It’s a name that echoes throughout Curtis Hanson’s masterful modern noir, L.A. Confidential. It’s a name that changes minds, reveals guilt, and displays shame. But, of course, the beauty of the name (and what a fine name it is) is that, technically, “Rollo Tomassi” means nothing. Who he represents is real, a purse snatcher who shot and killed Detective Lieutenant Edmund Exley’s father some years ago, but the name itself was made up by Exley, just to “give him some character.”
Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), barges into the office of Det. Seg. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) and tells Vincennes that he needs his help. Vincennes, embittered that he recently (though, unknowingly) helped a young, innocent actor get murdered, looks at Exley and says, “Why don’t you do me a real favor and leave me alone?”
Think about this line. Observe Spacey’s delivery, then think about it. A lot of awful shit happens in L.A. Confidential, but that line, and Spacey’s semi-pissed delivery of it, is easily the harshest thing Vincennes does in the movie. It breaks down Vincennes’ persona as the cheerful, amiable Hollywood Cop that he’s tried so hard to maintain. We notice it, and it would appear Exley does as well. Exley presses Vincennes further, asking if he thinks the infamous Night Owl case was really solved. Vincennes toys with Exley, taking his precious time to utter the word, “What,” and, moments later, playfully, mockingly holding out the word “Lieutenant,” as a way to shame the power-hungry Exley.
Sensing he isn’t breaking through, Exley concedes and does something we haven’t seen him do yet: he becomes vulnerable and shares something personal about himself. He tells Vincennes about Rollo Tomassi and the effect he’s had on Exley’s life. Watch the way Pearce eases into the brief monologue, sitting on the edge of a desk, delivering this sad tale without a shred of sentiment, as if he’s been waiting his whole life to tell this story. Hanson wisely (but uncharacteristically for this type of scene) holds the monologue out in a medium shot (as opposed to a close-up, which is often preferred for “big moments” like this one). No less than five extras crowd the frame behind Pearce, but that matters little. Pearce is too electric. Too real and sincere. The framing of the scene is almost a challenge, as if Curtis is inviting us to take our eyes of Pearce, which, of course, we don’t dare do.
Exley finishes his speech by saying that he became a cop to catch the guys who thought they could get away with it. “Why’d you become a cop?” he casually asks Vincennes. And then, in what could be my single favorite moment of Spacey’s career, he lets his head slowly fall, then brings it up and locks his swollen, red eyes with Exley’s. “I don’t remember,” Spacey manages to ease out. Directly after, Vincennes springs into action, as if shaken awake from a temporary fog. Jerry Goldsmith’s perfect music blares away, and L.A. Confidential gets back to its complex plot and breakneck pace.
This is the scene that forced me to initially take notice of Guy Pearce’s talent. There’s no grandstanding or heavy breathing. No tears or pleas for forgiveness. He’s a young kid trying to do what’s right, by enlisting a guy who couldn’t otherwise give a damn. I love everything about this film. But the way it manages to hold our attention in its delicate moments (Bud White’s pillow-talk explanation as to why he detests men who beat women also comes to mind), is truly deserving of praise.