Hanson would have thrived in Hollywood’s golden era. During their long careers, studio contract directors like Mervyn Le Roy, Michael Curtiz, and William Wyler made films in a range of genres. In his 39-year span, the eclectic Hanson worked in comedy, adventure, horror, teen cinema and the psychological thriller. He even made a hip-hop biopic (8 Mile) and a chick-lit movie (In Her Shoes).
As a screenwriter, Hanson demonstrated his particular taste for noir-tinged crime films. His writing on his directorial debut Sweet Girl (1973), The Silent Partner (1978), Samuel Fuller’s cult anti-racist drama White Dog (1982) and The Bedroom Window (1987) augured his and Brian Helgeland’s Oscar-winning adaptation of L.A. Confidential (1990), the third novel in James Ellroy’s ‘L.A. Quartet.’
Hanson and Helgeland boiled down Ellroy’s sprawling retro noir to the story of three cops fighting endemic corruption in and around early 1950s Hollywood: the damaged thug Bud White (Russell Crowe), the fame-seeking smoothie Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), and the priggish careerist Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) – and White’s redemptive relationship with the Veronica Lake-lookalike prostitute, Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger).
Hanson had matured as a director on the crazed-nanny drama The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992) and the white-knuckle rafting thriller The River Wild (1994), but L.A. Confidential would prove his deepest immersion in style: its evocation of the city as a miasma that no amount of deco glitz can hide fully reflects Ellroy’s jaundiced vision.
Brian De Palma’s 2006 film of Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia was an equally opulent panorama of depravity but, save for the damned Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), De Palma did not create characters or elicit performances that viewers cared about. It was a measure of Hanson’s skill with actors that he made L.A. Confidential’s four invidious protagonists sympathetic.
His rendering of the paranoia-steeped 1950s as a prism through which to regard the Clinton era meanwhile echoed Roman Polanski’s achievement in viewing the Nixon years through the murky lens of Chinatown (1974).
Toward the end of L.A. Confidential, White and Exley overcome their detestation of each other’s policing methods by bonding during a shootout. Trapped in a Victory Motel bungalow strafed with gunfire, they put their backs together and shoot back, their values merging imperceptibly. Their actions embody their emotional shifts at the point when the stakes are highest and as successive light rays pierce the gloom through shattered window blinds. It’s a beautifully rendered metaphor for these men’s liberation from the fate on which most film noirs insist.
If Hanson had left this one movie, it would have been enough.