The hardest movies to do justice to in the Hit Me with Your Best Shot series hosted by the Film Experience are the movies with the best cinematography: the ones where, almost by definition, every shot contributes meaningfully and deeply to the narrative, emotional tone, and thematic meaning of the film in question. I thought it was rough last week, when Nathaniel assigned Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, with its wall-to-wall assortment of wonders courtesy of the great and maddeningly under-used Ellen Kuras, but it was just a pleasant warm-up to this week’s selection of L.A. Confidential. I hadn’t seen the film in years, and I knew it had excellent cinematography, but I was quite unprepared for just how excellent: it is very nearly the best work done by Dante Spinotti at the very height of his powers as a cinematographer (Heat was three years in the past; the ungodly perfection of The Insider was just one year in the future). Bluntly, L.A. Confidential at least belongs in any responsible conversation about the top 10 or so best works of cinematography in any American film of the 1990s, presenting a vision of midcentury Los Angeles soaked in maddeningly cheery sunshine, smokey noir darkness, and the kitschy-chic colors and lines of 1950s interior design, all while contributing immensely to director Curtis Hanson’s remarkably successful creation of a sustained mood of creeping tension and mystery.
When everything is fantastic, nothing is, which made picking this week’s best shot an especially grand ordeal. I finally got it down to around a half-dozen, two of which were NSFW (one nudity, one violence), and one of which was a terrific expression of narrative but not in and of itself abnormally attractive (which I did, yes, consider a priority in choosing). Anyway, in the end, more so that I can write a damn post, I’ve landed here:
We are at this point in the film – right about a half-hour in – finally kicking off from the immensely slow burn of the opening act and its introduction of the characters, the setting, and the warped mores of Southern California in the 1950s, as Detective Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), the officious prig of our trio of central anti-heroes, enters the Nite Owl diner, the site of a killing that we’ll soon learn to be an outright massacre, with a literal pile of bodies waiting in the men’s room (one of my NSFW picks, by the way).
It is one of the handful of lynchpin scenes in the film, and Hanson and Spinotti and editor Peter Honess do it up beautifully, layering tension upon tension and creating a sense of muted but very real and very palpable danger. We know already that death has happened in this space, and so does Exley, but that’s all we know. And so, we arrive at the shot: a fantastic use of anamorphic widescreen to make things seem opened up and unnervingly close at one and the same time. We see so much of the interior space of the diner, which would ordinarily give it a certain opened-up feeling, but thanks to the tremendous amount of wall present on the left side of the shot, it has the paradoxical effect of making the whole room seem tiny and crushed, with Exley in the middle like a little bug. I am no apologist for the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, but there’s no way this could have worked without it. For a crude demonstration, I would ask you to take a quick look at the same shot cropped and re-centered to the more sedate 1.85:1-
-and notice if you will, how much less desperately meaningless Guy Pearce looks here, and how much more air there seems to be in the room above his head.
But back to the actual shot as it exists in the film.
So there is the cramped central portion of the frame, with the diagonals in the frame drawing our eye towards that part even as they help to define how little it is, creating a swell sense of not-rightness and foreboding. But there is more to consider than that, much more. The use of color, for one, with the hints of red all around (this is basically a trichromatic image: red, yellow, green) announcing and echoing the images of blood splatters and streaks that Exley is about to notice in cutaways.
There is also the ever-popular film noir use of lighting, which might seem like an odd thing to say about such a relatively light shot, but if you take another glance at the composition, all those diagonal lines aren’t pointing at Exley. They continue past him, bring our attention to the front window, with the hollow L.A. night waiting outside. Darkness is, literally, at the back of everything (and also in front: note that Pearce’s body divides the floor into brighter and darker halves). And the only thing that competes with it is the diffuse, fuzzy lighting of the lamps on the ceiling, surrounded by foggy and indistinct haloes – white and clean, but also unfocused and thus feeble. As perfect, obvious, and direct a metaphor for the morality explored within the film itself as you could hope for.
And God, that’s without saying even one blessed word about the design and set decoration that makes the Nite Owl such a precise, physical place, something real that gets violated by the savagery of the film’s narrative. But that’s great cinema for you: you can talk as much as you want, and it just makes you realise how much more there is to say.