Tuesday, February 27, 2018

James Ellroy: grimmer than grim, darker than dark

Spurred on by nothing in particular, I watched the movies made from two of James Ellroy's gonzo LA Quartet novels, The Black Dahlia (1987) and L.A. Confidential (1990).

The former is an expensive and elaborate failure, starring the usually solid Aaron Eckhart and the often too-stolid Josh Hartnett. The rest of the roles are taken up by good people suffering under a bad script: Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Swank, Fiona Shaw, and a host of talented character actors. 

Its failure, I believe arises from two main points. The first is Brian De Palma, a director given to highly stylized shots and who approached the material in ways I find sterile. Nothing feels alive; things are too shiny, too clean, too new. The music is more emphatic and on the nose than is good for the film. There are several of De Palma's patented slow-mo shots. That's something that almost never works in a movie, and it doesn't work here. It only drags out a scene of a killing robbing it of the vicious intensity it deserves.

The second is its attempted fidelity to Ellroy's original material. Yes, De Palma seriously edited the film and that might have made it a little less coherent that it could have been, but I think there's something else going on. Ellroy's books are weird and effed up. To call them over the top is way beyond understatement. De Palma attempted to channel Ellroy's madness into the movie. I think he actually achieves a certain degree of success with that, but the material overwhelms. It's like Stephen King dialogue. It reads great on the page but sounds terrible when spoken out loud. Ellroy's books achieve levels of outrageousness that are so extreme and unbelievable that seeing them acted out by real people only points out how ludicrous they are. Even if Hilary Swank was the best actress ever, I don't think she could pull off some of the lines or scenes she was given. 

As I rewatched the movie, I found didn't hate it as much as I did the first time. Sure, De Palma made lots of mistakes, from the look, to the casting, to the script, but in the end, the biggest flaw seems to be the near impossibility of bringing Ellroy to the screen without setting aside so much of what makes his books such a roar of feral insanity.

L.A. Confidential strips Ellroy's story down to the barest of basics. Gone are the crazy serial killer, the unsavory Walt Disney stand-in, and a host of other things. Ellroy said the movie eliminated 5 out of the book's 8 plots and focused on the three protagonists' attempt to redeem themselves. Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe are powerful as the two main leads, Ed Exley and Bud White, and the lamentable Kevin Spacey is perfect as the sharp-dressed, publicity hungry Jack Vincennes. James Cromwell is terrifying as Dudley Smith, one of the greatest literary villains of all time (side note - a friend of mine thought the perfect casting for Dudley Smith would have been John Wayne, and I hesitate to disagree). All those directorial mistakes I said De Palma made, Confidential's director, Curtis Hanson made none of them. Even though both were shot largely in Los Angeles, only Hanson makes it look like a real place, not some highly polished, model-precise recreation. If you've somehow escaped seeing it and have a taste for tough-minded noir give it a try. I'd be curious to hear what any first time viewers think about it.

So far, I've been writing assuming a knowledge of Ellroy and a familiarity with his writing. In case I am wrong (what's the chance of that?), James Ellroy is author incredibly dark and violent crime fiction. From a life of petty crime, extreme poverty, and drug abuse, Ellroy dragged himself up and turned himself into a writer. A major element driving his fiction, appearing in one slightly altered version or another in many of his earlier works, was the 1958 murder of his mother (about which he wrote the book My Dark Places and writes about here as well).

Ellroy's prose can verge into deeply purple territory, but it is often magnificent, capable of exposing the still-beating hearts of his characters and exposing the gory infections that lace our world. His stories are built of violence, often against women, often against the innocent. His characters speak in profanity, hurl racist epithets, steal, murder, undermine the law, and still, some of them are redeemed. Never, though, does the brutality of Ellroy feel glib or cheap.

They can be hard books to read and I know several people who were repelled by them. I was moved by these stories of broken men trying to find a way out of the Abyss as well as caught up by velocity and excitement of the of the insane  plots. I'm about to begin a reread of the L.A. Quartet, and as I do, I'll let you know my thoughts on them now nearly thirty years after I first encountered them.

The way I discovered Ellroy was completely by accident. I read something about the actual Black Dahlia case and suddenly remembered seeing a book with that title in Barnes and Noble. Not the other, but the cover. I had to scan a bunch of the shelves before I eventually found it. I took it home and finished it within a day or two. Two tough cops, both with dark secrets, become obsessed with the horrific murder of Betty "the Black Dahlia" Short in 1947. Around them swirls a maelstrom of corruption - moral, political, and physical.

It's a work built on a vision of the world as black and rotten as seen by an arch-moralist. There is good and evil, and sometimes, even bad men can lift themselves up to fight it. No matter the cost to their careers, even their lives, the need to avenge certain wrongs becomes the driving force in their lives. It's melodramatic noir with a bleak view of mankind but with an allowance for glimmers of hope, even if they are fleeting.

The next day I started tracking down everyone of his books. Within a few weeks I read the sequel to Dahlia, The Big Nowhere (1988) and the sort of prequel, Clandestine (1982). The Big Nowhere is claimed by some to be Ellroy's masterwork. I haven't read it in ages so I don't feel up to addressing that, but it does have one of his few truly good characters and a serial killer disemboweling his victims with dentures made from wolverine teeth. Clandestine is even vaguer in my memory, but what lingers is a less controlled and less satisfying tryout of the themes and styles that would materialize in The Black Dahlia.

A short time later, I was reading Ellroy's first novel, Brown's Requiem (1981) and the Lloyd Hopkins trilogy. Requiem involves golf caddies, something Ellroy did for a time, and the Hopkins books are about a brilliant but ultra-intense LAPD detective. The first book in the trilogy, Blood on the Moon (1984), was filmed as Cop, and starred James Woods and Lesley Anne Warren. It's ok, no great shakes, but it's ok. The next two books, Because the Night (1984) and Suicide Hill (1986) are dark thrilling tales, but contain only the barest hints of what was to come a few years later in The Black Dahlia.

At some point, I read Killer on the Road (1986), a thoroughly disgusting and disturbing story told from a serial killer's perspective. It takes its lead from his creepy childhood to his plans for self-willed death in prison. I read it during my lengthy obsession with serial killers, but I've never felt the slightest desire to go back to it. Even when the worst of the worst stuff happens in other Ellroy books, there's bound to be some big lug looking for a way to achieve redemption. That is not the case, in any way whatsoever, in Killer on the Road.

Right after I finished my mad dash through Ellroy's catalogue, the third LA Quartet book, L.A. Confidential, was released. I bought on my last day in Albany for my first year of grad school and read half of it on the train ride home. It's a brutal and brilliant book, and waiting the two years for the sequel, White Jazz, was painful. It was worth it though. Instead of the sprawling three-protagonist template he'd employed in Nowhere and Confidential, Ellroy presented White Jazz as the diaries of a corrupt speed-freak cop. It's like burning phosphorus on the page, burning with an intensity and a passion that isn't easily shaken or forgotten. 

I even got to meet Ellroy briefly right around the time White Jazz came out. He was hocking his books personally at a stand at New York is Book Country. He was exactly how you might imagine: wild eyed and talking non-stop. I had stopped to look at his table and realized I had everything already. When I told him I wasn't going to buy anything because I owned them all, he offered to sign my friend's balloon. In wiry letters, he wrote:
She kept that balloon for years.

With L.A. Confidential and White Jazz, Ellroy broke into the big times. He was writing magazine pieces, there were interviews with him all over the place, and there was even a documentary made about him. It's also the time I started to fall out of love with him.

First there was the short story collection, Hollywood Nocturnes (1994). All that outrageousness that made his previous novels so great had become clichéd and too outrageous. Singer and actor Dick Contino hunts for a serial killer and tries to restore his reputation. I don't doubt Ellroy found some serious inspiration in the real Contino, but the results feel forced and predictable in their deliberate extravagance. 

His next novel, American Tabloid (1995) was the start of a new series, something that came to be called the Underworld USA Trilogy. It's a massive tome that purports to tell the real story of the corruption that undergirds America, rotting away political institutions, bending the public sector to the will of organized crime and business - though there's no real delineation between the two. I liked it at the time, digging it as a wild ride, but it struck me as a little hollow. In piling so many things on - Jimmy Hoffa, the hunt for commies, the Bay of Pigs - it was hard to really care about the characters as people. So many things happen, it's way too easy to get lost in the endless welter of Ellroy's hyper-detailed storytelling and inability to walk away from a subplot or digression. Even though I sort of like the book at the time, somehow I knew I was done with Ellroy. By the time the sequel, The Cold Six Thousand (2001), came out, I knew I was never going to read it.

Eventually, I gave my cousin my copy of Hollywood Nocturnes, American Tabloid, and a book of non-fiction pieces called Crime Wave (1999). I kept the rest, though. First, I had acquired hardcover first editions of the LA Quartet and liked the way they looked on the shelf. The paperbacks of his earlier books looked nice too, and I think I had somewhere a notion I'd read, at least, the Lloyd Hopkins books again.

I was first tempted to go back to the L.A. Quartet a few years ago when he published Perfidia (2014). It unfolds over 23 days, starting on Dec. 6, 1941. Dudley Smith and several other characters from the L.A. Quartet are among the protagonists in another complicated tale of crime and corruption in the City of Angels. For whatever reason, I didn't, neither rereading The Black Dahlia and the others, nor buying Perfidia. Now, I'm ready. I've got a copy of Perfidia winging its way towards me in the mail and have started The Black Dahlia. So far, it's still able to grab me in its dark embrace.


  1. I haven't read any James Ellroy, but given the bent of my reading lately, I think I'll be getting to him sooner or later.

    I have seen L.A. Confidential. It was good but I haven't gone back to it. I felt like it tried too hard to redeem the protagonists. I prefer real film noir, which leaves its protagonists unsympathetic, and even punishes them for their sins. Also, I couldn't see Kim Basinger as a Veronica Lake lookalike. :-) All of that said, it is a beautiful film.

    1. I wrote to someone on FB the other day that I'm always wary about recommending Ellroy because he's so dark/violent, etc. and his prose walks a not always fine line between brilliant and ludicrous. However, looking at what you're reading, I'd definitely say give The Black Dahlia a spin.

      Well, I mostly agree with you regarding noir and redemption, etc. In the book, redemption is a rarer,more expensive thing, and Bud White, et al. are much worse than in the film. How deep/true any redemption they achieve is questionable, it's just the evils they've faced off against are far worse. And ABSOLUTELY, don't tell me someone looks like VL and then give me Kim Bassinger without even the courtesy of a doing her hair right.

  2. Hi Fletcher,

    My journey with Ellroy almost exactly parallels yours, although I never did get around to the Underworld U.S.A. trilogy. Looking forward to your re-read!

    1. Hey, Hoi,

      Boy, did I love American Tabloid while I was reading it. I'm a conspiracy fan, and I loved his nutty effort to weave everything wrong after WWII into one massive plot. It was only when I put it down and caught my breath that I started to feel a little bit like I'd been had. I know that sounds harsh, but in retrospect the book looked like a this great, big soggy mess and Ellroy had amped the worst aspects of his writing to something like 100 on a 1-10 scale.

      Yeah, I'm looking forward to me re-read too. I've only just started Black Dahlia (got to finish Lonesome October and Burn, Witch, Burn), and Ellroy's Tommy-gun prose and the dangerous bromance between Bucky and Lee is grabbing me like it did the first time nearly 30 years ago.

      Oh, listening to Mountains of Madness podcast and your "Witchhouse" anecdote is great.