The Main Trio
Det. Sgt. Jack Vincennes
First a Narcotics detective, he is sent to Anti-Vice after the "Bloody Christmas" incident. He is also a consultant to the in-universe TV series Badge of Honor and a collaborator to Sid Hudgens in his "Hush-Hush" gossip magazine.
- The Atoner: In both the book and the movie.
- In the movie, he 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, he accidentally kills a young couple, and to make it up to their kids, sends money each month.
- Attention Whore: He loves being involved in Badge Of Honor and the attention it gets him.
- Batman Gambit: He said "Rollo Tomasi" to Dudley Smith before dying because he was betting Dudley would throw it into the investigation to bait Ed. He does.
- Brilliant, but Lazy: He's a talented detective but is far more concerned with his fame than cracking cases.
- Byronic Hero: A classic moment for this trope happens when he broods in a bar after setting Matt Reynolds up to be ruined for a second time, looking at himself in a bar mirror, as Lee Wiley's "Oh! Look At Me Now" plays in the background.
- Conversation Casualty: Dudley Smith shoots him mid-conversation, spinning around and putting a bullet through Vincennes' heart.
- Deadpan Snarker: He gets quite a few one-liners and witty remarks. Then again, he is played by Kevin Spacey.
- Defective Detective: Jack has completely forgotten why he wanted to be a cop in the first place, having chosen showbusiness over the law.
- Dies Differently in Adaptation: In the original novel, Jack is killed after being shot during a gunfight. In the film, this is changed to a deliberate killing, with Jack being murdered by Dudley mid-conversation in the privacy of Dudley's own home.
- Dies Wide Open: How he dies.
- Dirty Cop: Like many others, Vincennes is corrupt but not quite to the same extent as others. He busts criminals to help Sid Hudgens sell papers while boosting his own profile and making some cash on the side.
- Dying Smirk: After being shot by Dudley, he smiles because he's just played a Thanatos Gambit that ultimately brings down his killer.
- Fair Weather Friend: With Sid Hudgens. They get along pretty well but neither cares for the other beyond their business relationship.
- Flat "What": When Exley asks him about the Nite Owl killings.
- Glory Hound: He's become one over the years. It takes getting an innocent man killed to snap him out of it.
- Have You Told Anyone Else?: Winds up on the recieving end of this from Dudley Smith.
- Heroic BSoD: After finding Matt Reynolds' body, which severely disturbs him and guilts him into becoming The Atoner.
- Hidden Depths: Sure, he's a vain Glory Hound but Jack does have a conscience and is a highly competent detective when he can be bothered to put the work in.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: He's a vainglorious attention seeker with little interest in anything greater but Jack does have a conscience and a desire to do good. After setting up Matt Reynolds again and finding him dead, he feels intensely remorseful and tries to make things right.
- My God, What Have I Done?: Not said, but his expression says it all after he finds Matt Reynolds' body.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Spacey's basis for the character was "what if Dean Martin was a cop?"
- No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: His attempt to make up for what happened to Matt Reynolds gets him killed.
- Police Brutality: He was involved in the Bloody Christmas assault, although only in as far as a single punch when one of the victims stained his suit with blood. It's still enough to have the brass blackmail him into testifying, though.
- Saying Too Much: To Dudley Smith, which gets him killed.
- Serious Business: Bloodying his suit. When blood gets on his suit during the Bloody Christmas brawl, Jack joins in.
- Sharp-Dressed Man: In contrast to other detectives, Jack is fond of wearing colorful and expensive looking suits. He even joins in the Bloody Christmas brawl only after his suit is messed up.
- Surprisingly Sudden Death: Doubles as a Wham moment since it also reveals that Captain Smith is the Big Bad.
- Thanatos Gambit: After being fatally shot by Dudley Smith, Jack says 'Rollo Tomasi', a name that only he and Exley know. It works as a clue that points Exley in Smith's direction, since Jack knew Smith would inevitably question someone about the name.
Officer Wendell "Bud" White
A violent officer who hates men that hit women and sometimes does dirty jobs for capt. Dudley Smith. When his former cop partner, Dick Stensland, is killed in the Nite Owl massacre, he starts investigating it and discovers very dark secrets. He also becomes infatuated with the prostitute Lynn Bracken and starts a romantic relationship with her.
- Alliterative Name: Wendell White.
- Berserk Button: As a Wife-Basher Basher, he'll explode when he sees, hears or suspects that a woman is being abused. He will even kill for that like the large Scary Black Man that abused a defenseless young Mexican woman. Also explodes when It's Personal.
- Crazy Jealous Guy: Towards the end of the film, due to finding out Lynn slept with Exley.
- Dark and Troubled Past: His father beat his mother to death and ran away while the young Bud was tied up to the radiator when all that happened. That was the reason he became a police officer and a Wife-Basher Basher.
- Dumb Muscle: What Exley and other officers think of him, and what he fears he is. More importantly, it's what Dudley Smith thinks of White and why he drags him into his scheme. It's one of Dudley's few, but vital, mistakes: while Bud may have muscle, he's not dumb and actually proves to be a fairly competent investigator on several occasions.Bud: Whoever killed my partner, is still out there. I... If I could work cases like a real detective, I could prove it. But I'm not smart enough. I'm just the guy they bring in to scare the other guy shitless.
- Embarrassing First Name: He isn't really fond of his first name "Wendell". Although Edmund isn't so much better.
- Establishing Character Moment: He's introduced beating the hell out of a wife-beater, threatening him with a Frameup before gently comforting the wife.
- Everyone Has Standards: He shoots a black man dead who put up his hands in surrender, because he'd just raped a Mexican woman tied up in the other room - but it's actually not due to race, but because violence against women is his Berserk Button. He's portrayed as one of the least racist members of the L.A.P.D.: when some drunken cops at Christmas start beating up Mexicans in lockup he rushes in to break it up. He only gets involved when one of the inmates yells profanities about his mother.
- Fire-Forged Friends: With Exley. The two start off hating each other, and even try to kill each other at one point, but are eventually forced to put their differences aside and form an effective partnership to solve the case. By the end of the film, the two of them manage to part on good terms.
- Genius Bruiser: He's a very tough guy and is generally only seen as a mindless thug but he's also a talented detective and smarter than he thinks he is.
- Good Cop/Bad Cop: You guess what he is. Most prominently shown when he and Exley visit Ellis Loew to interrogate him.
- Good Is Not Soft: While Exley is cold and unfriendly, Bud is more aggressive and tough.
- Guttural Growler: Russell Crowe's smoke burnished voice is put to good use here.
- Hair-Trigger Temper: He is very impatient and violent. Dudley uses this to attempt to eliminate Exley, showing pictures of Exley and Lynn having sexual intercourse taken by Sid Hudgens.
- 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.
- Hidden Depths: Bud's smarter than most people (including himself) give him credit.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Bud may be one of the biggest cases of Police Brutality and the ultimate bad cop, but he's one of the least racist cops in the L.A.P.D, is sympathetic for any woman who's a victim of abuse, and genuinely cares about his girlfriend, Lynn.
- Not Quite Dead: After being shot by Smith twice, he suddenly recovers and stabs the Captain on his leg while he's distracted with Ed, and is immediately shot through his right cheek. Kind of an Heroic Sacrifice to buy his friend some valuable time. Granted, he doesn't die, but presumably ends up with some degree of speech impediment.
- Only Known by Their Nickname: Captain Smith is the only one to call him "Wendell".
- Police Brutality: A specialty of his.Dudley Smith: I admire you as a policeman - particularly your adherence to violence as a necessary adjunct to the job.
- Rabid Cop: Bud is constantly on the verge of going crazy and ripping the head off the nearest criminal.
- Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: If Bud catches you red-handed raping a woman, or in the next room after just raping a woman, he will kill you - and only later worry about planting evidence to make it look like you shot first.
- Shotguns Are Just Better: Wields a shotgun during the Victory Motel shootout.
- The Teetotaler: According to Crowe:James Ellroy, kept telling me that Bud White wasn't a drinker. I said, "Come on, this is 1953. He's a blue-collar bloke, a cop. You're telling me he doesn't sit around with the boys after his shift and have a beer?". And Ellroy says, "Absolutely not." So for five months and seven days, I didn't have a drink. It's probably the most painful period of my life.
- Tranquil Fury: Whenever Bud is at his angriest, he's usually acting more stoic than visibly angry.
- Undying Loyalty: Even as he learns of Stenland's less savory actions, White still wants revenge for his death. The book explains that when White first came on the force, Stensland was the one who taught him how to channel his rage into police work, particularly when going after men who abused women.
- Wife-Basher Basher: 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.
- Wouldn't Hit a Girl: As a Wife-Basher Basher, you'd think hitting a woman is the last thing he'd ever want to do. To an extent, that's true. But after finding photographic evidence of Exley being with his girlfriend, he confronts her about it and subverts this trope.
Det. Lt. Edmund "Ed" Exley
A young honest cop who desires to become a detective though he doesn't have a good sense of companionship for his fellow workers taking his honesty up to eleven.
- Alliterative Name: Edmund Exley
- Black-and-White Morality / The Fettered: Puts him at odds with his more jaded co-workers.
- Broken Pedestal: In the book, he 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.
- Defrosting Ice King: 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.
- Distracted by the Sexy: He's so seduced by Lynn's (blackmailed) charms that he forgets he visited her for professional purposes. It gets him into a lot of trouble with Bud when he finds out and Bud tries to kill him.
- Fire-Forged Friends: With Bud. From the beginning, the two of them are usually at eachother's throats. But as the case starts to unravel, they put their differences aside and form an effective partnership.
- The Glasses Come Off: Played Straight in the movie. 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 Cop/Bad Cop: Exley asks the questions and does most of the talking. When that fails, Bud goes bad. Tell that to DA Ellis Loew.Loew: "Get him off me, Exley!"Exley: "I don't know how."
- Good Is Not Nice: Ed is morally upright, but he's also cold, unfriendly and shows no professional courtesy to his colleagues or comradeship.
- Guns Akimbo: Wields a Colt Detective Special in one hand and a Colt M1911 semi-automatic handgun in the other during the Victory Motel shootout.
- Heroic BSoD: He has one in the book, when he finds out his father and Ray Dieterling covered up the Atherton murders.
- Hidden Depths: He's not afraid to get his hands dirty and can engage in shootouts with the best of them.
- Ironic Nickname Played with in the case of his nickname. He's despised by the men until he guns down the Nite Owl suspects, and is nick-named 'Shotgun Ed' by Captain Dudley (who finally approves of him) for his display of brutal street justice. Later, when Dudley is willing to play ball (after Exley gets the drop on him) and offers to get them both off clean, Exley serves up the justice Dudley wanted by shooting him in the back with the shotgun.
- Knight in Sour Armor: He becomes this by the end of the book.
- Knight Templar: At the beginning of the book, before getting into the Nite Owl case.
- Living Lie Detector: In the book more than the movie.
- Manipulative Bastard: A heroic version. He plays the Nite Owl suspects against each other, making each one think the other is a traitor.
- Nerd Glasses: Wears them which gets him no end of shit from other cops.
- Perp Sweating: He shows a great talent for this.
- Stoic Spectacles: Exley wears a set, mostly because he's Blind Without 'Em.
- The Stool Pigeon: A heroic version; Exley believes in upholding the law, even if it means ratting out his fellow corrupt officers.
- "Well Done, Son!" Guy: In the book, he would 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.
Los Angeles Police Department
Capt. Dudley Smith
A veteran LAPD police captain highly regarded by his fellow policemen and the public though he does some dirty duties in the dark.
- Adaptational Heroism: Played with. In the book, we know from the beginning—from the previous booknote , actually—that he's rotten. In this movie, it's a big Wham Shot when he kills Jack, revealing himself to be the villain.
- Affably Evil: It's part of what makes him so chilling.
- Any Last Words?: "You have a validiction, boyo?"
- Ax-Crazy: A very subdued and disturbing one. He never loses his cool demeanor, and he comes off as a rational individual. However, he's a sadistic, murderous sociopath who enjoys killing and torturing.
- Batman Gambit: He's 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 loose ends. It's his underestimation of Bud's ability to think for himself that proves to be Dudley's undoing.
- Big Bad: He wants to take the niche left by Mickey Cohen and will not share it with any possible collaborator like Pierce Patchett or Sid Hudgens.
- Big Bad Friend: To half the cast, with whom he has a good relationship.
- Da Chief: He's one of the rare villainous examples.
- Death by Adaptation: Dudley survives the original novel version of L.A. Confidential, and his war with Ed Exley is continued into the sequel, White Jazz. Ed shoots him in the back in the film.
- Dirty Cop: Only the dirtiest. He uses his resources and power as a high-ranking cop to fill the power vacuum left by Mickey Cohen. He's a mobster with a badge.
- The Don: A variation, since he is a Dirty Police, but certainly qualifies, since he aspires to have control of all the criminal activities of Los Angeles.
- Evil Old Folks: He's incredibly capable in a gunfight and has the highest kill count in the film with 10 deaths to his name.
- First-Name Basis: He refers to everyone by their first, formal names such as calling Exley by "Edmund" and Bud White by "Wendell". He asks people to call him Dudley to soften his image.
- Hypocrite: In the book Dudley - in an atypically blunt fashion - exclaims his need to suppress minorities into being docile. Yet when Jack confirms that Dudley wants him to 'run bag on' (shake down) his celebrity friends for campaign money, Dudley takes umbrage and states that he prefers the term 'reciprocity of friendship', though it's exactly what Dudley wants Jack to do.
- In the Back: The way he dies. Exley shoots him from behind before the police arrives.
- Large and in Charge: He towers over the likes of Exley and White. And he is played by James Cromwell, one of the tallest actors ever (2 meters tall!).
- Lean and Mean: One of his main physical traits aside from his height.
- Manipulative Bastard: He expertly manipulates Bud White and Ed Exley. He knows exactly what they want and uses that knowledge to push them in the direction he wants them to go in. He's so good at manipulating them, nobody even suspects him until he makes one vital mistake.
- Officer O'Hara: Complete with James Cromwell providing an off-the-boat accent and stereotypical expressions.
"I wouldn't trade places with Edmund Exley right now for all the whiskey in Ireland".
- Enforced in the book; he plays up this persona to hide his racketeering, corruption, and murders.
- Parental Substitute: He 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: He tortures criminals in the dark so anyone does not mess with his drug business.
- The Svengali: He plays the role of mentor alternatively to Bud White and Ed Exley. His real plan however, is to manipulate them into doing his dirty work in tying up loose ends without them knowing it. Smith knows that Exley has the potential to become a Spanner in the Works due to his Constantly Curious nature and Incorruptible Pure Pureness, so he tries to keep him in the dark as much as possible. What Dudley doesn't count on is that Bud White shares Exley's curiosity and desire for justice, and he's not just the Dumb Muscle that Dudley believes him to be.
- Villain with Good Publicity: He's a well-respected upstanding LA Police Captain, in addition to being a remorseless murderer.
- Wham Shot: A literal example. The first indication that he's evil is when he turns around and shoots Jack Vincennes.
Det. Richard "Dick" Stensland
Bud White's former cop partner and a long-time veteran with bad fame among the LAPD and close to retirement.
- Adaptational Villainy: He mainly exists in the book to teach Bud White to rein in his own excesses and be the first reminder of how he's sold out to join Dudley's crew. In the film, he is one of Dudley's figurehead enforcers alongside Buzz Meeks, where he murders Buzz over Mickey Cohen's stolen heroin and is subsequently slain by Smith, Breuning and/or Carlisle during the Nite Owl Massacre. The Stens/Meeks murder is tied into the Susan Lefferts thread, alongside writing the original body-under-the-house (Duke Cathcart) and his prostitution thread out of the movie.
- Dirty Cop: He was seen among his superiors as a troublesome officer. And he was also involved with Dudley Smith's corrupt racket.
- Dirty Old Man: In his sixties and he dates a much younger and beautiful (fake) redheaded prostitute called Susan Lefferts.
- Dumb Muscle: For Dudley Smith.
- Jerkass: Stensland is a corrupt, boorish drunk.
- Older Than They Look: Stensland is in his sixties and played by Graham Beckel, who was in his late forties.
- Police Brutality: The reason he's fired is due to his actions on 'Bloody Christmas' when he beats two suspects mercilessly.
- Small Role, Big Impact: His brutal murder in the Nite Owl set the plot, yet he only appeared in the first half of the film.
Pierce Morehouse Patchett
A multimillionaire that owns a business of pornography and luxurious prostitution.
- Alliterative Name: Pierce Patchett.
- Answers to the Name of God:Bud: Jesus fucking Christ!Patchett: No, Mr. White, Pierce Morehouse Patchett.
- Benevolent Boss: He cares for his prostitutes and doesn't let them take any drugs.
- Big Bad Duumvirate: He wants to take over Los Angeles along with Dudley Smith, though the Irish police captain doesn't want to share his crime empire with him and assassinates him for it.
- Blackmail: His usual trick with politicians who frequent his brothels.
- Driven to Suicide: Subverted. Dudley's men try to make his death look as one, but Bud notices that two of his fingers are broken.
- Fingore: His broken fingers reveal that his death wasn't a suicide.
- Fleur de Lis: The name of his escort agency for prostitutes that resemble Hollywood film stars.
- Wicked Cultured: Lynn mentions that Pierce enjoys many of the finer things in life, and taught his girls how to dress and converse with their high-class johns.
A beautiful blonde prostitute that works for Pierce Patchett's "Fleur-de-Lis", a company that provides customers with hookers that resemble Hollywood film stars. Lynn is the Veronica Lake. She falls in love with officer Bud White.
- Color-Coded for Your Convenience: Her wardrobe reflects a lot about her character. She wears 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.
- Femme Fatale: A subversion. She is not really dark and her feelings towards Bud are sincere. The closest thing she does is seducing Edmund Exley but it was all a part of the blackmail between Smith, Patchett and Hudgens.
- High-Class Call Girl: Her luxurious prostitution job that makes her resemble a film star. In her case it's Lana Turner.
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: She's very loveable and caring, and has mutual romantic feelings with Bud White.
- Important Haircut: In the end, she cuts her hair to show her rejection of her former life.
The owner and paparazzi journalist to the gossip magazine "Hush-Hush" and an old acquittance to Jack Vincennes. He uses his magazine to uncover Hollywood's biggest scandals but also takes part in blackmail.
- Catchphrase: Oh, c'mon. You know what it is.
- Dark Chick: For Dudley Smith's cabal of corrupt police officers, with whom he's heavily involved. He uses his journalistic and police connections to gather blackmail material about any enemies of the cabal that aren't worth killing but worth keeping quiet.
- Fair Weather Friend: To Jack Vincennes, and it most certainly goes both ways. They're very aware of the extent to which they're using each other.
- Mr. Exposition: Sid sets up the film with his memorable opening narration.
- Paparazzi: He's a particularly nasty flavor of paparazzi scumbag, taking sadistic delight in ruining the lives and careers of other people, which he then profits off.
District Attorney Ellis Loew
One of Los Angeles' most prominent district attorneys.
- Amoral Attorney: Averted in the movie - He originally refused to cooperate in Smith's corruption and wanted to prosecute them, but was then blackmailed. - but played straight in the book; he is mostly funded by extortion run by Jack and only wins the DA campaign thanks to his opponent being framed also by Jack. His downfall comes when Ed uses these to leverage himself above Dudley in the police chain of command.
- Armored Closet Gay/Straight Gay: Loew is a closeted homosexual, but shows no effeminate traits. Nor does he show any sympathy for "some homo actor" who died.
- Badass Boast: He claims to have invented the Good Cop/Bad Cop technique, and isn't intimidated by White and Exley at first.
- Butt-Monkey: to Bud White.
- Demoted to Extra: from the book (where he is a key part of Mickey Cohen's clique) to the film.
- Historical Domain Character: One of the few in the movie, along with Lana Turner. His history is fudged with for comedic purposes.
- Spared by the Adaptation: In the book his real-life manslaughter is brought up to Ed; said death means Ed has no evidence linking Dudley Smith to anything.
- The Informant: to Bud, although he insists that he doesn't do that any more. Bud asserts otherwise.
- Composite Character: He's 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).
- Gayngst: He could lose his career getting caught sleeping with a man, that is if he didn't get killed by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet even that has issues, as Jack notes homicide won't help him on the case due to the gay aspects.
A student who is kidnapped and raped by the main suspects of the Nite Owl killings. Exley's attempts to verify their role in the massacre conflict with her want for vengeance.
- Genre Savvy: She knows that the police will stop at nothing to kill the men who kidnapped and raped her if they think they killed six white people.
A purse-snatcher who killed Preston Exley years ago.
- Allegorical Character: In-story, hes Exleys representation of a Karma Houdini.
- Canon Foreigner: Hes exclusive to the film because Preston Exley is still alive in the book.
- Cop Killer: Murdered Preston Exley when the latter tried to stop him from robbing someone.
- Invented Individual: The name Rollo Tomassi technically doesnt exist, but Exley invented the name to give him an identity.
- Karma Houdini: He was never arrested or even identified.
- Small Role, Big Impact: His murder of Preston Exley drove Prestons son Ed to become a cop, to catch those who think they can get away with crimes. The name itself becomes a Chekhov's Gun when Captain Smith mentions the name to Exley after Jack is murdered, tipping Exley off that Smith was involved because the only other person who knew about Rollo Tomassi was Jack.