Life’s good in Los Angeles. But there’s trouble in paradise. His name’s Mickey Cohen. He runs dope, rackets and prostitution and smoothly kills a dozen people a year. Cohen’s arrested for non-payment of federal income tax, leaving a power vacuum.
Edmund Exley is first out of twenty three on the lieutenants’ exam. Exley’s sights set on the Detective Bureau. Captain Dudley Smith asks if he’d bend the rules to secure a conviction. Exley wouldn’t. Smith recommends Exley stick to assignments where he doesn’t have to make hard choices.
At Nick’s liquor store, glamorous Lynn Bracken says she needs a case each of gin, rum and scotch. White notices Susan Lefferts with a badly-bruised face. Her driver, Leland “Buzz” Meeks, approaches White. White disarms Meeks and asks Lefferts if someone hit her.
Vincennes arrests Matt Reynolds and Tammy Jordan and Hudgens gets the photo. With the marijuana, Vincennes finds a Fleur-de-Lis business card “Whatever you desire”. At the station, Vincennes slides cash across the desk to watch commander Exley. Exley declines. Smith says the department needs smart people like Exley and direct men like White.
After an assault humiliation with some Mexicans, Vincennes is moved to Vice. He’d really rather be working Narcotics, looking for Cohen’s missing heroin. Vincennes notices an emblem matching the one on the Fleur-de-lis business card.
At 2:05am, Exley’s called to The Nite Owl coffee shop. There are six dead people, along with fifteen spent 12-gauge Remington shotgun shells. One of the dead is White’s partner, Dick Stensland. It appears three men held up the coffee shop. The guy at the register pulled a .38 so they killed him, then everyone else. Forensics tend toward a trio of shooters.
White learns Pierce Patchett doesn’t know Stensland. White tells him Susan Lefferts died at the Nite Owl. He asks why she looked beat-up Christmas Eve. Patchett has a Gardner, Russell, Monroe, Turner, Lake and Lefferts was Rita Hayworth. Patchett uses, essentially, call girls who look like movie stars, sometimes employing a plastic surgeon. White arrives at Bracken’s door and learns Patchett takes a percentage of his girls’ earnings and invests it for them.
Vincennes finds “Sugar” Ray Collins drives a maroon ’49 coupe like the car seen outside the coffee shop. Vincennes and Exley thank Bidwell and leave, dismissing the promise of less jailtime for Bidwell’s brother. At the address, Vincennes discovers three 12-gauge pumps and some cash.
Ty Jones, Louis Fontaine and Collins are in separate holding cells. White thinks they killed Stensland. Smith wants confessions. Exley says Fontaine told Exley Collins went sissy up at Casitas, that they called Collins “Sugar” because he gave it out so sweet. Exley flicks a switch allowing Fontaine to hear. Collins says Fontaine was the sissy.
Collins doesn’t own any shotguns, not wanting to talk until he sees a judge. Exley asks where Jones and Fontaine get their drugs and flicks the broadcast switch. Collins says Roland Navarette runs a hole-up on Bunker Hill. Exley says Collins blames Fontaine for the Nite Owl. Exley blames Collins. If Fontaine talks, Exley can save Fontaine’s life.
Exley asks Fontaine who the girl is, but Fontaine breaks down crying. Exley then asks if Jones killed the girl. Fontaine lost his cherry, but Jones made her bleed. Suddenly, White puts a gun in Jones’s mouth demanding to know where the girl is. Jones says Sylvester Fitch, 109 Avalon, upstairs.
While everyone’s at the address, the Nite Owl suspects escape the police station. Someone else says they left the girl at midnight. They could get to the Nite Owl by one a.m. Exley meets a secretary asking where they got their drugs from. Roland Navarette lives on Bunker Hill.
Exley’s partner kills Fontaine. Roland kills Exley’s partner. Exley kills Roland then blows Jones away through a window. Exley kills Collins. Exley’s presented with the Medal of Valour.
Hudgens is getting Reynolds to have sex with Loew for $100. Reynolds thinks he met Vincennes at a Fleur-de-lis party. Hudgens tells Vincennes they’ll be at the Hollywood Center Motel later, room 203. Vincennes finds Reynolds there dead.
Exley asks if the raped girl, Inez Soto, remembers what time the blacks left her. She says she doesn’t know what time they left her. No-one would care that they raped a Mexican girl if they hadn’t killed those white people at the Nite Owl.
White tells the records clerk there’s blood on the Nite Owl wall in one photo. The clerk says that’s Stensland’s blood. Two of the victims were women: Patti DeLuca, night shift waitress, and Susan Lefferts.
White learns Susan Lefferts’s boyfriend was Stens. Susan’s mother says they kept going under the house. White goes into the basement and reveals a rotted corpse. It’s Meeks.
The records clerk tells Exley White grilled him on the Nite Owl case earlier. At the morgue, Exley says he needs IDs on it quickly, then asks Vincennes to tail White. Exley tells Vincennes about Rollo Tomasi. Rollo shot Exley’s father six times and vanished. Exley created the name for personality. Rollo Tomasi’s the reason Exley became a cop. Vincennes says if Exley helps him with Vincennes’s case, Vincennes will help with Exley’s case.
White asks if Johnny Stompanato, under duress, knows a Meeks. Stompanato remembers Meeks is a run down ex-cop with access to a large supply of heroin.
Bracken says White said Exley was smart, a coward and that he’d screw himself to get ahead. Exley asks why Bracken’s seeing White. Bracken suggests it would be easier for Exley if there were an angle. She says Exley’s afraid of White because he doesn’t follow the same rules of politics as Exley does. Hudgens photographs Bracken and Exley sleeping together.
Vincennes meets Smith and asks about Meeks. Meeks was once on a Vice roust with Stensland. Patchett had Hudgens photographing prominent businessmen with hookers for blackmail purposes. When Smith learns Vincennes hasn’t told Exley of his suspicions, yet. Smith shoots Vincennes. Vincennes says “Rollo Tomasi” before dying. Smith later asks Exley about Rollo Tomasi, unwittingly implicating himself.
White finds Hudgens tied to a chair. After attacks by White, Hudgens reveals Patchett got him to photograph a cop screwing a hooker named Bracken. Furious, White finds the photos of Exley and Bracken. After White leaves, Smith murders Hudgens. White confronts Bracken. She says she thought she was helping White. He beats her and leaves.
Exley finds historic report books featuring Smith, Meeks and Stensland. White arrives and attacks Exley. Exley says Smith killed Vincennes and now wants White to kill Exley. Exley says Smith, Meeks and Stensland have history.
Lefferts’ mother ID’d Stensland as Susan’s boyfriend. Exley asks what Stensland and Meeks were up to. White thinks Stensland killed Meeks over heroin. Stompanato told White Meeks had heroin for sale. Meeks is killed. Stensland dies at the Nite Owl.
Exley says the first guys to the Mercury coupe were Smith’s guys Breuning and Carlisle and they planted the shotguns. They’d have killed the blacks, too, if Exley hadn’t shown up. It’s connected to Vincennes’s angle: Hudgens with pictures to blackmail the DA.
White and Exley burst into Loew’s office. Exley wants DA bureau men to tail Smith and Patchett twenty four hours a day, a judge to authorise wiretaps on their home phones and authorisation to check their bank records.
Soon, White is suspending Loew upside down out the window by his leg. Loew quickly explains that he wouldn’t play ball with Smith and Patchett so they set him up. Loew gave in but Reynolds heard everything so they killed him. Smith and Patchett are taking over Mickey Cohen’s rackets. Because of those pictures, Loew couldn’t prosecute them. Then, Exley discovers Patchett dead.
White and Exley are tricked into meeting at the Victory Motel. There’s a fierce firefight. Smith appears at the door and shoots White twice. White stabs Smith in the leg. Smith shoots White and Exley kills Smith.
Exley says the three Nite Owl suspects, while guilty of kidnapping and rape, were innocent of the multiple homicides there. The gunmen were most likely policemen Michael Breuning and William Carlisle and a third man, possibly Captain Dudley Smith.
They wanted to eliminate police officer Richard Stensland. Stensland, along with former cop, Leland “Buzz” Meeks, also committed multiple homicides on behalf of Captain Smith and then betrayed him over twenty five pounds of heroin. The retrieval of which was the ultimate motivation behind the Nite Owl killings.
Beginning with the incarceration of Mickey Cohen, Smith has been assuming criminal control of Los Angeles. This includes the assassinations of Cohen’s lieutenants, the systematic blackmail of city officials and the murders of Susan Lefferts, Pierce Patchett, Sid Hudgens and Jack Vincennes.
Detective Lieutenant Edmund Exley becomes two-time recipient of a Medal of Valour, then thanks White for saving his life. Bracken says some men get the world, others get ex-hookers and a trip to Arizona.
Starring Kevin Spacey. Russell Crowe. Guy Pearce. Rated 18. Dir Curtis Hanson. Released in the UK 1997. Runtime 2hrs 18mins