By Leah Rozen
September 29, 1997 12:00 PM

Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito

Add the atmospheric L.A. Confidential to that mighty short list you’re keeping of must-see current movies. Like Chinatown before it, this twisted and twisting tale of cops, crime, corruption and hangers-on in 1950s Los Angeles artfully evokes the flip side of the City of Dreams. The sun may shine brightly in Confidential’s L.A., but darkness pervades the souls of its inhabitants.

Directed with bracing assurance by Curtis Hanson (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle) and based on a novel of the same name by James Ellroy, L.A. Confidential is about two rival police detectives trying to solve the same crime. The first cop is an ambitious straight arrow (Pearce) and the second (Crowe) a hot-tempered veteran. As they dig deeper into what at first seems a simple shootout in a downtown diner, they discover links to a pricey call-girl ring (in which the prostitutes are look-alikes for Hollywood stars), planted evidence and dirty scheming at the top. The story goes on a little long and becomes a tad convoluted, but that doesn’t keep L.A. Confidential from being an immensely satisfying movie.

The talented ensemble cast is led by Australian actors Pearce (Priscilla: Queen of the Desert) and Crowe (The Quick and the Dead). The latter has the showier role, but both men are terrific. Spacey is a slimy pleasure as a preening fellow officer eager to get his name in the papers, and Basinger, portraying an emotionally vulnerable call girl who could double for movie star Veronica Lake, is actually darn good here—a first. In showy supporting roles, DeVito and David Strathairn both register strongly. (R)