Thursday, April 5, 2012

James Ellroy and Red Riding 1974

Many, many years ago (before some of you were born, no doubt), I picked up a paperback copy of James Ellroy's L.A. Confidential without knowing anything about it. I liked the cover. I liked hard boiled detective fiction and I liked St. Marks Bookshop - which was still actually on St. Marks Place back at the dawn of the 90s.

Ellroy's L.A. Quartet are the blackest of noir. He uses a gigantic canvas to tell his long, violent story of corruption, crime and the emptiness at the heart of the dreams of post-war Southern California. His style is baroque and deeply profane, troubling to its core.

A few weeks ago the Curtis Hanson directed film of L.A. Confidential aired. Trav and I hadn't seen it in a good long while, so we watched it and it's... fine. But it's awfully clean for a film about the ugliest perversions and the deepest corruption. The movie is a well made, intelligently plotted period piece with some nice performances. It doesn't wear its period particularly comfortably and those suits worn by all those cops look awfully new. It seems a little small compared to the book, which is a different sort of animal entirely. There are two (!) serial killer subplots (both excised in the screenplay), dozens of characters - including many clearly based on real people including Walt Disney (who commits suicide), spanning nearly eight years. When I first read it I was dying to see it as a movie, but thought it was unfilmable. I was right, in order to film it, it had to be cut so far to the bone it had to become a different species entirely.

Most telling, the movie's villain, corrupt police Captain Dudley Smith, is killed at the end. James Cromwell is perfectly cast, but in the movie he is just a villain, a bad man doing bad things. In Ellroy's books he's the devil himself. All human greed and corruption made flesh. And like evil itself, he's unkillable. He can be momentarily neutralized, but never destroyed. In the books, taking down Smith destroys Ed Exely utterly, and Smith still isn't dead.

L.A. Confidential is a perfectly respectable movie, but what it needed was HBO and the fulfilled promise of novelistic storytelling television has given us in the last decade or so.

All this brings me to last night when I watched Red Riding: The Year of Our Lord 1974. I haven't read David Peace's quartet of books of crime, corruption and perversion in Yorkshire in the 1970s and early 80s, but I have a feeling they were given the sort of treatment that would have served Ellroy's books well. Set in Yorkshire (the West Riding, I believe, Brontë country) the landscape is bleak indeed. I don't know it for a certainty, but I wouldn't die of shock if Peace was influenced by Ellroy. Both have police so corrupt, they murder and torture, both contain serial killers who attach the wings of birds to the back of dead children. The film is violent and sometimes hard to watch, but it's awfully beautiful. Filmed in gorgeous 16mm, its period setting is perfect.

Yorkshire is thousands of actual and conceptual miles from sunny L.A., but they share the same corrosive misery, a baroque inescapable violence and doom. The young reporter who ineptly tries to sort out the killings and the corruption and lies that surround him is destroyed utterly. Bam. The end.