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At the end of L.A. Confidential, Ed Exley is in a (supposedly) sound-proof interview room, giving a statement to two detectives. He is observed by a group of others, including the chief of police and the DA, who sit outside the room behind a one-way mirror. They supposedly cannot be seen or heard by Exley (a scene from inside the interview room shows only Exley's reflection on his side of the one-way mirror window).

After Exley finishes his statement and the two detectives leave the room, the police chief and DA confer and we get the following dialogue:

DA: Who's to say what happened? Maybe [spoiler] died a hero?

[Exley smirks]

Police chief: You wanna tell me what you're smiling about?

Exley: A hero.

Detective 1 (outside interview room): How did he know what we were talking about?

Detective 2 (outside interview room): He couldn't have heard us.

Police chief: And?

Exley: In this situation, you'll need more than one.

If you watch the film carefully, it goes to great lengths to show us that Exley cannot hear the DA's line of dialogue:

  • We clearly hear the door to the interview room close as the two detectives leave, well before the DA's "hero" line. A subsequent shot from inside the room confirms that the door is closed.
  • In the shot of the DA and the police chief having their "hero" conversation, the intercom button they need to press to be heard inside the interview room is in clear view in the foreground, and is not being pressed.
  • The police chief's first line ("You wanna tell me...") is heard from within the interview room, but we clearly hear the intercom engaging before it and disengaging afterwards. For his "And?" line we're outside the interview room and actually see him press the intercom button. (By implication, if the intercom is not used they can't be heard.)
  • And of course, the two detectives comment on it explicitly.

I've watched L.A. Confidential many times and this scene has always puzzled me. Does Exley really know what's been said, and if so how? Or is it coincidence or a lucky guess? If so, why is it included: just to indicate Exley's sharp instincts, or for some other reason?

I wonder if there's a reference elsewhere in the film that I'm missing, or whether perhaps it's a sequence from the book that has transferred clumsily in the adaptation. (I haven't read the book.)

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I wonder if it has to do with that control switch to the intercom under the table when Exley was originally questioning the black guys after the Night Owl to get them to turn on each other. –  user7114 Dec 11 '13 at 23:48
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3 Answers

Well, I don't have proof for this and haven't thought as much about it as you did. I always just took it as a lucky guess and a nice fitting scene, even if not perfectly realistic. You're right in that he couldn't hear it, I think.

Exley surely knows that the DA/police/government don't want to tell the truth to the people, regarding the involvement of pretty important policemen into criminal affairs. So he's pretty sure that they are about to come up with some strange alibi story about Cpt. Smith dying as a hero or something similar. But well, his perfect timed reaction was really just luck, I guess.

The reason why it was included? Well, of course Exley is aware of the dark corners of the police and the politics, but I don't think it is exactly to show his sharp instincts, though it may be. I wouldn't wonder that much about such a small gimmick scene and just take it as part knowledge/instincts and part luck. Maybe it could also partly demonsrate his ambition to become a big thing in the LA police when his first reaction is to try and gain some personal advantage out of this story.

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I think it is more than a lucky guess, and Exley is definitely not able to hear their conversation. The moment is his final step in learning to play the system efficiently. He knows how interrogations work and who is likely to be listening in. He knows what has happened and, being the cleverest among the characters, the optimal resolution.

The moment is imbued with a bit of movie magic as well, which helps deliver a final punch for our man against crime.

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If you recall at the beginning of the film where Exley is introduced, he has a conversation with Captain Smith. They are discussing Exley's finishing first in the Lieutenant's test. When asked what section of the police department he (Exley) would like to join, Exley states he wants to be in the detective squad. This is followed by a comment by Dudley Smith stating Exley is a smart political animal but not cut out to be a detective because he cannot answer yes to the questions of bending the law to obtain convictions.

This is the first piece of the puzzle.

After the Bloody Christmas scene all the characters that were involved in beating the Mexicans were interviewed. When Exley was questioned, he came up with the idea of pinning this on some detectives that have their pensions vested and thus forcing them to retire would not be a hardship. This showed he thinks in a political manner and sees a way to protect the department from scrutiny, yet leaving an impression that the department deals harshly with its own when they transgress. It reinforces Smith's assessment of the strength of Exley.

This is the second part or foreshadow in Exley's ability to determine the best path for his career.

So at the end, Exley tells the tale of what truly happened, knowing that each accusation is burying the department deeper and deeper in the mire of corruption. However, he understands both men who are witnessing the interview have played ball in protecting the department at his suggestion.

He also would know that since this is a HUGE deal for the police department, that both of these men would be watching the interview. One might assume he saw them and for expediency they left that out. But in any event, he was speaking to them and not the interviewer when he gave the details of the case.

So using his skills to recognize an opportunity, and realizing that Captain Smith's death would warrant a big deal by the department, it would be logical that they would make Smith the hero.

The comment about it requiring two heroes was a negotiating ploy by Exley to keep quiet.

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Exactly how I've always understood this scene. Well done. –  CGCampbell Jul 1 at 15:22
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