Sunday, February 26, 2017
SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.
The title of the motion picture tells you upfront what the story is about – the glamorous draw of the promise of the City of Angels, and the dirty secrets it tries to hide as people there vie for success. Hanson said that the movie industry settled here because filmmakers liked shooting in the soft, soothing sunlight that saturated this part of California. But, as someone said about LA, “you come for a vacation, and go home on probation.” So, there is that underbelly of its people that Hanson wants to expose, and ironically contrast with the celebrity of stardom.
The movie begins in 1952 with a voice-over from tabloid sleaze master Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito) of Hush Hush magazine. To “hush” is to stifle speech, which is what the successful want done concerning their nasty actions. But, while on one hand, the public doesn’t want its ideal version of the town of dreams shattered, at the same time, it craves to hear the dirt. Why? Maybe for the same reason that people want to look away from a car crash, but can’t because of a perverse morbid curiosity. Or, perhaps they envy the success of movie stars, and want to cut them down, lower them to the level of the drudgery of the lives of everyday working people. Sid says that “Life is good in Los Angeles. It’s paradise on earth. Ha, ha, ha, ha. That’s what they tell you anyway.” We eventually see a collage of murderous hits, as the audience hears Sid relate how crime boss Mickey Cohen, (the criminal version of a star), is now in jail, and a vacuum of illegitimacy exists. However, someone is killing all of his pretender mob lieutenants. At one of the killings, an unidentified person steals a suitcase full of heroin. And, the LA Police Department has a public relations problem because of its inability to solve these crimes.
Detective Bud White, (Russell Crowe), is out on a liquor run with his partner, Dick Stensland (Graham Beckel) for a Christmas party. They come across a house where a man is beating his wife. Bud sent the man to prison before, and is checking up on him. There are holiday decorations on the outside of the building, contrasting the surface appearance of the season of good cheer with the cruel actions inside the home. White rips down the Santa sleigh and lights to get the man to come outside. But, symbolically, the tearing away of a façade shows him to be a man who does not tolerate deception or phony appearances. LA is a strange place for him to be, since Hollywood specializes in presenting illusions. He beats up the man and handcuffs him to the porch so the police will arrest him. White offers comfort to the woman, asking her if she has a place to stay. His name is “White,” suggesting that he is one of the “good guys,” despite his brutal behavior. When they get to the party at the precinct, Stensland says they were late because his partner’s helping the battered woman shows how White has his “priorities all fouled up.” We have an upside-down world here, where decent acts are denigrated.
When the abusive man comes out of his house he asks Bud who is he, and the cop says, “I’m the Ghost of Christmas Past.” The line refers, as we later learn, to Bud’s childhood history. His father was an abuser. As a boy, he tried to stop his father from hurting his mother. His dad tied him to a radiator and then beat his mother to death with a tire iron. The father left, and was never found. Bud later talks about wanting justice, and his anger towards criminals, and especially those who hurt women, may be his attempt to exact the punishment his father never received. Actor Crowe said he wanted Bud’s clothes to be tight-fitting, as if confining the man. The character does look like he is ready to burst out of them at any moment as his rage for criminals builds. It may be that wanting to get free of constraints reflects a desire to make up for having been restrained to that radiator.
On the way to the Christmas party, White goes into a liquor store to buy the booze. He encounters Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger, in an Oscar-winning Best Supporting Actress role). There is a definite contrast between the way the two appear. He wishes her a merry Christmas. She returns the favor adding, “officer” to her greeting. He says was it that obvious, and she says, “It’s practically stamped on your forehead.” Again, we see that Bud is the man who has nothing to hide. Not so Lynn. Her head is symbolically covered by a hood, so that Bud at first only sees a bit of blonde hair and some of her profile. When he goes outside, Bud notices that the fancy car Lynn is heading towards has a woman with a bandage over her nose. Sensitive to abused women, Bud investigates. The woman, who turns out to be Susan Lefferts (Amber Smith), tells Bud, as does Lynn, that Bud has it all wrong. Honest Bud again comes up against deceptions. The owner inside of the car is Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn). Great name for a man, as we later learn, who sometimes uses plastic surgery to have hookers look like movie stars. Their skin is “pierced” for the surgery, and then they are “patched up” to look like the intended person. Putting a “patch” over something also is an attempt to cover up what is wrong underneath. In Pierce Patchett’s name, we get the theme of surface phoniness. The “pierce’ part also suggests sexual penetration (Psycho anyone?). Pierce has his driver/bodyguard, Buzz Meeks (Darrell Sandeen), deal with Bud. White overcomes the man, and from his wallet discovers the man’s name. Bud gets him to admit that he was an ex-cop, which Stensland confirms, but does not act like he knows the man personally, or the bruised woman in the car.
We encounter Sergeant Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), a narcotics detective, at a glamorous Hollywood party. Jack is the technical adviser on a TV show entitled “Badge of Honor,” an ironic title, since, at this time, honorable policemen are in short supply, and many corrupt cops hide behind the superficial legitimacy of their badges. Jack tells his dancing partner that he teaches the star of the show how to walk and talk like a cop. She says that the actor on “Badge of Honor” doesn’t walk and talk like Jack. He counters with, “Well, that’s ‘cause he’s the television version. America isn’t ready for the real me.” Hollywood presents the sanitized version of reality, the dream in which the people want to believe, in contrast to the seedy reality. The show uses the line from the real TV series “Dragnet,” where the policeman says he wants “just the facts,” which is the opposite of what Hollywood, and corrupt cops want exposed. The “real” Jack works with Sid Hudgens, who gets Jack leads on movie stars having sexual encounters while using drugs. Sid pays Jack for “acting” in his set-up. Jack arrests them, while Sid has the caught actors and actresses filmed at the scene (as reality and staged filmmaking merge). We have invasion of privacy and destruction of careers so that Jack can enhance his career, and Sid’s manipulation of events can increase his readership at the expense of others.
The first time we see Sergeant Edmund Exley, he is being interviewed by a reporter, because in LA, how one appears, one’s public image, is what dominates. His father was a well-known policeman, who was killed in the line of duty. The precinct captain, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), tells Exley he is a political animal and shouldn’t go into homicide, where he will be called upon to plant evidence on an obviously guilty person, beat a confession out of a suspect he knows to be guilty, and may have to shoot a hardened criminal in the back if there was a chance a lawyer would get the man off. (This last example is an ironic foreshadowing of the end of the film). Exley believes he can mete out justice by not doing any of the above. It is significant that Dudley, as do others, advise Exley to lose his eyeglasses. He looks too cerebral if he wears the lenses, and they want him to play the typical role of the macho cop. It may also symbolize that the removal of his glasses signifies the loss of his clarity of moral vision.
All of the above occur on the same evening. At the precinct, while Exley acts as Watch Commander, Jack arrives and tries to give him a payoff, which Exley refuses. Bud and the others party it up. Then, three Mexicans suspected of assaulting policemen are brought in. Instead of trying to find out “just the facts,” the inebriated cops spread rumors about one of the attacked officers losing an eye and another being in a coma. Exley tries to set them straight by saying they only suffered muscle bruises. The cops tellingly put Exley in a cell, as if truth and justice are being locked out of sight, hidden away from view so the “fake news” can flourish without contradiction. White first tries to control Stensland, but when one of the Mexicans curses him, he, too, joins in the fight, as does Jack, when his clothes are dirtied. (As opposed to Bud’s outfits, Jack dresses the part of a Hollywood leading man, showing he has strayed from his true role in life). The press, who interviewed Exley, are there, and, they photograph the beatings of the Mexicans, adding to the already compromised image of the police department. The newspaper headline is “Bloody Christmas,” mirroring the brutality that Bud exposed at the abuser’s house, which is in sharp contrast to the purpose of the holiday season.
The LAPD need to provide the public the look of an agency that is trying to clean up its mess, while at the same time not shaking things up too much. But, Bud White and others will not snitch on fellow cops who participated in the precinct braw. The Chief of Police suspends White for not cooperating. Using his considerable political skills, Exley agrees to give testimony, saying what he truly believes, that “Justice must be served,” and that the cops “confuse silence with integrity.” But, he bends the concept of justice with pragmatism, by suggesting that those punished should be ones close to retirement. That way they can leave early with full benefits. But, he argues there must be a sacrifice that doesn’t look convenient. Dudley is willing to let Stensland go, but wants to keep Bud because he is willing do the things that Exley said he wouldn’t. At Exley’s urging, the higher-ups use Vince’s love of working on “Badge of Honor” as leverage to get him to testify against those who can retire. In return, Exley receives a promotion. On his way out the door, Stensland turns down Bud’s offer of going for a drink because he says he has a “date.” Dudley gives Bud his badge and gun back, but only if he switches to homicide, not to solve cases, to Bud’s disappointment, but instead to use his muscle to intimidate others from taking over Cohen’s operations. It is interesting that when Dudley asks Bud if he follows everything he told him, Bud says, “In technicolor.” The use of a movie term, which is meant to imply vivid understanding, also has a connotation of something exaggerated, and staged. The place where the physical intimidations take place is the deceptively patriotic named Victory Motel, situated next to an ugly oil rig that plunders the earth in the midst of such an otherwise beautiful setting.
In his new position, Exley is hated by the other cops for being a snitch. One evening, he takes a call about homicides at the Night Owl Diner. It turns out that many people were shot there, and it appears to be a robbery. Again, what something appears to be on the surface is not necessarily the case in this town. One of the dead is Stensland. But, it turns out that one of the women killed at the restaurant was Susan Lefferts, the surgically altered woman in Patchett’s car. Dudley says they have information that three African Americans were in the vicinity driving a Mercury coup. Exley goes with Jack, and after following a lead, show up at the home of one of the black suspects. However, two of Dudley’s men are already there, and they have found money (presumably the cash stolen from the diner), and the shotguns, which are a ballistics match in the Night Owl case. Exley stops one of these officers from killing the suspects, who look at each other as if some plan was thwarted.
Back at the precinct, Exley again shows his mental skills by playing the suspects off one another. He may not be willing to do Dudley’s required extreme actions to get a felon, but he is not above manipulating, even lying, to incriminate them. (There is a shot which shows the reflections of the police in the window of the interrogation room so that they are seen at the same time as the suspects inside, thus equating the cops with the criminals). But, the suspects say they had no shotguns, and do not admit to killing anyone. It comes out that they have abducted a woman, and have raped her. Bud, exploding because of harm done to a female, plays forced Russian Roulette with one of the men, getting an address. White rescues the woman after basically murdering her captor and making it look like the man fired at Bud. White is willing to do what he feels must be done for what he calls “justice.” Exley yells at him, and says Bud doesn’t know the meaning of justice. Bud significantly says to Exley that he should go after criminals, instead of cops, referring to his snitching. These words are ironic considering what happens at the end of the film.
Conveniently, the three black suspects escape from jail. Exley remembers the address they disclosed where they acquired drugs. Exley goes there with other men. A gunfight ensues after one of the cops fires first after a bottle accidentally breaks. Exley, the man everyone thought was just good for the use of his brains, uses a shotgun to kill the suspects. He is now accepted as “Shotgun Ed,” and receives the department’s highest commendation. Again, appearances are deceiving as there is more to Exley than first meets the eye. But, those eyes get stained with blood during the shootings, as Exley did not wear his glasses, indicating that he does not yet see that he has been made complicit in a corrupt plot.
Jack was suspended for a while for his participation in “Bloody Christmas,” and as part of the deal, has to work in Vice temporarily before resuming work on the TV show. At one of the busts set up by Sid, he found a business card with the phrase “Fleur de Lis” on it. In Vice, he sees the same name on evidence involving a pornography ring. We later learn that Patchett runs this service, which involves the prostitutes, and since Lefferts was at the diner, there is also a link to the Night Owl killings.
Bud is not satisfied concerning Stensland’s murder, and the coincidental presence at the diner of both his former partner and Lefferts. He goes to the liquor store where he saw Lynn, and tracks down Patchett, who admits to the prostitution ring, but nothing else. Bud also finds Lynn’s address. Director Hanson said that her home was divided into two levels. The downstairs is where she entertains her clients. It represents the fake pretense of having sex with her as a Veronica Lake lookalike. It, like the movies, is a fantasy world. Upstairs is where Lynn Bracken, the real person from Arizona, lives. When Bud first arrives at her place, she is with a man, on the first floor, who acts tough (emphasis on “acting”), wearing an undershirt and a fedora hat. They are watching a movie starring the real Veronica Lake. Thus, the illusion is doubled, since there is only a film of the real person, and just a pretend real actress. When Lynn answers the door, the man asks if she wants him to get rid of Bud. Bud tells the man to get lost, knowing that he is no tough guy, but really a married city councilman, who Bud threatens with the possibility of notifying his wife about his unseemly activity. We are again shown the underside of the supposedly respectable surface of LA in the form of this man.
Even though Bud is on the job, he is obviously attracted to Lynn. She basically says that girls like her, who came to Hollywood to become stars, can only get a chance to act by playing sleazy versions of their idols. She says he is the first man who hasn’t immediately said she looks like Veronica Lake. He says she looks better than the actress. By delivering that line, he is telling her that he sees beyond the pretense, and is perceiving the real Lynn Bracken, who only has changed her hair, but nothing else. She has already observed in the liquor store how he has nothing to hide. When he doubts his intellectual ability to solve cases, she tells him he found Patchett, and her, and that he is smart enough. They become genuine lovers on the second floor of her place, which is free of any false illusions. There is a happy scene where Bud and Lynn go to, where else in this film, the movies, to escape the stressful world they travel in.
After checking out the evidence, Bud concludes that Stensland’s “date” was with Susan Lefferts. He visits Mrs. Lefferts (Gwenda Deacon), who identifies Stensland as Susan’s older boyfriend. Bud searches the house, smells a bad odor which Mrs. Lefferts attributes to a rat that died in the walls, and finds the body of Buzz Meeks. The decaying body, infested with rats, buried under the crawlspace of the house, symbolizes the ugliness beneath the surface of sunny, beautiful LA. Significantly, when Bud emerges, after being asked by Mrs. Lefferts if it was a rat, he says, “Yeah. A big one.” Buzz also finds out from a Mickey Cohen enforcer, Johnny Stompanato (Paolo Seganti) that Meeks came into a large supply of heroin (the missing suitcase), and Bud concludes that he was murdered for stealing the drug.
Jack Vincennes meets up with Sid at a party. Sid takes compromising photos of people for his exploitative version of journalism. (Photography can present illusions, reality, or even manipulated versions of the truth). He gives Jack money to catch the DA, Lowe (Ron Rifkin), in a homosexual encounter with the actor Jack previously arrested at a pot bust, and from whose apartment he picked up the porno ring card. The actor, Matt Reynolds (Simon Baker), thinks he recognizes Jack from a Fleur de Lis party. At a bar, Jack starts to feel guilty about his sleazy actions, and leaves the $50 Sid gave him on his whiskey glass. Hanson drives home the theme of the story when we see Jack under a movie marquee with the film title The Bad and the Beautiful, stressing the dual nature of LA, and, given America’s obsession with the film industry, the country in general. Jack decides to go to the motel and call off the sting, but is horrified to find Reynolds murdered.
Exley, wheeling the Hispanic girl, who was held captive and raped, out of the hospital, learns from her that she lied about the time she was with the black abductors. She gave out the false information (more deception) to tie them to the Night Owl killings, in order to get the justice (that word again, which everyone wants, no matter the cost) she did not think a girl like her would get. (While they are exiting the hospital, they are photographed by the press, the pictures painting a picture of a victim and a hero, but what is not seen is that they are also a liar and a manipulated killer). Since the African American men, who Exley thought he had righteously killed, had an alibi, Exley now starts investigating. When he finds Bud White was also checking evidence, he approaches Jack Vincennes to help him, since Exley wants someone outside the compromised homicide division. When Jack questions Exley why he wants to reopen the Night Owl case, Exley relates how his father was killed by a guy Exley calls Rollo Tomasi, the guy who gets away with the crime. Exley says he forgot for a while why he joined the force. He says, “it was supposed to be about justice.” He, like Bud, lost a parent to somebody who got away with it, and they both want that to stop. When Exley asks Jack why he became a cop, Jack hesitates for quite a while, and says he can’t remember, emphasizing how corrupt he has become. So, he works with Exley for redemption.
Exley also visits Mrs. Lefferts’ house after finding out that was where Bud went. He too discovers the body and has it sent to the coroner, who identifies it as Meeks. Jack was tailing Bud for Exley, and they find White at Lynn’s house, where they spy on the two who act affectionately toward each other. Since Lynn is one of Patchett’s prostitutes, as was Susan Lefferts, Jack realizes that the there is a connection between The Night Owl, Reynold’s death, and Fleur de Lis. Exley, also attracted to Lynn, goes to interrogate her. She tells him that she sees Bud “because he can’t hide the good inside him.” She sees him because he “doesn’t know how to disguise who he is.” The woman who is a phony in her profession is drawn to the man of no deception. She also says she sees Bud because he not like Exley, who is a master at political deception, but who she does not realize is trying to aim for the higher good. She seduces Exley, because Patchett has sent Sid to photograph their sexual encounter, which Lynn thinks will be used as leverage to protect Bud. Sid’s spying is similar to that of Exley and Jack’s earlier, again showing how the police and the criminal are echoes of each other, and how, as before, photography can manipulate reality.
There is actually a humorous scene in the film, but one which still furthers its theme. Exley and Jack go to a restaurant to question Stompanato. There is a woman there with him. Exley comes on strong, and says the woman is a whore who was cut to look like Lana Turner. A smiling Jack tells Exley it really is Lana Turner, who throws a drink in Exley’s face. Back in the car the two laugh, with Exley saying, tellingly, “How was I to know?” The line between legitimate and illegitimate has become so blurred, even a detective can’t tell the difference, and it is Jack, the man traveling between both worlds, must be the one to reveal the truth.
Jack goes through police records and finds a connection between Meeks, and Stensland concerning an investigation into blackmail, which Dudley signed off on. Jack goes to Dudley’s house, tells him that he and Exley are working on something together, and asks him about what he has discovered. When Dudley is satisfied that Jack has not yet talked to Exley, he shoots Jack. We now realize Dudley is behind all of the killings. With his last laughing breath, Jack utters the name “Rollo Tomasi.” Dudley removes the body, and then starts a sham investigation into Jack’s death. He tells his men, “Our justice must be swift and merciless,” an ironic statement since he has perverted the practice of “justice” through his covert actions, and now in his overt words, exhorting a type of law enforcement that is not deliberate and without compassion. Dudley asks Exley if he knows of a person of interest in Jack’s death, Rollo Tomasi. Exley now knows that Jack sent him a message as to who killed him, and he realizes Dudley is the enemy.
To get Exley out of the way, Dudley tells Bud he needs him at the Victory Motel to interrogate someone he feels will lead them to Jack’s killer. It is all a setup to get Bud to go after Exley. They brutally question Sid, who admits that he had a business relationship with Jack to photograph people in compromising positions, arrest them, and Sid ran stories on those taken into custody. He says about Patchett that he used his prostitutes to be photographed by Sid with people to be blackmailed. He says he has pictures in his car of Exley and Lynn, which the enraged Bud discovers. As he drives away, Dudley says he wouldn’t want to be in Exley’s shoes. Dudley then kills Sid, as he starts to tie up loose ends.
Bud first stops at Lynn’s, who says she thought she was protecting him. His anger then takes over, and it subverts his caring for women, as he hits Lynn. He then feels so much guilt that he quickly and silently leaves her. He goes after Exley, who has checked work reports and sees the link that Jack discovered between Stensland, Meeks, and Dudley. Bud bursts in on him shows Exley one of Sid’s photographs, and then attacks Exley. The latter holds him off long enough to tell him “Think!” He previously called Bud a mindless thug, but now he appeals to his investigative intelligence, as he tells him about Dudley’s conspiracy, and how he pointed Bud at Exley. Bud reveals that Stensland lied to him about not being familiar with Meeks or Lefferts. Stensland and Meeks stole the heroin, Stensland killed Meeks to have it all for himself, and received retribution for the rip off. They start to see how Dudley had his men plant the weapons and the money at the African American suspect’s house before Exley arrived there. They also see how Dudley and Patchett manipulated all of them including Lynn to take over Mickey Cohen’s operation. Bud asks Exley does he want to tear down the Night Owl case that made him. Exley says yes, “with a wrecking ball. You want to help me swing it?” These two who misread each other, now realize they both have the smarts and the guts to exact justice, and they can do it together.
The two visit DA Lowe, and after threatening the man’s life, get him to admit to his being blackmailed, and poor Reynolds was killed because he heard too much about what was going on. Bud’s beating the man up and dangling him from the window raise the question of how far are these two willing to go to exact justice. However, the question is what do you do when the people in charge of the legal system are themselves the criminals? They then go to Patchett’s house. They find him dead and a suicide note left behind. But, Bud sees that his fingers were broken, showing again, that what really happened is not what appears to be the truth. Since Dudley is covering his tracks, they then realize Lynn is in danger. Bud, feeling ashamed of hitting her, sends Exley to protect Lynn. Bud goes to see Sid, who he finds dead. He gets a call to meet Exley at the Victory Motel. When he arrives there, Exley says he thought Bud wanted the meeting. Bud suspected it to be a setup, and says this way may be how the story must end. Dudley shows up with his men. There is a fierce gun battle, and Bud and Exley take out everyone, except Dudley. Exley is wounded in the process, and Dudley shoots Bud, but not before he stabs the captain in the leg, and Exley aims a gun at him. Dudley promises Exley he will be rewarded if he just walks out to greet the police cars arriving. He tells Exley to hold up his badge so the cops will know he is a policeman. This advice echoes the title of the TV show “Badge of Honor,” which is as fake as Dudley’s false presentation of integrity. Exley then does what he told Dudley he wouldn’t do. He shoots Dudley in the back, and then holds up his own badge, his honor, though extralegal, intact. Bud earlier told him to go after criminals instead of policemen. It turns out, they were one in the same.
Exley tells the whole truth to the Chief of Police, who again sees how disastrous it would be for the force if the real story came out. The DA starts to think how to spin it, saying that maybe Dudley can be painted as a hero. Exley, he himself now in the interrogation room, seems to read their minds, and says there has to be more than one hero. We then see the story in the newspaper that Dudley is depicted as a crusader rooting out corruption. Exley is again awarded the Medal of Valor. The ugliness of the truth is once again hidden by the illusion of a happy ending.
Bud somehow survives, and will be going with Lynn back to Arizona, away from La La Land. Exley tells her that even though the police department is using him, he will be using them, presumably to try to have it live up to the standards of a true badge of honor. Exley and Bud exchange a brotherly handshake, and Bud and Lynn drive away. It is ironic that in LA, the two redeeming angels are these flawed ones. The song heard over the closing credits contain the lyrics, “Accentuate the positive.” It is, after all, Hollywood.
The next film is Medium Cool.