What do the angels dream of? Los Angeles dreams of itself, and always has done. In one of the latest additions to the BFI’s superlative series of monographs, Manohla Dargis approaches Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential as a kind of touchstone of California dreaming, a text which simultaneously exposes and partakes in the city’s narcissistic delirium. I’m not sure she ever quite squares this paradoxical circle, but the book provides a fine excuse to look again at a film which, like its characters, can’t stop worrying at the borders between glamour and horror.

Adapted from James Ellroy’s baroque, labyrinthine novel, L.A. Confidential follows three cops – Russell Crowe’s bullish Bud White, who hates women-beaters; Guy Pearce’s slick and prim Ed Exley, who has his eyes on the prize; and Kevin Spacey’s affably amoral ‘Hollywood Jack’ Vincennes, a name in the tattle press. The three cops are assigned to ostensibly disparate cases which turn out to be symptoms of grand corruption throughout the Los Angeles bureaucratic machine. An L.A. resident and reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, Dargis is at her strongest examining the light and darkness the film casts on this city of surfaces, especially in the context of its period: in 1953 the LAPD was catching up to Tinseltown’s founding realisation that the appearance of goodness and grace was more important, and desirable, than their achievement. As Dargis writes of the notorious station-house brawl that kick-starts L.A. Confidential’s action, ‘Bloody Christmas isn’t a stain on the police – it’s a public relations crisis’.

The film, Dargis asserts, peers more deeply into this fissure than its subject industries would like; it redefines the city by embracing everything that the real Los Angeles historically, at times murderously, tried to hide. Yet one could also point, as Dargis does, to the way its characters, locations and dialogue are suffused with cinema, helplessly playing up to the very tropes calculated to conceal the real. Perhaps the problem is that this unconscious but chosen blinkeredness is an irreducible keystone of L.A. reality, which can no more be excised from the city’s performance of itself than sunshine or natural disasters. Hollywood and L.A. have been feasting on each other since their foundations, locked in a mutually consumptive tango in which the dancers are inseparable from each other and the dance. If L.A. Confidential contains ( in one of the screenplay’s recurring phrases) ‘high class whores cut to look like movie stars’, it’s because studios and their editors have always cut their movie stars to look like high class whores.

Dargis never makes the link explicit, but you can see this dance mirrored in the homo-erotically charged violence of the relationship between the brutish Bud and bookish Ed: she smartly enjoys their occasional punch-ups as ‘interludes of spectacle, like song-and-dance numbers in musicals’, with all the subsumed desire that implies. Dargis is sharp on the perfect casting of then-little-known Antipodean actors here: she pegs Russell Crowe as an ‘unlikely creature of passion in whose expressively wet eyes you can catch sight of a mind struggling against flesh’, and she admires the way Guy Pearce uses his angular looks against his character.

The book is also useful in tracking the changes made from Ellroy’s novel in the adaptation, but it is soft on its softenings: the removal of racist language, the smoothing of Ed’s background, the sleight-of-hand ending. It wouldn’t be fair to say she lets it get away with murder – the film’s bleak moral tone, its ‘air of everyday barbarism’, does not pander to multiplex comfort; but nor does it achieve the dramatic weight she claims. Hanson must be pleased that when Dargis watches Jack Vincennes’ ethical indigestion and subsequent death, she sees ‘a moral reckoning that has the weight of an epiphany’; that she believes the very banality of the scene ‘raises Jack’s murder to the level of tragedy’. Not all viewers will be as moved.

Elsewhere the style of the book is not always pleasurable: there are too many boring slabs of uninflected plot summary, and biographical passages on Ellroy and Hanson do not feel integrated into the argument about the film. It might have been nice too to hear more on the movie’s witty sound design: the clacking of a pulpish typewriter that introduces the characters; the aural pun which makes it impossible to distinguish the shattering of flashbulbs and windowpanes as privacy is invaded. (Also, if we’re being picky, it’s odd to read a description of L.A. as ‘[a metropolis] without a defining architectural totem’ only to find ‘the city’s totemic city hall’ mentioned three pages later. And what are ‘fraternal grandparents’?) Cavils aside, Dargis’ accomplishment is to point at the ways L.A. Confidential exploits the city’s fascination with itself, and its own exploitation of that fascination.