James Cromwell, What A Character! by Jack Deth

by Jack Deth

Greetings, all and sundry!

It’s been a while since being invited to delve in and play around in the wonderful world of those consistently and hardworking people towards the back of any room or set. The character actors. Who begin their careers in obscurity. Usually as one of a pack. Or spread throughout a set. Earning and learning their trade. Either silently, or with only one or two throwaway lines as roles, lines and screen time increase.

To that end. I would like to introduce one of a collection of thousands. Who caught my attention in small parts amongst the plethora of television prime-time situation comedies and later, dramas of 1970s and ’80s. Specifically, at first glance. Playing four distinctly different characters in the superbly cast, live audience, classic cop situation comedy, Barney Miller. Reveling in their interplay with master of dry, wry comedy, Steven Landesberg’s Detective Sgt. Arthur Dietrich. Knowing there was something there in this tall, gaunt actor worthy of greater things. Enjoying his episodic and occasional background work. While moving to the forefront work in smaller films.

Until the right opportunity presented itself. As the omniscient, erudite and charmingly bent as barbed wire Honcho of Homicide Detectives in a recent classic of noir genre.

James Cromwell: Kingpin Cop, Captain Dudley Smith in L.A. Confidential

Take the wisely-purchased rights to an award-winning and best-selling James Ellroy novel that has to bleed mood, setting, lighting and allegiance to the near “anything goes’ mindset of a spread-out city becoming the land of milk and honey. And does!

Focus its spotlight away from the packaged and highly bankrolled glamor of the day and take a look at what runs rampant underneath. With a well-known crime boss, Mickey Cohen (Paul Guilfoyle) safely ensconced in prison, but leaving a massive power vacuum to be filled. Add a large batch of stolen heroin and the money and types of uncouth, out of state, riff-raff clientele it draws, and you have the makings of a prime neo-noir!

That begins with an eye-blackening scandal for the LAPD. In the shape of a very violent, multiracial rumble erupts in a lone precinct’s holding cells prior to a Christmas party attended by the local press. Papers are printed. Conferences amongst the highest ranks of the LAPD are held. And scapegoats are sought. Aided by a still wet behind the ears precinct officer, Edmond Exley (Guy Pearce, at his most bookish looking, easy to underestimate best)! Who yearns to achieve the reputation of his iconic, killed-in-the-line-of-duty father.


An old, not quite crooked, soon to retire “hat” (Graham Beckel) is selected. Along with celebrity busting, Hollywood connected, Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey channeling Dean Martin, smooth and cool) are on the chopping block. Events all overseen and manipulated by Mr. Cromwell’s Captain Dudley Smith. Who may have a new and intriguing appreciation of young Exley’s familiarity in playing the system.

Vincennes is placed on suspension. And the old “hat”, Detective Dick Stensland is forcibly retired without his pension. Creating a massive amount of hate within Officer Bud White (Russell Crowe showing tremendous potential for future greatness!) and his sizable hard on for newly promoted Lieutenant Exley.


Time passes and erupts with a spree shooting at an all night diner, The Nite Owl. Which brings about an instance of swords crossing between Exley and Smith. Who wisely wants to keep this eager beaver at controllable arms length. Even more so when it is discovered that White’s retired partner and Susan Lefferts, a prostitute made up to look like a star, are among the dead.

The hounds are set loose the following morning. With all data, direction and where to look generated by Captain Smith. Two “negroes” are sought while Vincennes, recently reinstated to Narcotics, follows the lead of a Fleur De Lis business card that screams high-end and very cautious prostitution. Vincennes seeks counsel from his under-the-table business partner, Sid Hudgens (slimily played to the hilt by Danny De Vito), who points him towards prominent citizen, with his fingers in everything dirty, Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn). Whose minion is seen setting up an introduction between the District Attorney (Ellis Lowe) and a promising young male talent (Simon Baker).

As with any atmospheric cop film. People are murdered. Criminals escape only to meet a bloody end. Medals are awarded and won. Alliances are formed between the unlikely (Vincennes and Exley) who know something important about each other’s cases. And inroads are made into Mr. Patchett’s empire. Courtesy of Kim Basinger, playing Veronica Lake lookalike Lynn Bracken. Who knows and whispers enough between Exley and White to send them on a collision course with a glimmer of photographic extortion hinted at by a soon to be a loose end, Sid Hudgens.


And through it all Captain Smith stays in the background. Always one step into the shadows and ahead of everyone. As he gently pulls a string here. Or tugs one there. Throwing up false signals and leads, as White and Exley start dipping into the past records of the LAPD in general. And Smith, in particular. Which leads to his, Stensland’s and the recently-discovered “Buzz” Meeks’ past cases, and later ties to opportunities for crime and corruption. On scales small. Large. And in between.

What does Mr. Cromwell’s Captain Smith bring to the film?

A masterfully delivered dose of quiet mystery. Tall, seemingly omniscient. Grandfatherly and quiet in his disposition. Simply because, as a Captain of Homicide, he doesn’t have to raise his voice or chew scenery best left to Mr. Crowe’s “Bud” White. The Captain’s word is law. And the Captain assigns manpower and initially directs where it goes.

The wizened spider in the center of its web. Getting tickles from Vincennes, delving into the death of Mr. Baker’s Matt Reynolds. Sensing that “Bud” White may be wanting to expand his career horizons beyond that of muscle for one or more “valedictions” with greedy out -of-town talent.

While also being blessed with a soft Irish brogue. And the film’s, and possibly, cinema history’s best lines.

Offering advice to “Bud” White and the officer’s desire for a gold shield:
“I admire you as a policeman – particularly your adherence to violence as a necessary adjunct to the job.”

And later. After White concedes;
“Wendell – I’d like full and docile co-operation on every topic.”

During a “valediction” with recently arrived out of state talent at the deserted Victory motel:
“Go back to Jersey, sonny. This is the City of the Angels, and you haven’t got any wings.”

When Vincennes expresses a desire to look once again at the Nite Owl murders:
“I doubt you’ve ever taken a stupid breath. Don’t start now.”

And later:
“Don’t start tryin’ to do the right thing, boy-o. You haven’t the practice.”

And through it all, Mr. Cromwell’s Dudley Smith radiates a serene, untouchable confidence. That easily equals that of his fellow cast of veteran, A-List and soon-to-be A-List talent. In a film loaded with color, shadow, glitz and post-war glamor for the masses.james-cromwell-in-l.a.c-lowres

WAC-banner-2013-greenThis post is part of the 2013 What A Character! blogathon, co-hosted by myself, Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled, and Aurora of Once Upon A Screen. Be sure and check out all the other Monday posts. And there’s Saturday and Sunday’s as well.

28 thoughts on “James Cromwell, What A Character! by Jack Deth

  1. I’ve not seen “LA Confidential” and had no interest in it, but I might change my mind now based on your review of the film & James Cromwell.

    Has Cromwell EVER given a bad performance? He seems so darn good in everything.

    1. Welcome, silverscreenings:

      I’m going to echo Paula’s sentiments. Mr. Cromwell doesn’t have a surfeit of scenes, but he manages to deftly own every one his is in.
      Something that dates back to his television days. And no, I do not believe the man is capable of turning in a bad performance.

    1. Hello, Patricia:

      Mr. Cromwell does have a master’s deft touch. In a film full of memorable scenes and a wondrously gritty tale to tell. Revealing just enough to pique interest. Without getting bogged down in Spoliers.

      Thanks, very much!

    1. Excellent catch and comparison, Marsha!

      Farmer Hoggett and Captain Smith are opposite sides of the coin who is Mr. Cromwell.

      While again being backed up by memorable lines (“That’ll do, pig… That’ll do.”) masterfully delivered!

  2. Jack, I love your description of Dudley Smith as “the wizened spider in the center of its web.” Without going into any spoilers, as I see that many have not seen L.A. CONFIDENTIAL…yet πŸ˜‰ how does he stay so likable and not get lost in the ensemble? That takes talent. Great choice and great addition to What A Character. Thanks!

    1. You’re more than welcome, Paula!

      It is a most befitting description. If Captain Smith had been as dirty as Exley and White hinted at in the Records Room. The machine Dudley had to construct to protect himself must have been formidable. To the point where he felt comfortable and untouchable in any situation. By
      his decorated history and his friendly invitation to others to call him by
      his first name.

      A superb foundation to construct a most memorable villain upon!

      I have a distinct feeling Mr. Cromwell had an absolute ball with the role and the film.

      1. Well said. Yeah, I get the feeling he had a pretty good time too, Jack. I also think he might have given the young bucks a few pointers πŸ™‚

    1. Hi, Furious:


      ‘L.A. Confidential’ rates highly for being a superbly crafted, detailed and executed period noir. Full of great locations and memorable characters. Chief amongst them, Captain Smith as the original “Teflon Man”. Until his final confrontation with Exley and White.

      And ROLLO TOMASSI sounds eerily sinister without ever being seen!

      1. Welcome, Kerry!

        The look on Kevin Spacey’s face at the end of his ‘Valediction” with Captain Smith is indescribable. Though his last words are the key to the Captain’s unraveling.

        His “I don’t remember.” in response to Exley’s question as to why he became a cop, is classic!

        Great catch!

  3. Superb article of a superb performance, Kevin, well done! L.A. Confidential is one of my fave modern noir and Mr. Cromwell gave an excellent and chilling performance. ‘Rolo Tomassi.’ [shudders]

    1. Hi, Ruth:

      I’ve been wanting to tackle this film for awhile. Even obliquely. With one performance as Mr. Cromwell rubs elbows with equally deft talent as the story unfolds.

      The trick was to reveal just enough without revealing too much for those who haven’t had the chance to savor this noir gem!

      And Rollo Tomassi is a definite noir name. Right up there with Lash Canino (‘The Big Sleep’) and Kasper Gutman (‘The Maltese Falcon’).

  4. Great choice, movie and performance!! “Quiet mystery” and as evil as they come is Mr. Cromwell’s Dudley. You got me in the mood to watch CONFIDENTIAL again!


    1. Greetings, Aurora:

      Thanks so much!

      If I’ve piqued your interest enough to seek out and enjoy this period noir classic. I’ve done my task well and truly. And can ask for nothing more.

    1. Hi, Michael!

      ‘L.A. Confidential’ has many things going for it. Superb writing. Meticulous attention to detail. From wardrobe to insignificant props and backdrops. A cast proven more than worthy of carrying it all off.
      With the aid of a proper villain in the story’s center. And Mr. Cromwell’s Captain Smith is one of cinema’s best!

      Thanks for taking the time to read and opine.

Leave a Reply to Paula Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.