There is a mass murder at The Nite Owl restaurant, including a former LAPD officer. Detectives Bud White, Edmund Exley, and Jack Vincennes all get caught up in the case, which turns out be part of the power struggle in organized crime after Real Life mobster Mickey Cohen is convicted.
The book by James Ellroy was later adapted into a film starring Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, James Cromwell, and Kim Basinger. It greatly condensed the plot and time frames of the book, but was widely praised for keeping almost all of the drama and noir feel. The movie was named to the National Film Registry in 2015.
- Adaptation Distillation: The movie takes an insanely complex book and boils it down to the absolute bare essence of the story, which is still plenty complicated on its own. The writers actually wrote every plot point on index cards and laid them all on a table, so that whenever they took something out, they could try to rearrange everything else until it all made sense again.
- Affably Evil: Dudley Smith, which is what makes him so chilling.
- Alliterative Name: Ed Exley, Pierce Patchett and Wendell "Bud" White.
- Ambition Is Evil: Averted with Exley in the movie. The books zig-zag the trope all over the place, though.
- Anyone Can Die: And they do, oh how they do. Specifically, Dick Stensland, Matt Reynolds, Jack Vincennes, Sid Hudgens, Pierce Patchett, and Dudley Smith.
- Arc Words: "Rollo Tomasi", in the movie.
- The Atoner: Jack Vincennes in both the book and the movie.
- In the movie, Jack genuinely tries to help Matt Reynolds. He feels guilty for going along with Sid's desire for headlines, and ruining Matt's life in the process.
- In the book, Jack accidentally kills a young couple, and to make it up to their kids, sends money each month.
- The Bad Guys Are Cops: Captain Dudley and a large group of his men are setting themselves up as the new LA drug kingpins after Mickey Cohen goes to prison.
- Berserk Button: Do not mistreat women around Bud White.
- Broken Pedestal: In the book, Exley has a case of hero worship/one-sided rivalry with his father, a legendary LAPD detective turned construction magnate. A big chunk of the story is Ed learning his father was not the paragon of virtue he thought him to be.
- The Cavalry Arrives Late: In the climactic showdown at the Victory Motel, Bud is already wounded and Ed cornered before the cavalry shows up. Even then, the cavalry doesn't realize that one of their own has been behind the entire thing.
- Celebrity Impersonator: Played straight with the various whores in Pierce Patchett's stable.
- Also subverted as noted below under Reality Is Unrealistic, when Ed Exley mistakes the real Lana Turner for a lookalike hooker.
- Color Coded for Your Convenience: Lynn's wardrobe reflects a lot about her character. She is a Woman in Black when she first meets Bud and is a suspect in Susan Lefferts' death, she wears soft greens and blues during her domestic scenes with Bud, she wears all white during the scene where she seduces Ed, and when she shows up at the end ready to leave for Arizona, she's dressed in a bright yellow amid the sea of blue at Ed's ceremony.
- Composite Character: Matt Reynolds is a combination of Tammy Reynolds and Rock Rockwell (the kids Jack busts for smoking pot in the beginning) and Billy Dieterling (tragic young gay actor, whose life is ruined by one of the main detectives - Jack in the movie, Ed in the book).
- Conversation Casualty: Dudley Smith shoots Jack Vincennes mid-conversation without so much as a word of warning.
- Crazy Jealous Guy: Bud towards the end of the film, due to finding out Lynn slept with Exley.
- Da Chief: Dudley Smith. He's one of the rare villainous examples.
- Death by Adaptation: Dudley Smith. Preston Exley, too.
- Defective Detective: Jack Vincennes. In spades.
- Determinator: Bud White. It rubs off on Exley by the end of the book.
- Die Laughing: Jack Vincennes.
- Dies Wide Open: Jack Vincennes.
- Subverted with Matt Reynolds - whose hooded stare got a great close up and made such a terrific silent accusation against Jack Vincennes when he found the body.
- Dirty Cop: Every variation imaginable is in here somewhere.
- Distinguishing Mark: A mother cannot initially identify her daughter at the morgue due to the girl's extensive plastic surgery. The coroner prompts her with Detective Lieutenant Exley and Officer Bud White hanging on her every word:
Coroner: Mrs. Lefferts, does your daughter have any distinguishing marks?
Mrs. Lefferts: She has a birthmark on her hip. It's her. My baby!
- The scene won the 1998 Skinny Award for "Best birthmark used to further the plot".
- Dumb Muscle: Bud, or at least what Exley initially thinks of him.
- More importantly, what Dudley Smith thinks of White and why he drags him into his scheme. It's one of his few, but vital, mistakes.
- Embarrassing First Name: Wendell "Bud" White. Although Edmund isn't so much better.
- Everyone Is a Suspect
- Evil Power Vacuum: Essentially the whole plot revolves around the police captain trying to take over Mickey Cohen's operation. Lampshaded in the opening narration.
- False Roulette: Played straight during the interrogation of the Nite Owl suspects, when Bud realizes the suspects have kidnapped and raped a woman who's still being held hostage. However in the film, we never actually see if Bud takes the last round out of his .38.
- Film Noir
- Final Speech
- Flat What: An excellent example from Kevin Spacey when Exley asks Vincennes "Do you make the Negroes for the Nite Owl killings?".
- Fleur-de-Lis: The name of the escort service run by Pierce Patchett.
- Framing the Guilty Party
- Freudian Trio: Ellroy loves to subvert the trope by having one member die, forcing the other two to find balance. In this case it's Vincennes the ego.
- Gayngst: Matt Reynolds, in the movie.
- Gene Hunt Interrogation Technique: Bud White gives DCI Hunt a run for his money. First, he plays False Roulette with a murder suspect to find out where he stashed a rape victim, then he dangles Ellis Loew out a 10-story window just to scare him.
- Girl Friday: Inez to Preston Exley and Ray Dieterling in the book.
- The Glasses Come Off: Played straight in the movie with Ed. He subverts it in the book by never taking his glasses off because he knows he looks softer and more merciful without them. Lynn mentions it, too.
- Good Cop, Bad Cop: Invoked, hilariously, in the movie.
- A Good Name for a Rock Band: Rollo Tomasi certainly thought so.
- Groin Attack: "What do I get if I give you your balls back?"
- Have You Told Anyone Else?: A slightly subtler variant - "What does Exley make of all this?"
- Heroic BSOD: Bud when he hits Lynn. Ed, in the book, when he finds out his father and Ray Dieterling covered up the Atherton murders.
- Hidden Depths: The three main cops - Bud, Jack and Ed - in different ways. Also Lynn, who just wants to get out of the hooker life and move back to Arizona to open a dress shop.
- High-Class Call Girl: Lynn and the other girls at Fleur de Lis.
- High Altitude Interrogation: How Bud gets his answers from Ellis Loew in the movie.
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Lynn Bracken.
- Horrible Hollywood
- Ho Yay/Foe Yay: In-Universe. Half the characters are convinced there's something more to Bud and Ed's rivalry than just hatred.
Jack: (to Ed) Bud White's gonna fuck you for this if it takes him the rest of his life.
Lynn: (also to Ed): Fucking me and fucking Bud aren't the same thing.
- Important Haircut: Lynn in the end cuts her hair to show her rejection of her former life.
- I Never Said It Was Poison: "Vincennes mentioned a suspect he was hunting down. Rollo Tomasi?"
- Ironic Echo: Inez Soto's confession that she lied to Ed about the Nite Owl suspects - "You want to know what the big lie is? You and your precious 'absolute justice'." - is an echo of Ed's most sacred tenet.
- "Rollo Tomasi" in the movie.
- "Would you be willing to shoot a hardened criminal in the back"?
- As Smith kills Sid, he says to him "Hush-hush...".
- Karma Houdini: Both Dudley and Art De Spain in the book.
- Though in the sequel White Jazz, Dudley suffers a horrific beating and loses an eye, as well as getting brain damage that ends his career. He's still never brought to justice, though, and he lives for quite a long time afterwards surrounded by a loving and oblivious family.
- The Killer Becomes the Killed
- Knight in Sour Armor: Ed becomes this by the end of the book.
- Living Lie Detector: Ed, in the book more than the movie.
- Loads and Loads of Characters: The already complicated movie contains maybe 20% of the book's story.
- Lolicon: Blink and you'll miss her, but one of the lookalike whores at Pierce Patchett's mansion is made up as little Shirley Temple.
- Love Triangle: Bud, Lynn, and Ed. Of course, this is James Ellroy we're talking about. It's not as if this is his first love triangle featuring two cops and a hooker (i.e. The Black Dahlia).
- The Man Behind the Man: It's Captain Dudley Smith who controls the dirty racket in L.A..
- Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: The real reason for The Nite Owl murders. Officer Dick Stensland had stolen heroin the chief was using for his new racket.
- Missing White Woman Syndrome: Inez Soto lampshades it in both the book and the movie.
- Mistaken Confession: The Nite Owl suspects. They think the cops are about to bust them for kidnapping and raping Inez Soto, instead of committing the murders at the Nite Owl.
- My God, What Have I Done?: When Bud hits Lynn in a fit of rage for sleeping with Exley.
- Also Vincennes when he realizes he helped set up a young unemployed actor to be murdered.
- No-Tell Motel: The Victory Motel, better known as the go-to place to conduct illegal interrogations and set up fellow cops to be killed.
- Odd Couple: White and Exley, as well as Vincennes and Exley, in different ways.
- Oh Crap: A very well-done one from Guy Pearce in the movie, when Ed realizes the truth about Capt. Smith while having a conversation with him and struggles to control his face.
- Ed has another, fairly epic "oh crap" facial expression when Bud shows him the pictures of Ed and Lynn sleeping together.
- And again, when he mistakes Lana Turner for a call girl.
- Paparazzi: Two Words - Sid Hudgens.
- Parental Substitute: Dudley Smith serves as this for Exley and White in the film, in different ways. Bud sees him as more of a traditional father-figure, where Ed admires his police career. The ending reveals how expendable they really are to him.
- Perp Sweating: A Crowning Moment of Awesome for Ed in both the book and the movie, with his interrogation of the three Nite Owl suspects.
- Police Brutality: And how. Most notable example is "Bloody Christmas".
- Pragmatic Adaptation
- Pretty in Mink: Lana Turner is wearing a white fox wrap in her scene in the movie.
- Pyrrhic Victory: Ed Exley.
Lynn: Some men get the world. Others get ex-hookers and a trip to Arizona. You're in with the former, but God, I don't envy the blood on your conscience.
- Rabid Cop: Pretty much everyone, except for Ed (and even he hits it at the end of the movie).
- Reality Is Unrealistic/Your Costume Needs Work: Exley thinks Lana Turner is just one of the hookers dressed up to look like a star.
Exley: A hooker cut to look like Lana Turner is still a hooker. She just looks like Lana Turner.
Vincennes: She is Lana Turner.
Exley: (turns to Vincennes) What?
Vincennes: She is Lana Turner.
(Lana throws a drink in Exley's face)
- Reckless Gun Usage: In the film, Exley sees the Nite Owl suspects pile into an elevator and quickly jams his shotgun through the doors and fires, without first checking to see if there was anyone else in there with them.
- Bud White's False Roulette, when no one's actually sure how many rounds are in the gun.
- Red Oni, Blue Oni: Bud White (Red) and Ed Exley (Blue) are pretty much textbook examples. In the movie, Jack becomes somewhat of a Red to Ed's Blue.
- Retirony: Buzz Meeks in the book.
- The Reveal: The fact that the person responsible for not only the Nite Owl, but the gang killings of Mickey Cohen's lieutenants is Captain Dudley Smith.
- Revealing Coverup
- Saying Too Much
- Slashed Throat: "The proof had his throat cut."
- Smith Will Suffice:
Bud: Jesus fucking Christ!
Patchett: No, Mr. White, Pierce Moorehouse Patchett.
- Spiritual Successor: To Chinatown. Even though they both have a completely different cast and crew, both are set in Los Angeles, both were made 40 years after the time period in which they are set, and both feature themes of betrayal, corruption of public institutions and officials, and "neo-noir" values. Oh, and both have scores by Jerry Goldsmith.
- Treachery Cover-Up
- Turn in Your Badge: Bud in both the movie and the book, though the movie gives us the traditional scene.
- Twerp Sweating: Exley and White's High Altitude Interrogation of Ellis Loew in the movie is really an excuse to dangle a thoroughly unpleasant man out a very high window, not for information they mostly already know.
- Two Guys and a Girl: Bud, Lynn, and Ed.
- Vigilante Execution: In the movie, but not the book, Ed executes Dudley Smith, rather than let him be arrested.
- Villain with Good Publicity
- Wife-Basher Basher: Bud White. He's introduced kicking the crap out of a wife-beater, tying him to his porch with Christmas tree lights to wait for the patrol car to bring him in. Later, to scare the location of a kidnapped and repeatedly raped teenage girl out of the alleged Nite Owl suspects, he rips a solid oak chair in half with his bare hands in front of them and THEN shoves a gun in the face of one of the cowards and played False Roulette (probably) with him. He continues to play the trope arrow-straight until he hits Lynn when he finds out she slept with Exley. This was major Heroic BSOD on his part, however.
- "Well Done, Son" Guy: In the book, Exley would just about bend over backwards to win his father's approval. Well, until he learns his father let a child-killing psychopath walk because it was his best friend's son, and covered it up.
- Wham! Line: From the book - "Captain Dudley Liam Smith for the Nite Owl". It's not that we didn't know who the villain was (because if you read the book, the first chapter clues you in), it's that Ed saying it aloud is so powerful. He's about to cross the only man on earth more dangerous than he is.
- "Rollo Tomasi".
- Woman in Black: Lynn in her first appearance.
- Woman in White: Lynn in most subsequent appearances, especially in the iconic scene where she seduces Ed.
- Working the Same Case: All of the detectives, but most notably Exley, Vincennes, and White.
- Yiddish as a Second Language: Mickey Cohen in the book. His lines are hilarious.
- You Talkin' to Me?