Sad news today that Curtis Hanson has died, aged 71. He was found dead at his home in Los Angeles on Tuesday afternoon – some reports said a heart attack, other that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. Variety reported an LAPD spokesman as saying it was ‘natural causes’. My immediate reaction was confusion – I didn’t realise he was 71 in the first place, and it was far too soon for the man who gave us LA Confidential, one of the best movies of the last 20 years.
Look at the way Hanson handles this scene. The use of shadows on Russell Crowe’s face in the build-up, the ‘click’ sound of the flick knife opening (much louder than you expect), the juxtaposition of childish innocence and sexual horror in the man laughing at cartoons as he eats cereal while the raped girl lies next door, trussed like an animal, the nuances in the acting of both Crowe and Guy Pearce, both of whom were relatively unknown to American audiences at the time: note the hint of shock that flits across Crowe’s face when he see the girl staked out in the bedroom and the split second of fear on Pearce’s face after Crowe attacks him in the street. We see instantly that Pearce’s character is afraid to be seen to flinch in front of the other cops, and that Dudley the boss (James Cromwell) is used to exerting control over men, for his own ends. The whole sequence is superbly put together for maximum contrast and emotion, maximum horror and a sense of the quotidian violence of corrupt LAPD detectives in the 1950s.
Hanson’s adaptation of James Ellroy’s novel is the best of the films associated with that masterful (if creepy) writer and certainly the best film about Los Angeles since Chinatown (1974). That may because it was where Hanson grew up. It’s set in the period of his own awakening to the best and worst of life. Hanson was born in Reno, Nevada in 1946 but grew up in LA, where he dropped out of high school to work as a freelance photographer and editor. His movie writing began around 1970 with The Dunwich Horror.
This interview from The Onion website gives some good background on his early years as a writer, then editor of a struggling film magazine, his education in film by interviewing the great directors, his work with Roger Corman, his writing of spec screenplays and the importance of reading.
Hanson’s output is much broader than I thought – from co-writing the notorious and still troubling White Dog with Sam Fuller, working under ‘this absurd cloud of controversy’ as he calls it, to the 1991 crime drama Bad Influence, with the young bratpackers James Spader and Rob Lowe. You can see the whole movie, for the moment on Youtube.
Or there’s his script for another of my favourites, Never Cry Wolf, directed by Caroll Ballard – a wolves and wilderness picture with a superb performance by Charlie Martin Smith. This clip is from the end of the movie so you might want to skip it if you are new to the film. Well worth watching the full movie. I love the way that Mark Isham’s score is woven around Smith’s playing of the oboe, which he uses to call the wolves. The film was based on a book by Farley Mowat, a celebrated Canadian writer and environmentalist who died in 2014. He lived the story we see here while researching the Arctic wolf. Hanson uses his voice-over sparingly, for haunting effect.
Vale Curtis Hanson – a true lover of movies. I think it’s time to rewatch Wonder Boys or 8 Mile.