Exley’s wristwatch, or the power of overlapping
As I’ve mentioned a few times before, Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland’s script for L.A. Confidential is one of my favorite screenplays of all time, and one that has influenced my own work enormously. It’s a model of intelligent adaptation, condensing and reimagining James Ellroy’s original novel in consistently ingenious ways. It tells one of the last great complicated movie stories, with three strong protagonists, an abundance of interesting supporting characters, and a dozen interlocking plotlines. Its big set pieces—Exley’s interrogation of the Nite Owl suspects, Jack’s valediction, the shootout at the Victory Motel—are some of the most striking of the last twenty years. Yet one of my favorite scenes in the movie is among its least flashy moments, a quiet sequence that nonetheless sums up the film’s strengths, as well as providing a valuable illustration of one of the most useful narrative techniques I know.
The scene takes place about half an hour into the movie, shortly after Guy Pearce’s Lieutenant Exley has been promoted to detective. He’s seated at his desk one night, going over some casefiles, and smiles at two other officers packing up for the day. (“Punk kid,” one of them whispers to the other as they leave. “Who’s he trying to impress?”) A moment later, Exley puts on his glasses to study the clock across the room, which, compared to his own watch, is two minutes slow. As he crosses the deserted office to correct it, word comes over the radio of a homicide downtown. Exley grabs the radio, knocking over a desk lamp in his haste. He takes the call with studied nonchalance, then rushes out of the frame, muttering, “It’s mine.” Cut to the Nite Owl coffee shop, the scene of the case that will make his career. The entire sequence takes less than a minute—fifty-two seconds, to be precise—and it’s quickly overtaken by the gory images to come.
But this quiet transitional scene contains an incredible amount of information. In a few quick beats, we’re given a sense of Exley’s transition to detective, his diligence, his unpopularity among the other officers, his methodical nature, and his eagerness to make a name for himself. Best of all, these beats all overlap. As the other detectives leave the office, Exley is already putting on his glasses to check the clock on the wall, and the call comes over the radio as he’s crossing the room to fix it. Note that the beats themselves aren’t necessarily brilliant—a character who is such a straight-arrow that his watch is more accurate than the office clock isn’t exactly an earthshaking idea—and if the script had played them one at a time, they would have felt like items being checked off a list. Combined in this way, they’re graceful, brainy, and concise, all without drawing attention to themselves. Now that’s good writing.
When I first saw this scene, fifteen years ago, it made me appreciate how useful overlapping beats like this can be. L.A. Confidential itself does this more than once—as when White and Exley’s big confrontation shades without a pause into word that the Nite Owl suspects have escaped—but this scene provides a neat microcosm of Hanson and Helgeland’s methods. Whenever possible, it’s good to get one plot point rolling before the last one wraps up: it saves time, avoids unnecessary transitions, and lets the story feel like more of a piece. (It can also allow you to elide problematic plot points by presenting them as a fait accompli, as I explain with reference to one of my own scenes in The Icon Thief.) This can be especially useful in movies, which consist, by definition, of assemblages of individual scenes—hence the editing convention, pioneered in the seventies and now a cliché, of having the audio for one scene overlap with the one before it. You can do this in the editing room, but it’s much better to do it in the script. Exley’s wristwatch is a reminder of how elegant and effective it can be.