An interesting, and dangerous, application of the prisoner's dilemma

Directed by Curtis Hunson - 1997 - Usa - 138 min

L.A. Confidential

2022 October 12 | by Arduino Mancini Cryme and Thriller - Game theory - Stratagems

Do you know the prisoner’s dilemma? This film will help me present it to you: but first, let me tell you a few words about the plot.

The film is based on the homonymous novel by James Ellroy, and like the book is inspired by Bloody Christmas, the beating of seven men by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department on December 25, 1951; a beating that cost five Latinos and two whites broken bones or crushed organs. Following an investigation that followed pressure from the Mexican-American community, eight police officers were indicted for assault, while several dozen were transferred and/or suspended.

The film is set in Los Angeles in the early 1950s; the urge for fun and business dominates in the city, to which the burgeoning popularity of TV contributes.

Three cops, the ambitious Ed Exley, the lovable Jack Vincennes, and the naive Bud White, try different ways to make careers and achieve personal success.

Jack arranges spectacular arrests of showbiz personalities on behalf of Sid Hudgens, editor of the tabloid newspaper “Hush Hush.”

Ed, the incorruptible policeman who believes that people who do wrong must pay, reports the excesses of violence by some of his colleagues on Christmas night and gets a promotion.

Bud, is confronted with the death of his colleague who has just been sent into early retirement and begins a close investigation that eventually uncovers the criminal plots that link criminals to law enforcement.

Also acting as a go-between is Lynn, a girl who resembles Veronica Lake and belongs to a stable of actress lookalikes headed by Pierce Patchett, owner of a club with high-class prostitutes, drugs and “anything you want.”

As the investigation continues and the circle tightens:  Ed and Bud are confronted with an unexpected truth…

Now watch the trailer, then I will tell you more about the prisoner’s dilemma.



How to watch the film

The Prisoner’s Dilemma was first proposed by Merrill Flood in 1951, and then formalized by Albert W. Tucker.

The name refers to the following situation.

The police capture two criminals; the police officers suspect that they are responsible for a murder, but do not have enough evidence to prove it in court, though they can convict them of a lesser charge (carrying a concealed weapon, for example).

The prisoners are put in separate cells with no way to communicate with one another and each is offered to confess.

If neither prisoner confesses, both will be convicted of the lesser offence and sentenced to a year in prison.

If both confess to murder, both will be sentenced to 5 years.

If, however, one prisoner confesses while the other does not, then the prisoner who confessed will be granted immunity while the prisoner who did not confess will go to jail for 20 years.

What should each prisoner do?

The prisoner’s dilemma represents an emblematic conflict situation that can be referred to in the game theory; in some contexts, similar situations are generated specifically to break alliances between accomplices to serious crimes.

The use of similar kinds of tactics at the investigation stage can be dangerous, especially when acting under the presumption of guilt.

The film gives us a limpid and brutal example of this in the interrogation of two Latino boys: an example of how the presumption of guilt can turn into tragedy.

A case, unfortunately, that is not uncommon.

Do you have any experience with the prisoner’s dilemma?


Kim Basinger, James Cromwell, Russell Crowe, Danny De vito, Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, David Strathairn, Graham Beckel, Paul Guilfoyle, Ron Rifkin

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