In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
When the sad news broke last week that Curtis Hanson died, it occurred to me that I’ve unconsciously associated Hanson with death for almost 20 years now. Odd, because his movies aren’t generally violent. Indeed, they aren’t generally anything, really, apart from “worth seeing.” (Notable exception: 2007’s poker drama Lucky You, which decisively contradicts its own title.) Hanson did make a string of thrillers in the early ’90s—Bad Influence, The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, The River Wild—but those are primarily tension machines; only Cradle has a decent body count, and its deaths are too cartoonishly lurid to rattle anyone. The rest of Hanson’s oeuvre is less bloody still, ranging from the teen sex comedy Losin’ It (starring a not-yet-famous Tom Cruise) to Eminem’s fictionally murderous braggadocio in 8 Mile. The director is best-remembered, though, for his superb adaptation of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, which he co-wrote with Brian Helgeland. And that film includes one scene that more or less defines onscreen death in my mind—so much so, in fact, that I’m gonna argue, without any tangible evidence, that it permanently changed how filmmakers and actors portray characters dying.
If you’ve seen L.A. Confidential, odds are you know exactly which scene I’m talking about. (If you haven’t, be advised that the scene in question features not one but two truly massive spoilers, which will be discussed in detail below. These revelations constitute spoilers even for those who’ve read the novel, as I’ll explain.) Detective Sergeant Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), having just dug up some curious information in the case he’s working on, pays a late-night visit to the home of his captain, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), in the hope of getting additional details about an earlier, possibly related case. In and of itself, this meeting represents something unusual, as the film has by this point spent an hour and a half painting Vincennes as a useless glory hound who’s more interested in serving as “technical advisor” for a TV cop show than in his actual job. The fact that he’s willing to knock on Smith’s door at nearly midnight in the pursuit of justice suggests that his long-dormant passion for police work has been reawakened. A corner has been turned. Unfortunately, that turn leads Vincennes into an unexpectedly brutal cul-de-sac. Here’s how it goes down:
Not yet having read Ellroy’s novel when I first saw the film in 1997, I was flabbergasted to discover, some years later, that this unforgettable, pivotal scene is entirely the movie’s invention. Ellroy had no reason to make Dudley Smith’s villainy a late-breaking reveal, as the character had committed crimes aplenty in The Big Nowhere, an earlier book. Hanson and Helgeland, knowing that most viewers would be coming to the film cold, cleverly decided to withhold any sign of Dudley’s true nature until this moment, so that we’re caught completely off guard, just like Vincennes. It’s their wholesale invention of “Rollo Tomasi,” though, that ranks among the most inspired gambits in the history of literary adaptation. Somehow, despite being so shocked during the final seconds of his life that he can barely process what just happened, Vincennes manages to think up a means of revenge, whispering to Dudley the name that (self-)righteous fellow cop Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) had made up for the unknown man who killed Exley’s father. That is a truly diabolical dying move, and Vincennes grimly chuckles to himself as he fades out, knowing that Dudley will surely mention the name to somebody and that it’ll tip Exley to the truth, since Vincennes is the only person Exley ever told about Rollo Tomasi. Checkmate.
Part of the power of this surprise, for those who saw L.A. Confidential back in 1997, stemmed from Hanson’s canny decision to cast Cromwell as Dudley. While the actor had been working steadily for decades at that point—I first encountered him as the dim-witted chauffeur for the Hercule Poirot-inspired figure in 1976’s Murder By Death—he had only recently played his breakout role, that of the kindly farmer who tells Babe the pig, “That’ll do.” Audiences were thus still primed to perceive Cromwell as virtuous. There are clues here for the discerning, though. “It’s a good thing for you my wife and four fair daughters are at the beach in Santa Barbara,” Dudley informs Vincennes, by way of explaining to the viewer why nobody runs screaming into the kitchen at the sound of a gunshot; this rolls off Cromwell’s tongue smoothly enough that it won’t set off alarm bells for many, but it’s still a potential “uh-oh” for genre buffs. And maybe it’s just me, but the way the camera sharply pans left to follow Dudley just before he pulls his gun has the same ominous feel as the camera movement that follows the Members Only dude heading for the bathroom in the Sopranos finale. You can tell something’s about to happen.
All the same, what does happen startles, if only because there’s no preamble whatsoever. Dudley shoots Vincennes literally the instant he hears what he needs to hear, which is that Vincennes hasn’t yet told Exley or anyone else what he’s just learned. He doesn’t pull the gun and proceed to deliver an expository speech about how unfortunate it is that Vincennes stumbled onto a lead that will eventually implicate his own captain. Hanson and Helgeland respect us enough to trust that we’ll figure that out on our own. (There’s really no other plausible interpretation for this murder.) Because most movies huff and puff to ensure that nobody gets confused, however, Dudley’s sudden, wordless execution feels like an additional violation, somehow. Good guys are allowed to die—and Vincennes, who starts off fatuous, was clearly on his way to qualifying as a good guy—but it’s unusual to see one dispatched with so little ceremony. At least he’s offered the chance to utter a valediction to himself, and takes crafty advantage of it.
That’s a lot of memorable detail for one short scene. What’s always stayed with me, and which immediately popped into my head when I saw the Hanson obituaries last week, is the moment of Vincennes’ death. As recently as 1997, most actors required to die on screen still closed their eyes and slumped forward or even fell over; they would actively die. Spacey has the life simply drain out of the man’s face, leaving him a glassy-eyed shell. I’m not, by any means, suggesting that nobody had ever portrayed death realistically prior to L.A. Confidential—indeed, I just rewatched Orson Welles’ Chimes At Midnight (1965), in which Norman Rodway, as Hotspur, does the same face-goes-slack bit (though he then falls over). But I do believe that Spacey’s performance in this scene has been hugely influential, to the point where his clinical approach fairly quickly became the industry default. Nobody would ever undertake such a laborious task, but I’d be curious to know how many… let’s call them “slow fade deaths” occurred on screen before 1997 and how many have been performed since. My own admittedly subjective impression is that the ratio would be in the neighborhood of one to 20. That sort of aesthetic upheaval doesn’t happen often, and while Spacey obviously deserves most of the credit, Hanson surely contributed as well. Together they made dying in the movies a bit less phony.