Secrets and Lies

A friend recently told me that Cinderella wears a glass slipper because of a translation error. In the Grimm original, her footwear is made of fur. An overzealous translator, listening to an English translation, misheard ‘fur’ as the French ‘verre’. Scolding his colleague for his slackness, he quickly translated the word. And so Cinderella’s snug little slipper became a cold and fragile thing. A thing as cold and fragile as the existence of its owner.

Writing that, it appears to me that my friend’s story is probably apochrypal. It sounds just a little too unlikely. Then again, as one learns more about life one increasingly learns to believe in the previously believed unbelievable. But there’s unbelievable and there’s unbelievable. Which leads me to my topic for today : the trouble with most detective fiction. And more specifically, the trouble with LA Confidential.

The trouble with most detective fiction is the tenuity of its relationship with reality. I am not complaining here about the frequently unbelievable convolutedness of plots or protagonists. Even if life isn’t stranger than some fiction, it certainly isn’t fiction’s role to adhere to the quotidian plausible. If that was the case, then there would be no place for fantasy, no place for fictions as disparate as the fairytales of the Brothers Grimm or their Disney updates; the writings of Franz Kafka or David Fincher’s Kafkaseque The Game. And there certainly is.

People who claim that the events depicted in Fincher’s movie are unbelievable are missing the point. Ditto those who have a problem with Cinder’s glass slipper. (“No wonder she’s scared to put her foot down!”). The stories themselves might be unrealistic, but they tell a larger truth. Underneath our shabby exteriors we are all royal marriage material. Life is an absurd game in which no-one knows why things happen and in which no-one knows how things will turn out. The trouble with most detective fiction is that it claims that the second of these truths is a lie.

LA Confidential is a terrific movie. Quite possibly as good a detective movie as you get. Based upon James Ellroy’s hard- boiled classic crime novel of the same name, it manages the miraculous. Director Curtis Hanson somehow translates Ellroy’s trademark telegrammatic prose into film terms, so not only the plot but the feel of the book remains intact. Even more miraculously, he turns a Neighbours casualty into a fully fledged star.

I remember watching a Pebble Mill interview with Guy Pearce. It was a few years ago now. He had just quit his role as Mike, one of the himbo heartthrobs resident on Ramsey Street. After four years of adolescent adoration, he had decided that enough was enough. He was going to prove that he was An Actor.

I snickered of course, and awaited his career with Stock Aitken and Waterman. When even this failed to materialise, I forgot all about him. When he cropped up a couple of years later, queening it in Priscilla, I concluded that his voice must have been even worse than those possessed by Kylie and Jason.

Denied a record contract, he had been forced to find another route to the camp camp so loved by his neighbours.

But that performance led to world-wide recognition and the lead role in LA Confidential. And Pearce’s superb performance here should lead to many other starring roles in big movies. He may well prove to be the only ex-Neighbour never forced to resort to a weekly slot at G.A.Y.

Pearce plays Ed Exley, fresh blood at the L.A.P.D., a department sorely in need of a rejuvenating infusion. If L.A. is corrupt, then its police force is a rapidly and rankly decomposing corpse. And a corpse is in no position to investigate mass murder.

The film is well acted by a stellar cast which includes Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito and Kim Basinger. The plot is gripping. The atmosphere asphyxiating. And yet ultimately the film fails to satisfy.

I’ve thought long and hard about why this should be. The only answer I can come up with is that it is a problem inherent in the genre. Chandler famously remarked of his classic novel The Big Sleep that even he didn’t know who committed one of the murders. Nor why. He hadn’t solved the problem by the time the book was adapted for film. But this ostensible flaw is one of the reasons why The Big Sleep is so satisfying. Unlike most detective fiction it doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. Unlike most detective fiction it leaves you asking questions.

LA Confidential begins with shots of fairytale L.A.. “That’s the image,” it says. “The reality is something different.” It then proceeds to reveal the reality. It’s satisfying all the way until the end. But then it departs from reality in favour of detective fiction fiction. The good guys win against overwhelming odds. Everything is explained.

Which is why LA Confidential, great film though it undeniably is, is not a classic. It gets pretty damn close though.

Clive Johnson

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