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.”
“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.
This 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.