Russell Crowe as Wendell “Bud” White, tough yet justice-minded LAPD plainclothes officer
Los Angeles, Christmas Eve 1952
Film: L.A. Confidential
Release Date: September 19, 1997
Director: Curtis Hanson
Costume Designer: Ruth Myers
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, L.A. Confidential chronicles a faction of cops and crooks in the City of Angels through the early 1950s, with Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson’s Oscar-winning screenplay adapted from James Ellroy’s sprawling pulp novel of the same name. The movie begins on Christmas Eve 1952, based on a real-life episode known as “Bloody Christmas” when seven prisoners were abused while in LAPD custody on the morning of December 25, 1951, resulting in a wave of indictments, suspensions, and transfers of the more than four dozen officers involved.
“You’re like Santa Claus with that list, Bud… ‘cept everyone on it’s been naughty,” observes corrupt LAPD Sergeant Dick Stensland (Graham Beckel) of his crusading partner, Officer Wendell “Bud” White, who watches an abusive husband ruin his wife’s Christmas through gritted teeth.
Lounging in the backseat of their unmarked Chevy with a dwindling flask of Old Crow, Stens insists that Bud leave it be—after all, they’ve been assigned the task of picking up booze for their precinct’s Christmas party—but the sound of breaking glass sends Bud into action. When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter, the abusive husband sprang from his wife to see what was the matter… only for a buzz-cutted “ghost of Christmas past” to swiftly incapacitate the parole-breaking abuser and give the maltreated wife a few bucks to find refuge with a neighbor.
After stopping at a liquor store for Stensland’s prescribed errand, Bud’s protective instinct kicks in yet again when he spies a bruised woman in the backseat of a parked sedan with a debonair pimp (David Strathairn) and armed driver (Darrell Sandeen). The situation is soon resolved by the glamorous Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), whom Bud had encountered inside the store moments earlier.
Bud: Merry Christmas.
Lynn: Merry Christmas to you, officer.
Bud: That obvious, huh?
Lynn: It’s practically stamped on your forehead.
In the midst of hunting-and-pecking his way through a typewritten report back at the station, White’s troubles are compounded when he’s recruited by smooth-talking Sergeant Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) to restrain his drunken partner from brawling with a group of Mexican-American prisoners… only for one of the men to make an unfortunate comment disparaging Bud’s deceased mother, in turn inviting Bud’s famous fists to join the brawl soon to be dubbed “Bloody Christmas” by the press.
What’d He Wear?
Scored by Johnny Mercer’s exuberant “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive”, L.A. Confidential‘s opening credits reinforce the conspicuous prosperity in postwar America, a prosperity reflected in exaggerated and excess tailoring like the late ’40s “Bold Look” described by Esquire, though not everyone strolled into the fabulous fifties wearing roomy suits with buttressed shoulders and broad lapels. That style may work for Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), the celebrity cop who revels his role in the public eye, but it wouldn’t suit Bud White, whose approach to dressing is as simple as his mindset.
With a closet mostly limited to brown sport jackets, white short-sleeved shirts, and complementary slacks, Bud could easily wake up and pull any combination of jacket, shirt, tie, and trousers together without having to think about it… for as Bud is often informed by superiors, thinking ain’t his strong suit. And speaking of suits…
Bud’s screen-worn wardrobe consists entirely of brown sport jackets, some detailed with the mini-checks and atomic flecks popular through the 1950s. At the start of the movie on Christmas Eve, we’re introduced to the hard-nosed officer wearing a sports coat constructed of a solid dark brown flannel twill, devoid of any contrasting patterns or weaves.
The single-breasted jacket has notch lapels of moderate width but with small notches, rolling to a two-button front that Bud always wears open, allowing quick access to his belt-holstered Colt Detective Special. The sloped shoulders extend broadly out to the roped sleeveheads. Though shaped with front darts, the ventless jacket still presents a fashionably full fit. It is additionally detailed with a welted breast pocket and straight jetted hip pockets.
Bud invariably wears white short-sleeved shirts and ties, a utilitarian choice likely more comfortable in the L.A. climate (even in December!) despite its unfashionability often likened to high school principals… as well as the jacket sleeves’ exposure to body oils on the forearms, though Bud doesn’t seem the type to care too much about his clothes.
This shirt features the puckered white-on-white suggesting the light-wearing seersucker cotton, adding a degree of complexity to the shirt that also hints at how Bud may have more beneath the surface than being the “mindless thug” dismissed by Ed Exley (Guy Pearce). As well as his usual notched short sleeves, the shirt has a narrow spread collar, plain front (no placket), and breast pocket.
Held in place by a textured silver bar, Bud’s silk tie is patterned in a low-contrast striped tie that repeats a gradating series of burgundy, forest-green, brown, and tan stripes, all following an “uphill” diagonal direction. (I believe Bud re-wears the tie but with a different jacket about a month later when he finds a corpse in the crawlspace under the Lefferts home.)
Bud wears fashionably roomy slacks in a very neutral medium shade of taupe-brown with double reverse-facing pleats, side pockets, and narrow turn-ups (cuffs) on the bottoms. He holds up the trousers with a black leather belt that closes through a silver-toned single-prong buckle. The belt coordinates to the shoe leather of his usual black calf apron-toe oxfords, worn here with chocolate-brown cotton lisle socks.
To me, Bud’s age, appearance, and attitude always suggested military experience, though there’s no evidence supporting this in the movie or—from what I understand, having yet to read it—James Ellroy’s source novel. That said, he appears to wear an old-fashioned trench watch, an early transitional prototype for wristwatches that was developed during World War I to meet the specificity of timekeeping needs in combat. Worn by many nation’s militaries during the conflict, trench watches were essentially pocket watches—with or without the covers—but converted to be worn on the wrist with the addition of wire lugs to support a strap.
Whether purchased secondhand or passed down through the family (likely not from his murderous brute of a father), Bud’s round brass-finished watch has a large prominent crown and black dial with a sub-dial at the 6:00 position and luminous off-white Arabic numeral hour markers. The telltale wired lugs secure to two small leather tabs on a brown leather Bund strap, the two-piece bracelet developed to protect German aviators’ wrists from their metal watch-backs in extreme flying conditions by completely covering the wrist in a swath of leather and strapping the watch atop it.
What to Listen to
The liquor store where Bud meets Lynn and purchases the booze for the holiday party plays Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters’ version of “Mele Kalikimaka”. Recorded in 1950, this Hawaiian-themed Christmas song would have still been relatively new at the time that L.A. Confidential was set.
Robert Alex Anderson had been inspired to write the song in 1949 while working at the Hawaiian corporation Von Hamm-Young when a stenographer asked him where there were no original Hawaiian Christmas songs. Borrowing a decades-old loan-phrase from English, Anderson set out to rectify the stenographer’s concern with a catchy tune that so impressed his occasional golfing buddy Bing Crosby that Bing, in turn, surprised his pal by recording the now-hit single for Decca with the Andrews Sisters.
Covered by artists like the Beach Boys, Jimmy Buffett, and Kacey Musgraves, “Mele Kalikimaka” remains a holiday favorite more than a half-century later, though Crosby’s rendition remains the gold standard, having also featured in movies like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) and Catch Me If You Can (2002).
Looking for more L.A. Confidential-inspired Christmas music? Though none of his holiday jams are on the soundtrack, the movie does feature tracks by jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, who was born on this day in 1929. You can find Baker’s recordings of “The Christmas Song”, “The First Noel”, “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”, “Silent Night”, “Winter Wonderland”, and my personal favorite yuletide standard “The Christmas Waltz” all available among samplings of his work.
How to Get the Look
Bud White is a simple cop and a simple dresser, but—just like the character himself—looking deeper at his wardrobe can reveal unique details like his old-fashioned trench watch, gradating tie stripes, or the subtle puckered stripe of his seersucker shirts that suggest more of a distinctive texture than initially apparent.
- Dark brown flannel twill single-breasted 2-button sport jacket with notch lapels, welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and ventless back
- White-on-white seersucker striped cotton short-sleeved shirt with narrow spread collar, plain front, and breast pocket
- Burgundy, forest-green, brown, and tan gradient-striped tie
- Textured silver tie bar
- Taupe double reverse-pleated trousers with belt loops, side pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Black leather belt with silver-toned single-prong buckle
- Black calf leather apron-toe oxford shoes
- Chocolate-brown cotton lisle socks
- Brass-finished trench watch with black dial (with luminous Arabic numeral hour markers and 6:00 sub-dial) on brown leather Bund strap
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
Why don’t you dance with a man for a change?