L.A. Confidential (1997) successfully re-establishes the gritty, dark, suspenseful atmosphere of film noir that tells a hardboiled crime story with all the conventions of classic melodrama. The film enhances the traditional definitions of the noir genre by weaving in themes of fame and romance, broadening the relatively tight scope of noir to modern viewers. At the center of audience engagement exists three cops - Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) and Bud White (Russell Crowe), each serving as a foil to the others, the latter being the major representation of a typical hardboiled policeman and the audience’s primary focal point.
Bud White is a brutal, imposing enforcer-type utilized as such by Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) of the LAPD. Crowe’s performance is haunting and largely non-verbal. Much of his intensity and demeanor are carried through his walk and wonderfully-controlled body movements. He leads with his head pushed forward like a bull, ever ready to ram his blunt and squared body into the next threat. And in classic crime detective fashion, his outward intensity is matched with an internal honor and mystery established from the film’s outset, revealing there is more to him than a human destroyer. His sense of fixated integrity is introduced early (coupled with his desperate need to save women in distress) when he breaks up a domestic dispute he could have easily ignored. White isn’t opposed to using violence to issue justice if someone deserves it. Since his violent tendencies are made known through the righteous and relatable task of saving a woman in need, we automatically gain an affection for the character and his brand of justice. Nobody would blame someone for beating up a wife beater. And as soon as he’s done pounding the fellow, he transitions to an image of deference and respect for the victim that highlights his inner goodness.
White’s need to protect women foreshadows his eventual relationship with Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), a character who reveals the quieter, closed-off side of White. In contrast to the physically profound way he carries himself, he shows a gentle eloquence when with her. Lynn is a prostitute, but much like himself, he sees the person beneath the profession as a woman in need of something authentic. The way he touches her body and back are the motions of a man whose life is devoid of passion and romance. He handles her like a delicate piece of thin glass, commanding a respect for her shape and offering personal depth that makes the viewer wonder where this appreciation originates. It's obvious Bud White isn’t satisfied with his role as the thug of the police force. He wants something more, and Lynn further serves as the catalyst to his eventual self-realization and growth as a character. When he rests on her bed and confesses he’d rather be working homicide, he’s propped on one elbow and speaks with enthusiasm. His voice and body language change to something never otherwise seen in the film. Women are the only people permitted to see the vulnerable side of Bud White. In the tradition of film noir, White exists without any true male companionship. His soul is reserved for the right woman. Everywhere outside Lynn’s grace and comfort, the sad man is all brawn.
When Lynn first meets Bud, she asks him, “Did they deserve it today, officer?” He has blood on his shirt and replies he isn’t sure. He’s coming to terms with the line between justifiable violence and general violence; a common theme in crime fiction. In a bewitching and complex maturation of the genre, Lynn reveals Bud’s naked emotional side. Lynn is seen without the makeup that typically defines her appearance, hair down, and she appears in an equal emotional state to Bud's loneliness. She's herself, not the prostitute image she projects to everyone else in the world. Like Bud, her everyday image is not the core of her being. Identifying this connective vulnerability convinces Bud to reveal his dark past (another convention of noir filmmaking). He admits that he watched his dad beat his mother to death with a tire iron after attempting to save her, only to find himself chained to a radiator. He had to sit in the presence of his mother's corpse for several days before being discovered. The horrific story adds another dimension to the enigmatic character and encourages viewer sympathy.
Bud White starts as someone slightly less than a character we’re gung-ho about supporting, but the cracking of his exterior image and evolution of purpose makes him heroic. By the end, he starts to lose his grip on his role within Dudley’s police unit, coming to a head when Dudley is exposed as the criminal mastermind playing on White’s endless rage as a means of taking out Exley. It doesn’t work.
Bud’s identity has been the product of the urban squalor in which he resides; like good noir, he’s the crop of his environment. Once he figures that out, he’s able to out himself as a damaged but redeemable man.
The “best police department” in America is depicted as one using crude and brutal methods to maintain its image. Hollywood and Los Angeles are icons of make-believe, perpetrators of the false and imagined. Los Angeles sells image, and that includes their own. Upholding it at all costs is paramount, and the narrative ends with the LAPD's corruption and crimes being shuttered by media and departmental promotions, preserving their good name. The City of Angels is ironic in crime fiction, and the city’s massive scale and anonymity serve this type of grim material well. Bud White is a true crime fiction hero within his environment of shade and phoniness.