Great Movie Moments #4: L.A. Confidential’s Rolo Tomassi
Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland’s adaptation of James Ellroy’s modern-classic crime novel is one of the most astounding book-to-screen translations ever filmed. Not least because, while being true to the feel of Ellroy’s terse, violent storyworld, the film of L.A. Confidential basically makes up a completely different story using the characters and premise.
For Ellroy, this was book #3 in the “L.A. Quartet,” his influential series of books prising open the lid on his hometown’s sordid history. While the first book, The Black Dahlia, is more or less stand-alone, the follow-ups (The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, White Jazz) work as a trilogy, with plotlines running through all three and a shared villain in corrupt cop Dudley Smith, a sharp-tongued rogue with a psychotic streak as long as Mulholland Drive.
For Curtis and Hanson, choosing the middle book to adapt was a fraught decision. Although L.A. Confidential‘s main protagonists (Jack Vincennes, Bud White and Ed Exley) are unaware of Smith’s involvement in the events of The Big Nowhere, his presence looms large. As the book goes on, backstory becomes crucial, notably the theft of a bag of heroin in the earlier novel, which provides the motive for the ‘Nite Owl’ murders that kickstart L.A. Confidential‘s main plot.
The screenwriters’ response was genius: they ignored it. Hooked on the principal characters, they excised anything to do with The Big Nowhere; while heroin remains as a Macguffin, the Nite Owl murders are carried out by different gunmen, for noticeably different reasons.
They also cut wider elements that couldn’t be fitted into a feature film. One significant casualty was the plotline revolving around Ed Exley’s father, a Disney-esque mogul building the Dream-A-Dreamland theme park. In the film, Exley Senior is dead, a hero shot down in the line of duty by an unknown assailant. All Ed can do is imagine his father’s killer, a fictional criminal he calls Rolo Tomassi. Problem solved. In fact, more than one problem, as we’ll see.
For the first hour, though, the film and book versions of L.A. Confidential run in parallel, with the majority of key scenes preserved down to Ellroy’s rock-hard-boiled dialogue and the simmer of brutality. Until Kevin Spacey’s Jack Vincennes go to see James Cromwell’s Cuddly Dudley and gets more than he bargained for.
“The use of Rolo Tomassi in L.A. Confidential is one of cinema’s most eloquent nip and tucks.”
As a movie twist, it’s one of the great shocks of the 1990s. Spacey, after The Usual Suspects and Seven, is by far the film’s biggest star, but now he’s dead with forty-five minutes still on the clock. And his killer is the farmer from Babe! What’s going to happen now?
Yet as a piece of adaptation, it’s one of the cleverest, most concise pieces of screen engineering ever devised. It reveals Smith’s culpability to anyone (ie most people) who hadn’t read the books. For Ellroy fans, it’s just as much of a shock, because in the book, Vincennes dies during a huge firefight on a train – a scene that the film doesn’t even attempt to show! And, in Vincennes’ dying words – “Rolo Tomassi” – it provides a springboard into the final act, as Smith inadvertently gives himself away to Exley in his desire to track down Tomassi.
The use of Rolo Tomassi in L.A. Confidential – a character never mentioned in the book and, even here, nothing more than a name – is one of cinema’s most eloquent nip and tucks. Needing to chop several hundred pages, and half a dozen plotlines, from Ellroy’s doorstopper, Curtis and Hanson filled the space with an idea, an imaginary figure as potent as Keyser Soze. Those two words cut through acres of plot that a lesser storyteller would spend precious minutes trying to explain.
As such, Rolo Tomassi deserves to become an essential part of the screenwriter’s arsenal, a reminder that, when adapting novels, less is more. When Brian De Palma filmed The Black Dahlia, he made the mistake of trying to be faithful to Ellroy’s complex narrative. On-screen, the results are as dour and ridiculous as L.A. Confidential is breathless and visceral. And it’s all because of Rolo Tomassi.
Of course, the biggest irony is that Dudley Smith survives in Ellroy’s original version of L.A. Confidential. Curtis and Hanson’s ending – in which Dudley Smith is killed by Exley – completely fucks up any attempt to film White Jazz, where Smith is still very alive. An adaptation has been on the cards for years but nobody seems to have worked out how to resolve this disconnect between the book and film. Yet maybe, just maybe, the solution is staring us in the face. Perhaps it’s time to bring Rolo Tomassi out of retirement.
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