Follow TV Tropes


Film / L.A. Confidential

Go To
"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

Los Angeles, 1953.

There is a mass murder at The Nite Owl restaurant, and one of the people killed is a former LAPD officer. Three different LAPD detectives with different personalities, wife-basher-basher Bud White (Russell Crowe), straight cop Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce), and publicity-hungry 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.

A 1990 novel by James Ellroy, L.A. Confidential was given a 1997 film adaptation directed by Curtis Hanson. Also in the cast are Kim Basinger, James Cromwell, Danny DeVito, and David Strathairn. The screenplay by Hanson and Brian Helgeland greatly condensed the plot and time frames of the book, but was widely praised for keeping almost all of the drama and noir feel.

Hanson and Helgeland won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Script, and Basinger won Best Supporting Actress. The film was nominated in several other categories (including Best Picture) but lost every one to the juggernaut that was Titanic.

HBO commissioned a pilot for a TV adaptation in 2003, but opted not to go ahead with the series. In 2018 CBS decided to try again and filmed a pilot episode, but the network decided not to pick up the series.

For the novel this was adapted from, check out L.A. Confidential.

Remember, dear tropers, you read these tropes first. Off the Internet, on the keyboard, and very Hush-Hush.

  • The '50s: The story covers many elements of the decade, from racism, to how police acted, to Vincennes working on a show similar to Dragnet.
  • 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.
  • Adapted Out: Most notably Preston Exley, the Frankenstein killer, Dieterling, and Karen Morrow.
  • 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. And in doing so it manages to weave in plot points from three different James Ellroy books, all while still qualifying as Adaptation Distillation. 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.
  • Adaptational Heroism:
    • Played with for Dudley Smith. 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.
    • In the film, the most extreme torture methods Bud uses are False Roulette, pummelling men tied to a chair, and dangling DA Ellis Loew out of a window. In the book, there is a scene in which Bud shoves a man's hand down a garbage disposal to extract information from him.
    • In the book, Exley tracks the three Nite Owl suspects to the apartment of their accomplice Roland Navarette and shoots all four men dead, despite the fact that they were unarmed and not resisting. In the film, Exley is accompanied by Carlisle who fires the first shot during a tense moment, and Navarette and the three Nite Owl suspects immediately return fire.
    • Badge of Honor star Brett Chase is stated to be a child molester in the novel. The film doesn't mention this aspect of his character at all.
  • Adaptational Relationship Overhaul: Dudley Smith is friendly and mentoring to Edmund Exley in the movie, serving as a Parental Substitute. In the book, Dudley utterly hates Exley and the latter despises the former. This is due to Dudley being combined with Exley's father in the film (see Composite Character).
  • Adaptational Timespan Change: The events of the book ran from Christmas 1951 to April 1958. The film opens on Christmas 1952 and ends sometime in 1953 note .
  • Adaptational Villainy: Dick Stensland 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.
  • Alliterative Name: Ed Exley, Pierce Patchett and Wendell "Bud" White.
  • Ambition Is Evil: Averted with Exley.
  • Anachronism Stew: Generally averted in an extremely well-researched film. However, in condensing the time-frame of the story from the source novel, at least 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 (the novel covers the entire decade, and features Stompanato and Turner at the appropriate time).
  • Answers to the Name of God:
    Bud: Jesus fucking Christ!
    Patchett: No, Mr. White, Pierce Moorehouse Patchett.
  • Any Last Words?: Said by Dudley Smith to Jack Vincennes.
    Smith: Have you a valediction, boyo?
    Vincennes: Rollo... Tomasi.
  • 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.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Exley asks Vincennes why he became a cop in the first place. Vincennes appears genuinely stricken to realize he has no earthly idea.
  • Artistic License – History: It's the early 1950s and yet almost none of the police or civilians are wearing fedoras outdoors, except for Smith in one scene and some of his mooks. Word of God is that this was to avoid making the actors look like they were in costume so that the film could focus on them as characters. In reality, everyone would have been wearing fedoras outside.
  • Asshole Victim: Lots of characters, including all of Mickey Cohen's lieutenants, Dick Stensland, Buzz Meeks, Sugar Ray Collins, Ty Jones, Lewis Fontane, Sylvester Fitch, Roland Navarette, William Carlisle, Sid Hudgens, Pierce Pattchet, and Dudley Smith. DA Loew isn't killed, just dangled out a fifth story window to the point of hysterics as part of an interrogation by Bud and Ed. Mickey Cohen, as he is sent to prison for income tax evasion.
  • An Asskicking Christmas: Some of the plot takes place around the holiday season. This is exemplified during Bud's Establishing Character Moment — after he witnesses a husband beating his wife inside a house, Bud rips the Christmas decorations off of it, then proceeds to beat and handcuff the enraged husband when he steps outside.
  • The Atoner: Jack 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.
  • Back-to-Back Badasses: Bud and Ed at the climax of the film.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 loose ends. It's his underestimation of Bud's ability to think for himself that proves to be Dudley's undoing.
    • Jack Vincennes said "Rollo Tomasi" to Dudley Smith before dying because he was betting Dudley would throw it into the investigation to bait Ed. He does.
  • 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.
    • Vincennes is hanging around the periphery of the Bloody Christmas beatdown, generally trying to keep things calm. When one of the Mexican prisoners — already beaten bloody by Stensland and company — is shoved into Vincennes, resulting in a bright red stain on Jack's pure white suit, Jack loses it and throws a punch. He ends up throwing one more after essentially the same thing happens again a few seconds later.
  • Big Bad Friend: Dudley Smith wants to take the niche left by Mickey Cohen and will not share it with any possible collaborator like Pierce Patchett or Sid Hudgens.
  • Blackmail: The routine trick by which Pierce Patchett blackmails a politician into approving the freeway project with compromising pictures of him with Lynn Bracken.
  • Blunt "Yes": Just after Exley has agreed to testify against his fellow police officers in exchange for a sizeable promotion, Dudley has a private word with him.
    Dudley: You may reap the benefit Edmund, but are you truly willing to be despised within the department?
    Ed: Yes sir, I am.
  • 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.
  • Byronic Hero: Jack Vincennes. A classic moment for this trope happens when he broods in a bar after the death of Matt Reynolds, looking at himself in a bar mirror, as Lee Wiley's "Oh! Look At Me Now" plays in the background.
  • Can Always Spot a Cop: When Bud first impulsively wishes Lynn a Merry Christmas while they're standing in a liquor store, despite there being no outward sign that Bud is a cop, she almost immediately replies "Merry Christmas, officer", much to Bud's chagrin.
    Bud: Merry Christmas.
    Lynn: [very short pause as she looks at him] Merry Christmas to you, officer.
    Bud: That obvious, huh?
    Lynn: [sympathetically] It's practically stamped on your forehead.
  • Cardboard Box of Unemployment: Vincennes' box containing his desk possessions isn't yet unpacked when he's settling down at his desk in Vice for his temporary stint there.
  • 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 in the example of Your Costume Needs Work, when Ed Exley mistakes the real Lana Turner for a lookalike hooker.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The hole in the floor of the Victory Motel made by Bud after ripping the chair that Sid Hudgens is tied to out of it, is seen again in the final shootout where Bud uses it twice to get the drop on the hitmen, first by dropping through and shooting two hitmen sneaking around the back in the feet through a vent hole, allowing Ed to finish them off, and again when Ed is pinned down by Bruening and another hitman where Bud kills the one hitman from down in the foundation before leaping out and hitting Bruening in the shoulder before finishing him off with a blast to the chest.
  • Da Chief: Dudley Smith. He's one of the rare villainous examples.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: Lynn Bracken's 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.
  • Composite Character:
    • Matt Reynolds is a combination of Tammy Reynolds and Rock Rockwell (the kids Jack busts for smoking pot in the beginning) and Timmy Valburn (tragic young gay actor, whose life is ruined by one of the main detectives - Jack in the movie, Ed in the book).
    • Dudley Smith and Detective Bruening take David Mertens' place as the person responsible for killing Sid Hudgens.
    • The Dudley Smith of the movie is a combination of the this character as well as Preston Exley. Much of the latter's dialogue is given to Dudley, establishing a fatherly mentoring relationship with Edmund Exley that doesn't exist in the book.
  • Conversation Casualty: Dudley Smith shoots Jack Vincennes mid-conversation without so much as a word of warning.
  • Cop Killer Manhunt:
    • 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.
    • The whole "Bloody Christmas" incident is a cross between this and Gossip Evolution. A trio of suspects who assaulted a pair of cops are brought into the lockup with the cops in question suffering some minor bruising. By the time Stensland has heard about this, the rumours of the cops' injuries have escalated to the point where it's being said that one cop lost an eye and the other is on his deathbed, which causes Stensland to lead a bunch of cops down to the lockup to administer a heavy beating to the suspects.
  • Crazy Jealous Guy: Bud towards the end of the film, due to finding out Lynn slept with Exley.
  • Creator Cameo: The offscreen voice in the morgue scene ("We're ready with that Nite Owl ID, lieutenant.") belongs to director Curtis Hanson.
  • Death by Adaptation: Dudley Smith. Preston Exley, too or at least the timing of it.
  • Deceased Fall-Guy Gambit: The Negroes get framed for the Nite Owl killings. Breuning, Carlisle and Dudley Smith 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 has completely forgotten why he wanted to be a cop in the first place, having chosen show-business over the law.
  • Defrosting Ice King: Exley starts off the 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.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Racism, homophobia, and Police Brutality are portrayed as just a normal way of life. Inez Soto specifically tells the cops that the men who raped her are the main suspects for the Nite Owl killings because she knows the cops wouldn't care at all about minority suspects raping another minority, but will stop at nothing if they think the suspects killed six white people.
  • Demoted to Extra: Inez Soto, the woman gang-raped by the three Nite Owl suspects, is a major character in the novel: after being rescued from Sylvester Fitch, she becomes the Girl Friday to Exley's father Preston and his business partner Raymond Dieterling, and gets romantically involved with Exley and White. In the film she appears in three (very brief) scenes.
  • Destination Defenestration: When Exley and Carlisle confront the Nite Owl suspects, Exley shoots one of them so that he’s blown out a window.
  • Determinator: Bud White. It rubs off on Exley by the end.
  • Die Laughing: Vincennes laughs at himself after he's shot by Dudley, moments before dying after being shot point-blank range.
  • Dies Differently in Adaptation:
    • In the film, Ed Exley's father Preston gets shot dead by a mugger prior to the events of the film. In the book he commits suicide before Ed can expose him as a murderer.
    • In the film, Jack Vincennes gets shot dead by Dudley Smith. In the book, he gets killed during a raid on a train carrying numerous prison inmates.
    • In the film, Sid Hudgens gets strangled to death by Dudley Smith. In the book, he gets dismembered by one of the "Dr. Frankenstein" killers.
  • 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 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 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.
    • 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.
  • Dying Smirk: Jack's famous line after he gets shot. He's chuckling because he knows what's in store for his killer.
  • Embarrassing First Name: Bud White isn't really fond of his first name "Wendell". Although Edmund isn't so much better.
  • Entertainingly Wrong: Bud and Exley's views on each other turn out to be pretty inaccurate. Exley thinks Bud is a major part of the Nite Owl massacre, while Bud thinks Exley is just an Obstructive Bureaucrat getting in the way of his investigation.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Dudley Smith, which is part of what makes him so chilling.
  • Film Noir: The period's gotten down correctly, and in brutally unglamorous detail. 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", then discovers their symbol on a dossier during his first case in Vice.
  • 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, you know.
  • Follow the Leader: invokedThis is discussed in the opening narration, when Mickey Cohen is brought down the same way Al Capone was (tax evasion), and it's compared to how films in Hollywood like to copy each other.
    Sid Hudgens: But nothing too original, of course. This is Hollywood. What worked for Al Capone could work for the Mickster.
  • 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.
    • Early in the film, Captain Smith asks Exley "Would you be willing to shoot a hardened criminal in the back?" After Exley dispatches the three Nite Owl suspects, he acquires the department nickname "Shotgun Ed". Guess how he kills Dudley.
  • Framing the Guilty Party: In a twist, the Negroes suspected of being behind the Nite Owl killings never committed those murders, but at the same time they were guilty of kidnapping and raping a woman.
  • Freudian Trio:
    • Ed is the Superego, Bud is the Id, and Jack is the Ego. His death is what forces the other two to team-up and start forming the thoughts that normally develop from the Ego partner of the 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.
  • Gallows Humor: When Bud and Ed have barricaded themselves in the Victory Motel after being tricked into meeting there by Dudley, just before they open fire on the sneaking hitmen, they have this exchange.
    Ed: "All I ever wanted was to measure up to my father."
    Bud: "Well here's your chance." *Ed looks at him confusedly*
    Bud: "He died in the line of duty didn't he?"
    *Both have a small chuckle before Ed fires on a sneaking hitman near a window.*
  • Gayngst: Matt Reynolds, in the movie, 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 that Homicide won't help him on the case due to the gay aspects.
  • Genre Savvy: Inez 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.
  • The Glasses Come Off: Played straight in the movie with Ed.
  • Glory Hound: Jack Vincennes has become one over the years. It takes getting an innocent man killed to snap him out of it.
  • 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.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: We only get to see the shocked expression on Exley's face when he stares at the (presumably very) gory results of the Nite Owl suspect he just blew away with a shotgun at point-blank range in an elevator.
  • Gossip Evolution: Two police officers, Helenowski and Brown, are beaten up by a group of Mexican hoodlums. The word about what happened gets more dramatic with each telling: according to Exley, they're on leave from active duty with some bruises, but by the time the assault suspects are brought in, the (incredibly inebriated) cops at the station are claiming that Helenowski is partially blind and Brown is on his death bed. The cops, having already worked themselves into a frenzy, proceed to take it out on the Mexicans.
  • Groin Attack: Bud White interrogates Johnny Stompanato by squeezing his testes and asking, "What do I get if I give you your balls back?"
  • Guns Akimbo: Ed wields a Colt Detective Special in one hand and a Colt M1911 semi-automatic handgun in the other during the Victory Motel shootout.
  • Have You Told Anyone Else?: A slightly subtler variant when Dudley Smith asks Vincennes, "What does Exley make of all this?" When Vincennes replies that he hasn't spoken to Exley yet and just came from the records room, Smith shoots him.
  • 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.
    • 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, Lana Turner, and Mickey Cohen, all have small roles, but are still important to the story in various ways.
  • History Repeats: Mickey Cohen is brought down the same way Al Capone was.
  • 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. This is later done with Exley kissing Lynn and Dudley leaving them for Bud to find.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Lynn Bracken is very loveable and caring, and has mutual romantic feelings with Bud White.
  • Horrible Hollywood: Hollywood is depicted as a miserable den of drug abuse, prostitution and backstabbing populated by muckraking journalists and corrupt investors.
  • Identifying the Body: For Susan Lefferts' identification, her mother is brought in to verify her identity. While she's changed a lot appearance-wise because of cosmetics, the mother confirms it's her daughter because of a birthmark. This also causes Bud White to realize that he'd seen her right before Bloody Christmas, which he keeps to himself as he pursues his own line of investigation.
  • Immoral Journalist: Sid Hudgens is a sleazy and opportunistic tabloid writer who is perfectly happy to ruin lives for the sake of a headline; in fact, he's downright sadistic about it.
  • 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. Exley immediately realizes this means Dudley is Vincennes' killer, because "Rollo Tomasi" is a name that Exley invented to personify the mugger who murdered his father, a secret he has only confided to Vincennes.
    • 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 kidnapping and 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 expiring.
  • In the Back: Captain Smith tells Exley he's not ready for detective work because he's not willing to shoot a suspect in the back. By the end of the movie, Exley has done just Smith.
  • Invented Individual: Rollo Tomasi, the man who killed Exley's father. The killer was never identified, so Exley invented that name for him. Jack, after being fatally shot, uses it to direct suspicion to Dudley, making Rollo an identity for two murders.
  • 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...".
  • Ironic Nickname Played with in the case of Exley's 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.
  • Jerkass:
    • Sid Hudgens, LA's premier Immoral Journalist.
    • Sugar Ray, one of the Nite Owls suspects, is shown to be a dog-kicking sociopath.
    • Buzz Meeks is pretty gruff and hostile during his brief screen time.
  • Karma Houdini: Rollo Tomasi, the purse snatcher who killed Exley's father was never captured, nor was his true identity even discovered. Exley just called him "Rollo Tomasi" to give him character and as a symbol for all crooks who thought they could get away with it. Ultimately, it keeps Dudley Smith from getting this trope because Vincennes feeds the name to him even as he's dying from a gunshot wound, hoping that Smith will slip up.
  • Karmic Death: Capt. Dudley in the film adaptation.
  • Kick the Dog: A literal example, to show how nasty one of the three Nite Owl suspects is.
    Raymond "Sugar Ray" Collins: Dogs ain't got no reason to live.
  • The Killer Becomes the Killed: The fate of Dudley Smith, shotgunned in the back by Exley.
  • Kosher Nostra: Mickey Cohen.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Lighter and Softer: As strange as it may seem for a dark Film Noir which deals unflinchingly with heroin dealing, racism, prostitution, pornography, police brutality and so on, the film significantly tones down the most extreme content from the book. The book's copious incidences of child rape and murder are omitted, the protagonists are less morally ambiguous (see Adaptational Heroism above), and the violence is less brutal (e.g. Sid Hudgens dies by strangulation in the film, whereas in the book he gets dismembered).
  • Living Lie Detector: Ed, in the book more than the movie.
  • Love Triangle: Bud, Lynn, and Ed. Lynn chooses Bud.
  • The Man Behind the Man: It's Captain Dudley Smith who controls the dirty racket in L.A..
  • Manipulative Bastard: Captain Smith arranges for Exley to begin an affair with Lynn, then leaks the evidence to Bud White, who's already in a more committed relationship with the Hooker with a Heart of Gold. This causes the notoriously violent Bud to nearly murder Exley in broad daylight.
  • Meaningful Background Event: After Bud shoots Inez Soto's rapist, you can see the other cops heading to the house in response to the gunshot.
  • Missing White Woman Syndrome: Inez Soto lampshades it. Would anyone have cared if a minority girl was raped if the perpetrators weren't also suspects in the killing of several white people?
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: 'Shotgun Ed'.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Badge of Honor and its star Brett Chase are Dragnet and Jack Webb in all but name.
  • No Name Given: The LAPD Police Chief is never named, but it's pretty obviously supposed to be William Parker, the real chief at the time the movie takes place.
  • 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.
  • Not Quite Dead: After being shot by Smith twice, Bud suddenly recovers and stabs Dudley in 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.
  • 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. He's a rare example that's also a corrupt and ruthless murderer and crime lord.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Guy Pearce has a masterful selection of these from the very subtle, when Exley lays eyes on the Nite Owl victims, when one of the suspects in said case reveals he kidnapped and raped a woman and when Capt. Dudley Smith unwittingly reveals he killed Jack Vincennes, to wide-eye gawps when he's told the woman he thinks is a hooker cut to look like Lana Turner is actually Lana Turner and, more dramatically, when Bud shows him the pictures of Ed and Lynn sleeping together before launching into his No-Holds-Barred Beatdown. The one with Capt. Smith is particularly good, as Smith is looking Ed straight in the face as they talk, and Ed has to struggle to control his expression as realization dawns.
    • John's, whose wife White threatens to call, and later turns out to be the councilman that Patchett blackmails with compromising photos.
    • Notice that the moment Stensland and some of the other cops decide to abandon the Christmas party to go beat up the Mexicans who assaulted fellow cops, Exley is alarmed and tries to block them, and Vincennes's first reaction is to find Bud and tell him, "Hey, White? You better put a leash on your partner before he kills somebody."
    • Sid Hudgens starts panicking once he realizes Dudley is, in fact, going to kill him.
  • Only Bad Guys Call Their Lawyers:
    • The Nite Owl suspects are not quite a straight example. They don't call their lawyers (though Ray Collins at one point declares an intent to get one) and are indeed innocent of the Nite Owl murders, but they are guilty of a separate, unrelated (but quite heinous) crime.
    • Pierce Patchett is a straight example: while he's a cool customer and is too confident (and rich) to be intimidated into talking, he still tells Bud White at their first meeting that any further attempts to get information out of him will be met with his lawyer.
  • Pædo Hunt: During his introductory scene, Bud White threatens the abusive husband to have him sent in jail with child molestation charges next time he lays a finger on his wife, asking him "You know what they do to kiddie rapers in Quentin?"
  • Paparazzi: Sid Hudgens is a particularly nasty flavor of paparazzi scumbag, taking sadistic delight in ruining the lives and careers of other people, from which he then profits.
  • 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.
  • Period Piece: The film goes very far in recreating the atmosphere of The '50s.
  • Perp Sweating: A Moment of Awesome for Ed Exley, with his interrogation of the three Nite Owl suspects.
  • Perspective Flip: The film switches between Jack, Bud, and Exley's points of view.
  • Pistol-Whipping: When Bud tries to kill Exley for sleeping with Lynn, Exley is able to get an opening by pulling Bud’s revolver out of his jacket and knocking him upside the head.
  • Play-Along Prisoner: For the "interrogation" of Sid Hudgens at the Victory, Breuning is pulling his punches whenever he strikes Sid, though not good enough for Sid's liking.
  • Police Brutality: "Bloody Christmas" 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. Although the movie's Bloody Christmas is much milder than the real one, which was a 95 minute No-Holds-Barred Beatdown.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The film trims and condenses the very complicated plot of the book in order to make it work as a movie.
  • Pretty in Mink: Lana Turner is wearing a white fox wrap in her scene in the movie, helping indicate she's the actual movie star, and not one of the Fleur de Lis girls.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis! : "WHERE..IS..THE..GIRL?!"
  • 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.
  • 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. He's got to be very lucky that he didn't accidentally shoot an innocent bystander.
      • In fact, any time Exley uses a shotgun or pistol without his glasses qualifies as this. Vincennes takes concern before a raid when Exley can't find his glasses:
        Jack Vincennes: 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.
    • 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.
  • 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.
  • Revealing Cover-Up: Attempting to cover up Stensland's death by making it one part of a robbery gone bad eventually leads to the conspirators incriminating themselves trying to cover their tracks.
  • Saying Too Much: How both Jack Vincennes and Sid Hudgens find themselves on the wrong end of Dudley Smith's gun.
  • Scapegoat:
    • As part of the fallout from "Bloody Christmas", several cops are forced to take early retirements with pension, but Stensland is fired as the LAPD use him as the scapegoat for the whole debacle. Which is not entirely unjustified, since he was the instigator.
    • The guys brought in for the Nite Owl killings are convenient for the case, as they are guilty of other crimes and are black suspects in The '50s.
  • Self-Defense Ruse: Bud White tracks down Sylvester Fitch, one of the men involved in the abduction and rape of Inez Soto. White enters Fitch's house and shoots him dead while he is sitting in his underwear, eating cereal and watching television. White then uses a second gun to fire a round into the door frame, and places the gun in Fitch's hand to make it look like White killed him in self-defence. Exley lampshades the implausibility of the plan:
    Exley: A naked guy with a gun? You expect anyone to believe that?
  • Sex as 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.
  • Shoot Him, He Has a Wallet!: During the hunt for the Nite Owl suspects, the sound of a beer bottle falling off the table startles Carlisle and results in a Blast Out that kills everyone but Exley and one Nite Owl suspect.
  • Shotguns Are Just Better: The LAPD exclusively uses these as their long arms. Ed uses one against the Nite Owl suspects and Bud uses one during the Victory Motel shootout.
  • Slashed Throat: "The proof had his throat cut" (referring to Matt Reynolds).
  • Soundtrack Dissonance:
    • The use of Betty Hutton's cover of "Hit The Road To Dreamland" while Sid Hudgens talks in narration about Tony Brancato, Anthony Trombino and Deuce Perkins wondering if they're behind the killings to take over Mickey Cohen's racket, only to see them getting gunned down.
    • Bud White sneaks into the apartment where Inez Soto is held captive by Sylvester Fitch, seeing her Bound and Gagged onto a bed and shoots him dead in cold blood while the music and sound effects of the Terrytoons cartoon "Noah's Outing" blares from the TV.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Inez Soto, who in the novel killed herself upon learning that her employer Raymond Dieterling and his business partner Preston Exley murdered Dieterling's son years earlier.
  • 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, when Captain Smith mentions it to him when discussing Jack's murder and Ed knows that only he (Ed) and Jack knows about Rollo Tomasi.
  • Staredown Faceoff: Bud White confronts Ed Exley like this after Exley berates White for shooting dead the unarmed man holding Inez Soto hostage, then making it look like White shot in self-defense.
  • The Stinger: Halfway through the credits there's an old-timey shot of Brett "Badge of Honor" Chase in a parade with DA Ellis Loew. Then after the credits are finished there's a scene of a family watching the opening credits of "Badge of Honor", which end with an In Memoriam, "Dedicated to Sergeant Jack Vincennes." (There is of course ironic contrast between the rah-rah copaganda of shows like "Badge of Honor" and the deepset corruption and criminality of the movie's LAPD.)
  • The Stoic: LAPD Chief William Parker never raises his voice and never expresses any emotion beyond a low-key anger. Bear in mind the real Parker supposedly was the basis for the character of Spock.
  • Stoic Spectacles: Exley. He wears them to look a lot more serious on the job.
  • Surprisingly Sudden Death: Jack Vincennes. Doubles as a Wham moment since it also reveals that Captain Smith is the Big Bad.
  • 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 that Dudley might think of as a person of interest that needs to be eliminated down the road, but is actually a Dying Clue meant for Exley.
  • These Hands Have Killed: Exley is in 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 who attacked two of their own have been brought in, so as to give them their beating, Vincennes, aware that Stensland is leading them whilst intoxicated and not in a good state of mind, approaches Bud White and tells him, "White, you'd better put a leash on your partner before he kills somebody."
  • Too Dumb to Live: The perp who gets beaten up by Dick Stensland in the jail. Bud White goes to pull Stensland off him, you'd expect the perp to quiet down and be thankful that he didn't get beaten to death. Instead, he gets up behind White and starts insulting Stensland's mother in Spanish. When White tells the perp to get back, the perp responds in English, "Oh yeah?! And fuck your mother!" White, with a shout of "Fuck you!" proceeds to slam the perp into the walls, starting off Bloody Christmas; even Jack Vincennes gets a hit on the same perp, for bloodying his suit in the process.
  • 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: The department does this to Dudley Smith at the end, giving a public statement saying that he died a hero in the line of duty.
  • Turn in Your Badge: Bud, though the movie gives us the traditional scene after Bloody Christmas. For Bud, it's a 10-Minute Retirement, as Smith quickly returns it to him a scene later after some witnesses recant their testimony. Stensland also is shown doing the traditional scene, though his termination is permanent, as the LAPD seek to use him as the scapegoat for the media. The film makes Stens' termination even more permanent, but in a different way.
  • 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, 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: Dudley Smith.
  • Wham Shot: Literally; the first indication that Captain Dudley Smith is evil is when he shoots Jack Vincennes in the chest.
  • Virgin in a White Dress: Inverted. As a high-class hooker Lynn is anything but virginal, but in most subsequent appearances, especially in the iconic scene where she seduces Ed, she wears a white dress.
  • What You Are in the Dark: Bud is horrified to find out he's capable of hitting a woman he cares about, just like his abusive father did to his mother.
  • When She Smiles: Exley at the very end of the movie.
  • Wife-Basher Basher: Bud White. He's introduced kicking the crap out of a wife-beater, handcuffing him to his porch 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, which prompts a big Heroic BSoD once he composes himself.
  • Working the Same Case: All of the detectives, but most notably Exley, Vincennes, and White.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Dudley Smith regularly eliminates anyone who's become a liability for him or is no longer of use for him.
  • 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.
  • 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 is 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.

Just the tropes, Ma'am.


Video Example(s):


Bud beats Wife Beater

Bud White's Establishing Character Moment shows he's one of these.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (8 votes)

Example of:

Main / WifeBasherBasher

Media sources: