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 [whispers] Hush-Hush.
— Sid Hudgens
There is a mass murder at The Nite Owl restaurant, including a former LAPD officer. Detectives Bud White, Edmund Exley, and Jack Vincennes 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, starring 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.
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.
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 1952◊ 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.
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.
Billing Displacement: Kevin Spacey is listed first, though Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce's roles are more substantial in the film. This is probably an effort to establish Vincennes as a decoy protagonist considering he was the most famous actor in the film. Crowe was an unknown at the time, and only later became a "name" actor. The even lesser-known Pearce, whose Exley is the main protagonist, is given third billing after Crowe and Spacey. In the cover, Pearce and Crowe are barely visible, Spacey is larger but pushed to the side, and a shot of Kim Basinger dressed in Vapor Wear takes up half the space.
Blackmail: The routine trick by which Pierce Patchett blackmails a politician into approving the freeway project with compromising pictures of him with Lynn Bracken.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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?"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Police Brutality: And how. Most notable example is the "Bloody Christmas" scandal that occurs when Dick Stensland gets intoxicated at a party and beats some arrested Mexicans who assaulted two officers up. 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.
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 pretty much 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 to '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.
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 a perp point-blank in an 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 approaches White while he's at his typewriter to tell him, "White, you'd better put a leash on your partner before he kills somebody."
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.
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.
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.
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.