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 convicted.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 one for best supporting actress.
This work contains examples of:
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 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 Spacey 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, who is arguably the main character, 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 compromising sexual photographs variety is almost a routine trick.
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.
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: An ex-cop is killed at a diner massacre. When the suspects are brought to a holding cell, things eventually fall apart and the cops beat the hell out of them.
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.
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 before 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: A mother cannot initially identify her daughter at the morgue due to the girl's extensive plastic surgery. The coroner prompts her with Detective Lieutenant Exley and Officer 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. It's her. My baby!
Bud, 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 they were told.
Evil Power Vacuum: Essentially the whole plot revolves around the police captain trying to take over Mickey Cohen's operation. Lampshaded in the opening narration.
Fair Weather Friend: While they're quite chummy with each other, it's obvious that Jack and Sid 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; Jack assumes that Sid has his entire litany of transgressions - including the bystander shootings - on file (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.
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.
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: "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.
It's played with in the case of the Nite Owl suspects. When Exley has finished interrogating Sugar Ray, he notes that, even though Exley mentioned the gas chamber, Sugar Ray had yet to actually ask him what 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, and indeed they are guilty but not of the Nite Owl murders.
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.
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, and Sid. His fatal mistake is thinking Bud is stupid and brutish enough to eliminate 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 Ed realizes the truth about Capt. Smith while having a conversation with him and struggles to control his face.
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.
Only Bad Men 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 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.
In the film, Exley sees the Nite Owl suspects pile 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 gun 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.
Dudley Smith's goon Bill Carlisle is oh-so trigger-happy when confronting the Nite Owl suspects. The first time Jack stops him by blocking his gun up. The second time he's shot dead by a safe-house owner
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's gun.
Sex as a Rite-of-Passage: Played horribly straight. Three teenagers 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 another crime. Much worse in the book; after raping her, they drive around and "sell her out" to all their friends.
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.
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.