Guy Pearce as Ed Exley, by-the-book LAPD detective-lieutenant
Los Angeles, Spring 1953
Film: L.A. Confidential
Release Date: September 19, 1997
Director: Curtis Hanson
Costume Designer: Ruth Myers
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Today is the 25th anniversary since the official release of L.A. Confidential, which premiered at Cannes in May 1997 but would finally hit theaters four months later on September 19, introducing audiences to James Ellroy’s murky world of corrupt cops, crooks, celebrities, and courtesans in ’50s Los Angeles.
Among its ensemble cast, L.A. Confidential centers around three LAPD officers: the tough but unsophisticated “Bud” White (Russell Crowe), the smooth yet morally compromised Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), and the ambitious and stubbornly upright Ed Exley (Guy Pearce). Not to spoil too much of the plot for those who have missed this gem in the last quarter-century, but one of my favorite Letterboxd reviews—submitted by user David Sims—compares the movie to The Wizard of Oz as “Bud gets a brain, Jack gets a heart, Ed gets the courage.”
Ed’s journey to Oz begins after the 30-year-old patrol sergeant aces his lieutenant’s exam and elects—despite the urging of his superior, Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell)—to join the detective bureau… leveraging his willingness to condemn crooked fellow officers to get what he wants.
The newly promoted Detective-Lieutenant Exley’s first day at the new gig begins with a rough start, running into one of those very officers—the doomed Dick Stensland (Graham Beckel)—who treats him and his box of personal effects to some middle-school bullying before Ed settles into his new desk. Hungry for success, Ed finds himself alone in the bureau office when a late-night call comes in for a homicide at the Nite Owl Coffee Shop, a bloody massacre that includes the disgraced Stensland among its half-dozen victims in a scene gruesome enough to jar even the otherwise unflappable Ed.
Though he’d built his career as a by-the-book desk jockey, fate finds Exley delivering 12-gauge justice on the trio suspected of the massacre, though “Shotgun Ed” himself remains unsure that his pump-action punishment was rightly placed. Finding surprisingly allies first in the disillusioned Sergeant Vincennes and then the impulsive Officer White, Ed embarks on a private investigation that leads him down a yellow brick road paved with drugs and deceit.
Exley: If we’re going to figure this out, we need to work together.
White: The Nite Owl made you. You want to tear all that down?
Exley: With a wrecking ball. You want to help me swing it?
Exley and White’s tenuous teaming leads them down a corpse-strewn noir alley that ends at the ironically named Victory Motel, a dilapidated series of motor cabins where White had brutally served on Smith’s “not-so-welcome wagon.” Sensing the trap closing in, the duo take up arms and hole up in one of the cabins, where they cover the windows, load their guns, and prepare for their potential fate.
Exley: All I ever wanted was to measure up to my father.
White: Now’s your chance… he died in the line of duty, didn’t he?
What’d He Wear?
Of L.A. Confidential‘s trio of primary leads, Ed Exley displays the most sophisticated and timeless sense of dress. Often clad in flashy silks and fashionable atomic fleck jackets, Jack Vincennes is arguably the trendiest of the trio—hence getting the majority of BAMF Style attention prior to today—while Bud White, per his nature, looks uncomplicated and grounded in his off-the-rack brown separates.
Comparatively, Exley looks more uptight when dressed for his first day in “the bureau” in his tweed jacket, trad striped tie, sweater vest, and—after his fellow officers leave—the glasses that both Smith and the chief had advised he stop wearing, and which make Vincennes roll his eyes when Ed fumbles for them as they prepare for an armed raid.
On the 20th anniversary of L.A. Confidential‘s release, costume designer Ruth Myers recalled to Entertainment Weekly how she, Guy Pearce, and director Curtis Hanson had went through 185 similar pairs, ultimately choosing the semi-rimmed pair with gold wire frames as “they were slightly less in-your-face… a really good analogy for his character—the thin wire, rather determined, not quite fashionable enough.”
Myers further explained her intended color palette for each character’s costumes, specifically the grays and blues of Ed Exley’s business-wear that reflect “a kind of coldness there and also a uniformity.”
One of Exley’s most repeated pieces—and worn for the standout scenes of his discovering the Nite Owl massacre and ultimately fighting off assassins with White at the Victory Motel—is a single-breasted sports coat made from a mixed Donegal tweed that presents an overall gray-blue finish. Originally woven in County Donegal, Ireland, Donegal tweed is characterized by irregular colorful slubs against what Sir Hardy Amies described as “a rough, ‘knobbly’ surface” in The ABCs of Men’s Fashion, continuing to describe the cloth as:
… often woven with dark and light flecks of the same color, or with specks of different bright colors, making what is generally called a “pepper-and-salt” pattern. In the combing of the yarn, small flecks of colored yarn are literally dropped in at random. When the yarn is finished, it is given a slight twist to hold these flecks of color in place.
It’s a standard practice for costume departments to produce multiple versions of clothing worn by a movie’s principal actors, and especially the damage incurred by Exley’s tweed jacket at the Victory Motel would require several almost identical tweed jackets in rotation. Several undamaged jackets have survived the production, as visible by a 2016 Nate D. Sanders auction and a Worthpoint display, both indicating jackets worn during similar scenes, though differences in the slub patterns illustrate that more than one jacket was used. Both jackets include tags from Western Costume Co., the venerated supplier for countless Hollywood productions since its inception in 1912.
Echoing his rigid personality, Exley’s clothing is tailored with more structure than the fashionably loose cuts of the ’50s worn by some of his colleagues, specifically Vincennes. The two-button Donegal tweed jacket has straight shoulders that slope down to heavily roped sleeveheads, with the ventless jacket itself shaped with front darts in opposition to the classic “shapeless” sack suits popularized as an American favorite by outfitters like Brooks Brothers in the early 20th century. The sleeves are finished with three-button “kissing” cuffs, and the jacket’s casual nature is further signified by patch pockets over the left breast and hips, a sportier alternative to the traditional set-in pockets on business suits.
Of the principal leads, Exley is the most reluctant to shed his jacket to work in his shirt sleeves, making the only significant exception when he’s still dressed with the intermediate layer of a sweater vest.
Let’s address the sartorial elephant in the room and point out that sticks in the mud like Ed Exley are among the type who have contributed to sweater vests being disparaged as “uncool”, an unfortunate reputation not helped by wearers like Rick Santorum, Jim Tressel, and Steve Urkel. Despite this, many are seeking to salvage respect for the sleeveless sweater, such as style writer Tracy Moore, who suggested in an August 2018 issue of MEL Magazine that the sweater vest is merely “misunderstood”, citing BAMF Style icons like “Dirty Harry” Callahan (Clint Eastwood) and Sidney Reilly (Sam Neill) in its favor.
The history of sweater vests could also help their case, originated among the most widely accepted of “cool” pursuits—sports—beginning with rowers in the 1880s before extending into the athletic worlds of football and golf, at least remaining a staple garment of the latter.
Of course, a man by Ed Exley—driven by practicality and decorum—would appreciate the flexibility that sweater vests could offer when dressing for the office, specifically the shifting weather patterns of Los Angeles in late January, where highs of 86°F could be countered by lows of 43°F, as they were during the last week of January 1953, when this sequence takes place. If Exley’s going to remove his jacket (on his first day, no less!), he’s still going to look more presentable than his colleagues in his sweater vest, made of navy-blue widely ribbed-knit wool. Under his already warm tweed sports coat, it offers an added layer of warmth without the confinement of sleeves which could both overheat while also preventing comfort in action, should Lieutenant Exley be called into duty.
On his first day, Exley wears a white nailhead-woven cotton shirt with his usual semi-spread collar, front placket, and squared button cuffs. After taking the call for the Nite Owl massacre but before arriving at the morgue, Exley has changed into a similar shirt but made of pale-blue cotton.
Through the sequence, he wears one of the most traditional ties, patterned in alternating navy and crimson block stripes that follow the classically English “uphill” direction (rather than the American “downhill” stripe.) Each block stripe is separated by a narrow trio of crimson, white, and navy stripes. Exley regularly secures his ties with a straight gold-plated tie bar with a matte finish and a center left smooth, presumably for the addition of the wearer’s monogram.
Two months after the Nite Owl killings, Exley again pulls on the Donegal tweed jacket he had worn when he discovered them. (Historical records for March 1953 show that the weather didn’t differ much from January, making the same attire appropriate.)
Rather than the striped tie, he nows wears a dark slate-blue silk tie, patterned with a field of navy dots though the most visible print is the brighter white dots, spaced apart like stars against a night sky (though more consistently organized as every other row of stripes seem to align vertically.)
Exley wears dark navy wool double reverse-pleated trousers, a shade darker than his blue sweater vest. The trousers rise to Guy Pearce’s natural waist, where the belt loops are slightly dropped in the fashion of trousers commonly produced through the early ’50s, as seen in this Worthpoint listing. These trousers also have side pockets with vertical, on-seam entries, and the bottoms are finished with turn-ups (cuffs) with a full break.
Exley carries his LAPD-issued Colt Detective Special in a dark brown leather belt holster, with a retention strap over the back holding the revolver in place. He wears the holster on the left side of his waist, butt-forward, for a right-handed cross-draw.
Consistent with his cool tones and conservative shades of gray and blue, Ed wears smart black calf derby shoes, detailed with a straight toe-cap. He further avoids flash by wearing dark socks, likely either navy or black.
L.A. Confidential delivers for watch aficionados with several shots of the timepieces dressing the wrists of our protagonists, from Jack Vincennes’ distinctively strapped Bulova Surf King to Ed Exley’s stainless Rolex Precision. Chris Petersen neatly described the watch for Oracle Time as “a nice, minimal 1940s-style Rolex Bubbleback, complete with bombe lugs and lovely silver-white dial,” though suspiciously powered by a quartz movement rather than the era-correct automatic movement, suggesting a prop watch rather than a genuine vintage timepiece.
Petersen suggests the watch was an heirloom inherited from Exley’s famous father, though I can’t find any indication of such in the script or finished film, instead supposing that the pristine-looking watch was a gift to himself to celebrate his promotion. Indeed, Rolex was a hot horological commodity by the early 1950s, fresh off the innovative introduction of the Datejust in 1945 and looking ahead to the subsequent rollout of the iconic Submariner dive watch in 1953, followed by the pilot-favorite GMT Master in ’54 and the elegant Day-Date in ’56.
Exley’s stainless steel Rolex has a recessed fixed bezel encircling the silver-white dial, detailed with 12, 3, 6, and 9 o’clock numbered in silver while the other hour markers are non-numeric. There are two silver hands for the hours and minutes, with a separate 60-second sub-register above the 6:00 position. The watch secures to Exley’s wrist on a silver expanding bracelet comprised of center-ridged links.
I’ll save any further detective work for horologists better informed than I, though the plain “Rolex” marking on the dial (with the five-pronged crown logo that had been in use since the early 1930s) suggests that the watch also lacks the brand’s venerated waterproof “Oyster” case as it would otherwise be marked as such.
Colt Detective Special
L.A. Confidential presents the appropriately named Colt Detective Special as the designated sidearm of most its plainclothes gumshoes, specifically Ed Exley and Bud White, with Ed even briefly disarming the latter of his own when they two scuffle in the records room. (Deviations from the Detective Special users include the flashy Jack Vincennes, who likely chose a pearl-gripped Colt Commander to better match his image, and Captain Dudley Smith, of whom Freud might have some comment about his need for a longer-barreled Smith & Wesson revolver.)
Colt introduced the Detective Special in 1927, responding to an overall need for policemen to carry easily concealed handguns that were still reliable and relatively powerful. Up until then, police seeking “belly guns” would either use shorter-barreled variants of the Smith & Wesson .38 Hand Ejector (later known as the “Model 10”) or the smaller-framed Colt Police Positive, or they would revert to increasingly obsolete sidearms like the British Bulldog.
With its “snub-nose” two-inch barrel (that retained a relatively aimable front sight) and a six-round cylinder of the trusted .38 Special round that Smith & Wesson had pioneered around the turn of the 20th century, the Colt Detective Special marked an influential trend for concealed firearms that would appeal not just to cops but also civilians and criminals.
By the early 1950s, Colt was finding newfound competition in the market for .38 Special “belly guns”, specifically after Smith & Wesson introduced the five-shot Chiefs Special (soon to be re-designated the “Model 36”) at the 1950 convention for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Still, the Detective Special’s extra sixth round in the cylinder gave it a capacity-driven edge over the Smith & Wesson.
Ed Exley would surely appreciate having the additional round in the cylinder while he and Bud White battled Dudley Smith’s army of hired goons and corrupt cops at the Victory Motel, though Exley also balanced being outgunned by arming himself with a secondary weapon, White’s M1911A1. The squared butt of Exley’s Detective Special dates it as an early model as Colt began phasing out the square butts through the ’40s in favor of the rounded grips introduced in 1933.
As Exley and White realize their meeting at the Victory Motel is a trap intended to kill them, White retrieves a Colt M1911A1 Government semi-automatic pistol from his Chevy and generously tosses it—and an extra magazine—to Exley, choosing instead to arm himself primarily with a shotgun for the coming battle.
Primarily chambered for the powerful .45 ACP round, the single-action M1911A1 (and its John Browning-designed predecessor, the M1911), had served as the U.S. military’s service pistol almost from the time of its inception. The film never comments on if Bud White had served during World War II, but this could explain his familiarity and ultimate possession of an M1911A1, though the stamped text “COLT’S GOVERNMENT MODEL” on the right side of the slide implies a commercial variant.
As with the Smith & Wesson .32 Hand Ejector revolver that White had previously used to secure evidence against a rapist, there appears to be tape around the grips to presumably avoid leaving fingerprints, suggesting that White would consider this to be a relatively expendable piece kept for the purpose of planting on a suspect. (Alternatively, the grips could be cracked or broken, requiring some field dressing to keep the gun more practically functional.)
Ultimately, in the end, it’s yet again an Ithaca 37 that “Shotgun Ed” uses to get justice, this time more decidedly. This pump-action shotgun was designed in the 1930s, inspired by a patent by the late John Browning that incorporated a novel loading/ejection port on the underside of frame, leaving the sides unexposed to the elements.
Production had been several years in the making as the Ithaca Gun Company sought for several patents to expire before producing what they hoped would be a worthy competitor to the Winchester Model 1912 shotgun. The Great Depression and coming war made the late 1930s a difficult time for Ithaca to introduce a new sporting firearm, so the New York-based company kept the lights on during World War II by producing M1911 pistols and M3 grease guns for the military, though the Ithaca 37 would see degrees of military usage throughout the war as well as in Korea and especially Vietnam.
After the Allies won the war, Ithaca resumed production of the Model 37 and ultimately won the shotgun wars, remaining the only pre-World War II shotgun still in production with more than two million models manufactured and indeed surpassing the Winchester Model 1912 for the longest pump-action shotgun production run in history. Its almost-ubiquitous use by the LAPD in L.A. Confidential is rooted in history, as the NYPD and LAPD were the largest users of the Ithaca 37 outside the military, though Ithaca Gun Co. wouldn’t formally enter the law enforcement market until 1962 when it introduced two shotguns uniquely suited for police usage.
How to Get the Look
Less a fashion plate than his colleagues, Ed Exley’s sartorial sensibilities reflect his own practical nature as he dresses in a manner that outlasts the film’s era as tweed jackets and striped ties have yet to fall out of style… though YMMV when it comes to sweater vests.
- Gray-blue mixed Donegal tweed single-breasted 2-button sport jacket with notch lapels, patch breast pocket, patch hip pockets, “kissing” 3-button cuffs, and ventless back
- White or pale-blue nailhead-woven cotton shirt with semi-spread collar, front placket, and squared button cuffs
- Navy-and-crimson block-striped tie or dark slate-blue dotted silk tie
- Navy ribbed-knit wool sweater vest
- Dark navy wool double reverse-pleated trousers with dropped belt loops, on-seam side pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Black leather belt
- Black calf leather cap-toe derby shoes
- Dark navy socks
- Dark brown leather cross-draw belt holster with snap-fastened retention strap
- Gold wire semi-rimmed glasses
- Stainless steel vintage Rolex Precision watch with round silver-white dial (and 6:00 sub-dial) on stainless expanding band
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
I’ve not yet read James Ellroy’s source novel (though I hope to change that soon!), but I’ve heard that this is one of the best book-to-movie adaptations, distilling the sprawling and complicated plot into something concise enough to be told over the course of two hours but retaining the spirit of Ellroy’s original narrative.
A hero… in a situation like this, you’re going to need more than one.