody, and eventually all end up dead.
- Crazy Jealous Guy: Bud towards the end of the film, due to finding out Lynn slept with Exley.
- Da Chief: Dudley Smith. He's one of the rare villainous examples.
- Death by Adaptation: Dudley Smith. Preston Exley, too.
- Deceased Fall-Guy Gambit: The Negroes were framed for the Nite Owl killings. After the attack from Bud White, and once the two are catching their breath, Exley realizes how it went: detectives Michael Breuning, William Carlisle, and Dudley Smith are the real shooters. They frame Sugar Ray Collins, Ty Jones and Lewis Fontane because they are black and have records. The reason why Breuning and Carlisle are already present when Exley and Vincennes show up to bust Ray Collins' place is because they've already planted the shotguns they used at the Nite Owl in the back of Ray's car. The two crooked detectives would've outright killed the three black men had Exley and Vincennes not shown up, knowing that no questions would be asked if it looked like the Negroes were killed resisting arrest.
- Defective Detective: Jack Vincennes. In spades.
- Defrosting The Ice King: Majorly with Exley. He starts off the book/movie seemingly emotionless and concerned with nothing but getting promoted to a higher position. It doesn't matter that no one on the entire force seems to like him, he does his job and climbs the ladder. By the end, his morals have begun to shift to the point where he agrees to continue to lie for the police department to protect Bud and Lynn, in addition to cleaning out the department of corruption from the inside.
- Determinator: Bud White. It rubs off on Exley by the end of the book.
- Die Laughing: Vincennes laughs at himself after he's shot by Dudley, moments before dying after being shot point-blank range.
- Dies Wide Open: Vincennes dies this way.
- Subverted with Matt Reynolds - whose hooded stare got a great close up and made such a terrific silent accusation against Jack Vincennes when he found the body.
- Dirty Cop: Every variation imaginable is in here somewhere.
- Distinguishing Mark: While Bud White immediately recognizes Susan Lefferts' body by sight as the woman he saw in the car when he detained Buzz Meeks, her mother cannot initially identify her daughter at the morgue due to the girl's extensive plastic surgery. The coroner prompts her with Ed Exley and Bud White hanging on her every word:
Coroner: Mrs. Lefferts, does your daughter have any distinguishing marks?
Mrs. Lefferts: She has a birthmark on her hip. [the birthmark on her chest is revealed] It's her. My baby!
- Dumb Muscle:
- Bud White, or at least what Exley initially thinks of him. More importantly, it's what Dudley Smith thinks of White and why he drags him into his scheme. It's one of his few, but vital, mistakes.
- Dick Stensland and Buzz Meeks, until they aspire to a bigger slice of the pie. Unfortunately for them, they're still dumb in comparison to the man they chose to cross. If they'd really got smart, they'd have figured that it was better to just do as Dudley Smith told them to.
- Embarrassing First Name: Bud White isn't really fond of his first name "Wendell". Although Edmund isn't so much better.
- Everyone Is a Suspect
- Evil Power Vacuum: Essentially the whole plot revolves around the police captain trying to take over Mickey Cohen's operation. It's noted as Sid Hudgens delivers the opening narration.
- Fair Weather Friend: While they're quite chummy with each other, it's obvious that Vincennes and Sid Hudgens are just using each other to further their own careers. This is exemplified by Sid's reaction to Jack's death.
- The book takes this further; here, Vincennes assumes that Sid Hudgens has his entire litany of transgressions - including the bystander shootings - on file (which he does), and when Sid is murdered that's the first thing Jack looks for.
- False Roulette: Played straight during the interrogation of the Nite Owl suspects, when Bud realizes the suspects have kidnapped and raped a woman who's still being held hostage. However, in the film we never actually see if Bud takes the last round out of his .38.
- Film Noir: The period's gotten down correctly. However, the film is shot like any other 1990s film, making this a Neo-Noir.
- Final Speech: Exley gets a second Medal of Valor award
- Flat "What.": An excellent example from Vincennes when Exley asks him, "Do you make the Negroes for the Nite Owl killings?".
- Fleur de Lis: The name of the escort service run by Pierce Patchett. It's also their logo, and Vincennes gets drawn into the case when he finds one of their cards during the "Movie Premiere Pot Bust".
- Foe Romance Subtext. Half the characters are convinced there's something more to Bud and Ed's rivalry than just hatred.
Jack: (to Ed) Bud White's gonna fuck you for this if it takes him the rest of his life.
Lynn: (also to Ed): Fucking me and fucking Bud aren't the same thing.
- Food Slap: Ed Exley thinks the woman with Johnny Stompanato is a hooker who has had plastic surgery to look like Lana Turner. It is the real Lana Turner. She tosses her drink in his face.
- Foreshadowing: You'll notice that Vincennes gets a spot of blood on his shirt during the Bloody Christmas brawl. Cracked points out that it's near the spot where he's going to get shot by Dudley Smith in the third act.
- Framing the Guilty Party: In a twist, the Negroes suspected of being behind the Nite Owl killings never committed those murders, but were guilty of the equally heinous crime of rape.
- Freudian Trio: Ellroy loves to subvert the trope by having one member die, forcing the other two to find balance. In this case it's Vincennes the ego.
- Gayngst: Matt Reynolds, in the movie.
- Girl Friday: Inez to Preston Exley and Ray Dieterling in the book.
- The Glasses Come Off: Played straight in the movie with Ed. He subverts it in the book by never taking his glasses off because he knows he looks softer and more merciful without them. Lynn mentions it, too.
- Glory Hound: Jack Vincennes has become one over the years. It takes getting an innocent man killed to snap him out of it.
- Go Out with a Smile: Jack's famous line after he gets shot. He's chuckling because he knows what's in store for his killer.
- Good Cop/Bad Cop: Invoked, hilariously, in the movie in the scene where Bud and Ed dangle Ellis Loew out of a very high window by his ankles.
- Good Times Montage: Takes place after Ed kills the Nite Owl suspects. Ed gets his medal of valor and is finally accepted by his colleagues, Jack returns to the Badge of Honor set and Bud grows weary of his muscle duty, driving him to Lynn.
- Groin Attack: Bud White interrogates Johnny Stompanato by squeezing his testes and asking, "What do I get if I give you your balls back?"
- Have You Told Anyone Else?: A slightly subtler variant when Dudley Smith asks Vincennes, "What does Exley make of all this?"
- Heroic BSOD: A furious, emotionally-charged Bud lashes out and punches Lynn in the face after discovering her affair with Exley. Realizing that he's become what he despises, he manages to stop himself from hurting her more, before abruptly fleeing the scene.
- Ed, in the book, when he finds out his father and Ray Dieterling covered up the Atherton murders.
- Jack, staring into a bar mirror with his $50 bill for setting up Matt Reynolds with Ellis Loew, and again when finding Reynolds' body that night
- Hidden Depths: The three main cops - Bud, Jack and Ed - in different ways. Also Lynn, who just wants to get out of the hooker life and move back to Arizona to open a dress shop.
- High-Altitude Interrogation: How Bud gets his answers from D.A. Ellis Loew in the movie.
- High-Class Call Girl: Lynn and the other girls at Fleur de Lis who are cut to look like movie stars.
- Historical-Domain Character: Johnny Stompanato, who actually was dating Lana Turner, and Mickey Cohen.
- Honey Trap: Pierce Patchett is able to break ground on the freeway project by blackmailing a local politician with compromising photos of him cavorting with Lynn Bracken.
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Lynn Bracken.
- Horrible Hollywood: Everyone is either gay, addicted to drugs, or hideously corrupt. Some are all of the above and more.
- Important Haircut: Lynn in the end cuts her hair to show her rejection of her former life.
- I Never Said It Was Poison:
- Dudley Smith, after briefing the detectives on Vincennes's death, pulls Exley aside and tells him that he's trying to find a lead on an associate of Vincennes' named Rollo Tamasi. The camera cuts to the poker look on Exley's face as he realizes this means Dudley is guilty of killing Vincennes, because "Rollo Tomasi" is a name that Exley invented to personify the mugger who murdered his father, and Vincennes is the only other person he ever told this to. Dudley is bringing up a name that he would only know if Vincennes said it while he was dying.
- Played with for the Nite Owl suspects. When Exley has finished interrogating Sugar Ray Collins, he notes that, even though he mentioned the death penalty and the gas chamber, Sugar Ray had yet to actually ask him what crime he was being charged with. Exley takes this as evidence that the three suspects are guilty, since if they were innocent they would have presumably asked what they were being charged with when they're being warned of being executed. The twist is that, indeed they are guilty of a crime, but it is not the Nite Owl murders, but the equally heinous crime of raping a girl.
- Instant Death Bullet: An interesting aversion in which Jack Vincennes appears to be shot straight through the heart but has time to whisper some (carefully chosen) Last Words and have a final chuckle before croaking.
- Ironic Echo:
- Inez Soto's confession that she lied to Exley about the Nite Owl suspects - "You want to know what the big lie is? You and your precious 'absolute justice'." - is an echo of Ed's most sacred tenet.
- "Rollo Tomasi" in the movie.
- "Would you be willing to shoot a hardened criminal in the back"?
- As Smith kills Sid, he says to him "Hush-hush...".
- Karma Houdini:
- Both Dudley and Art De Spain in the book. In the sequel White Jazz, Dudley suffers a horrific beating and loses an eye, as well as getting brain damage that ends his career. He's still never brought to justice, though, and he lives for quite a long time afterwards surrounded by a loving and oblivious family.
- Rollo Tomasi, the purse snatcher who killed Exley's father was never captured, nor was his true identity even discovered. Edmund just called him "Rollo Tomasi" to give him character and as a symbol for all crooks who thought they could get away with it.
- In the book, David Mertens, the killer of Sid Hudgens, Billy Dieterling, his handler Jerry Marsalas and the real killer of the Loren Atherton victims is cornered by Ed in a school, sedated heavily and committed to a mental hospital for the rest of his days. He is never truly punished for the gruesome murders he commits.
- Karmic Death: Capt. Dudley in the film adaptation.
- Kick the Dog: A literal example to show how nasty the three Nite Owl suspects are.
Dogs ain't got no reason to live.
- The Killer Becomes the Killed: The fate of Dudley Smith.
- Knight in Sour Armor: Ed becomes this by the end of the book.
- Knight Templar: Ed at the beginning of the book, before getting into the Nite Owl case.
- Kosher Nostra: Mickey Cohen.
- Let Me at Him!: Bud White's Berserk Button is triggered as he listens to a black suspect confessing to the incidental crime of kidnapping and raping a Mexican woman. He shatters the back of the chair he is leaning on, storms into the interrogation room, violently pushes the suspect against the wall, and places the barrel of his gun into his mouth.
- Leave No Witnesses: Dudley Smith does this to everyone who could rat him out, including the Night Owl patrons and staff, Matt Reynolds, Pierce Patchett, Jack Vincennes, and Sid Hudgens. His fatal mistake is thinking Bud is stupid and brutish enough to eliminate Ed Exley for him.
- Living Lie Detector: Ed, in the book more than the movie.
- Loads and Loads of Characters: The already complicated movie contains maybe 20% of the book's story.
- Lolicon: Blink and you'll miss her, but one of the lookalike whores at Pierce Patchett's mansion is made up as little Shirley Temple.
- Love Triangle:
- Bud, Lynn, and Ed. Of course, this is James Ellroy we're talking about. It's not as if this is his first love triangle featuring two cops and a hooker (i.e. The Black Dahlia).
- The book gives us a Love Dodecahedron between Ed, Bud, Lynn, and Inez Soto. Ed is seeing Inez but sleeping with Lynn, while Bud is seeing Lynn but sleeping with Inez, not to mention the ever-present Ho Yay / Foe Yay between Bud and Ed.
- The Man Behind the Man: It's Captain Dudley Smith who controls the dirty racket in L.A..
- Meaningful Background Event: After Bud shoots Inez Soto's rapist, you can see the other cops scrambling for the house in response to the gunshot.
- Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: The real reason for The Nite Owl murders. Officer Dick Stensland had stolen heroin Dudley Smith was using for his new racket.
- Mistaken Confession: The Nite Owl suspects. They think the cops are about to bust them for kidnapping and raping Inez Soto, instead of committing the murders at the Nite Owl.
- Mistaken for an Imposter: Ed Exley thinks the woman with Johnny Stompanato is a hooker who has had plastic surgery to look like Lana Turner. It turns out to be the real Lana Turner who tosses her drink in his face.
- Missing White Woman Syndrome: Inez Soto lampshades it in both the book and the movie.
- My God, What Have I Done?:
- When Bud hits Lynn in a fit of rage for sleeping with Exley.
- Vincennes when he realizes he helped set up Matt Reynolds to be murdered.
- No Tell Motel: The long-abandoned Victory Motel, better known as the go-to place to conduct illegal interrogations and set up fellow cops to be killed.
- Odd Couple: For different reasons, Exley's partnering up with Jack Vincennes and later with Bud White.
- Officer O'Hara: Dudley Smith is this complete with James Cromwell providing an off-the-boat accent and stereotypical expressions.
- Enforced in the book; Dudley plays up this persona to hide his racketeering, corruption, and murders.
- Oh, Crap:
- A very well-done one from Guy Pearce in the movie, when Exley realizes Capt. Dudley Smith killed Jack Vincennes while having a conversation with him and struggles to control his facial expression.
- Ed has another, fairly epic "oh crap" facial expression when Bud shows him the pictures of Ed and Lynn sleeping together.
- And again, when he mistakes Lana Turner for a call girl.
- The john whose wife White threatens to call (who appears to be the same councilman that Patchett blackmails with compromising photos later).
- Only Bad Guys Call Their Lawyers: The Nite Owl suspects are not quite a straight example. They don't call their lawyers and are indeed innocent of the Nite Owl murders, but they are guilty of a separate, unrelated (but quite heinous) crime.
- Paparazzi: Sid Hudgens, who ends up Going for the Big Scoop.
- Parental Substitute: Dudley Smith serves as this for Exley and White in the film, in different ways. Bud sees him as more of a traditional father-figure, where Ed admires his police career. The ending reveals how expendable they really are to him.
- Perp Sweating: A Crowning Moment of Awesome for Ed Exley in both the book and the movie, with his interrogation of the three Nite Owl suspects.
- Police Brutality: And how. Most notable example is the "Bloody Christmas" scandal that occurs when Dick Stensland gets intoxicated at a party and beats up some arrested Mexicans who assaulted two officers. Things escalate out of control when White tries to intervene, only to get caught up in the melee as well. This was based on a real incident that happened around this time. Only the names of the suspects are drastically different, and the names of the two assaulted officers are very similar to the names of the real assaulted officers (Hellenowski and Brown in the movie; Trojanowski and Brownson in the real Bloody Christmas case). The movie's Bloody Christmas is much milder than the real one, which was a 95 minute No-Holds-Barred Beatdown.
- Pragmatic Adaptation
- Pretty in Mink: Lana Turner is wearing a white fox wrap in her scene in the movie.
- Punctuated! For! Emphasis! : "WHERE..IS..THE..GIRL?!"
- Pyrrhic Victory: Ed Exley.
- Rabid Cop: Most of the cops are stupid and/or violent thugs. Ed is an exception, but even Exley reaches a Rage Breaking Point at the end of the movie.
- Random Events Plot: Subverted: Roger Ebert noted that the film features so many disparate and seemingly unrelated plot threads that for a lot of the movie it feels largely episodic, and more of a mood and character piece than a narrative one. It's only near the end of the film when the protagonists realize they're Working the Same Case that the underlying plot becomes apparent.
- Reality Is Unrealistic/Your Costume Needs Work: Exley thinks Lana Turner is just one of Pierce Patchett's hookers dressed up to look like a star.
Exley: A hooker cut to look like Lana Turner is still a hooker. She just looks like Lana Turner.
Vincennes: She is Lana Turner.
Exley: (turns to Vincennes) What?
Vincennes: She is Lana Turner.
- When they get back in the car, Exley actually chuckles in embarrassment at his mistake.
- Reckless Gun Usage:
- In the film, Exley sees one Nite Owl suspect bolt into an elevator and quickly jams his shotgun through the doors and fires, without first checking to see if there was anyone else in there with them - and he's not wearing his glasses at the time. In fact, any time Exley uses a shotgun or pistol without his glasses qualifies as this. Vincennes even lampshades it when Exley can't find his glasses: "You're kidding, right? Just don't shoot me."
- Bud White's False Roulette, when no one's actually sure how many rounds are in the gun.
- Det. William Carlisle is oh-so trigger-happy when confronting the Nite Owl suspects. During the first round up of the suspects, he tries to shoot one of them, but Exley stops him by blocking his gun up, deflecting a blast into the ceiling. The second time he's shot dead by Roland Naverette when a bottle falling off a table provokes him into shooting Lewis Fontane.
- Red Oni, Blue Oni: Bud White (Red) and Ed Exley (Blue) are textbook examples. In the movie, Jack becomes somewhat of a Red to Ed's Blue.
- Retirony: Buzz Meeks in the book. Also in the book the LAPD start railroading Jack towards early retirement as he's been off the wagon for a good 5 years before the plot picks up again.
- The Reveal: The fact that the person responsible for not only the Nite Owl, but the gang killings of Mickey Cohen's lieutenants is Captain Dudley Smith.
- Saying Too Much: How both Jack Vincennes and Sid Hudgens find themselves on the wrong end of Dudley Smith's gun.
- Sex as a Rite-of-Passage: Played horribly straight. The three black men kidnap a girl and rape her in order so that the youngest among them can 'become a man'. She is then left tied up in an apartment for days and only rescued because the kids were framed for the Nite Owl hit. Much worse in the book; after raping her, they drive around and "sell her out" to all their friends.
- Slashed Throat: "The proof had his throat cut" (referring to Matt Reynolds).
- Spiritual Successor: To Chinatown. Even though they both have a completely different cast and crew, both are set in Los Angeles, both were made 40 years after the time period in which they are set, and both feature themes of betrayal, corruption of public institutions and officials, and "neo-noir" values. Oh, and both have scores by Jerry Goldsmith.
- Standard Cop Backstory: Both Bud White and Ed Exley. Bud's father was an abusive drunk who eventually murdered Bud's mother and chained him to a radiator next to her corpse, while Ed's father (also a cop) was murdered by an unknown assailant. Ed names the latter "Rollo Tomasi" in his head to give him some personality, which becomes relevant later on.
- Ed gets more of this in the book, where the murdered cop is his golden-boy older brother, and his father is a rising politico who holds Ed to impossible standards. Preston and his old lieutenant, Art DeSpain, train Ed as a detective, reviewing cases and doing mock interrogations in order to turn Ed into the kind of ruthless detective that Preston was.
- Stoic Spectacles: Exley.◊ They make him look a wee bit like Stephen Colbert.
- Sympathy for the Hero: Lynn shows some towards Exley at the very end.
- Thanatos Gambit: Jack's last words are "Rollo Tomasi", a meaningless name of someone who might be of interest to Dudley, but is actually a Dying Clue meant for Exley.
- These Hands Have Killed: Exley is in visible shock after blowing away the perp in the elevator with a shotgun.
- This Is Gonna Suck: When the cops rush to the jail cells upon being told the Mexicans have been brought in, so as to give them their beating, Vincennes, aware that Stensland is leading them whilst drunk and hot-tempered, approaches Bud White and tells him, "White, you'd better put a leash on your partner before he kills somebody."
- Torture for Fun and Information: Bud White gives DCI Hunt a run for his money. First, he plays False Roulette with a murder suspect to find out where he stashed a rape victim, then he dangles Ellis Loew out a 10-story window just to scare him.
- Treachery Cover Up
- Turn in Your Badge: Bud in both the movie and the book, though the movie gives us the traditional scene.
- Twerp Sweating: Exley and White's High-Altitude Interrogation of Ellis Loew in the movie is really an excuse to dangle a thoroughly unpleasant man out a very high window, not for information they mostly already know.
- Two Guys and a Girl: Bud, Lynn, and Ed.
- Unwitting Pawn: Ed Exley and Bud White are manipulated to further the main villain's plans several times throughout the movie while they try to figure out the truth behind the Night Owl murders. It's only when they team up that they start making real progress against the villain.
- Vigilante Execution: In the movie, but not the book, Ed executes Dudley Smith, rather than let him be arrested and use his position to cover everything up and escape justice. Serves as a callback to the beginning of the movie where Dudley said Ed was unsuitable as a detective for not being willing to do exactly the above.
- Villain with Good Publicity
- Wife-Basher Basher: Bud White. He's introduced kicking the crap out of a wife-beater, tying him to his porch with Christmas tree lights to wait for the patrol car to bring him in. Later, to scare the location of a kidnapped and repeatedly raped teenage girl out of the alleged Nite Owl suspects, he rips a solid oak chair in half with his bare hands in front of them and THEN shoves a gun in the face of one of the cowards and played False Roulette (probably) with him. He continues to play the trope arrow-straight until he hits Lynn when he finds out she slept with Exley. This was major Heroic BSOD on his part, however.
- "Well Done, Son!" Guy: In the book, Exley would just about bend over backwards to win his father's approval. Well, until he learns his father let a child-killing psychopath walk because it was his best friend's son, and covered it up.
- Wham Line:
- From the book - "Captain Dudley Liam Smith for the Nite Owl.". It's not that we didn't know who the villain was (because if you read the book, the first chapter clues you in), it's that Ed saying it aloud is so powerful. He's about to cross the only man on earth more dangerous than he is.
- "Rollo Tomasi".
- When She Smiles: Exley at the very end of the movie.
- Woman in Black: Lynn in her first appearance.
- Woman in White: Lynn in most subsequent appearances, especially in the iconic scene where she seduces Ed.
- Working the Same Case: All of the detectives, but most notably Exley, Vincennes, and White.
- Yiddish as a Second Language: Mickey Cohen in the book. His lines are hilarious.
- Your Mom: During Bloody Christmas, one of the Mexican prisoners who was being beaten up by the cops insults both Dick Stensland's (in Spanish) and Bud White's mothers (in English). The latter was especially unwise since White, who was initially trying to break up the fight, instead is provoked into attacking as well. It's mentioned later that White witnessed his mother get beaten to death by his abusive father, making it an especially personal insult for him.
- You Talkin' to Me?