For two decades, Roman Polanski's 1974 neo-noir Chinatown looked like the last word on crime and corruption in sun-baked Los Angeles. James Ellroy's sprawling crime novel L.A. Confidential certainly had the raw meat of a worthy cinematic heir, but no one would argue that writer-director Curtis Hanson had the odds stacked against him in transforming the novel into that rarest of birds: a modern cinematic classic. For starters, Hanson's pedestrian resume didn't suggest a guy who would make the best studio release of that year. And few believed in a period crime movie at a time when they seemed to be box office poison (Mulholland Falls, anyone?).
But just as with any classic film, the alchemical reaction of a director and a charmed collaboration of actors, writers, and design artists became the stuff that dreams are made of. Hanson and co-screenwriter Brian Helgeland (who collected Oscars for their work) brilliantly reworked the novel's construction, staying true to its central pillars while still scaling down the overall size. Over studio objections, Hanson wisely stuck to his guns and retained all three of Ellroy's central protagonists from the LAPD: ambitious neophyte detective Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), moody bulldog Bud White (Russell Crowe), and smooth veteran Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey, thinking Dean Martin). Casting two all-but-unknown Aussie actors in the largest roles anchored Hanson's canny approach to grounding the film's reality for an audience.
L.A. Confidential is so rich in part because of Ellroy's keen understanding of the milieu, but mostly due to the complex and fully rounded characters. At the outset of the ever-unfolding plot, the leading men establish themselves as a self-righteous moral hypocrite, a hair-trigger brute, and a selfish, narcissistic slimeball. Whenever the viewer feels ready to embrace or judge one of the characters, Hanson and Helgeland step sideways to reveal another angle. Ultimately, all three redeem themselves by adopting a common goal that exists outside of themselves: to serve justice in a series of interconnected cases that reveal a greater corruption within the police force and the higher ranks of city government.
The central theme, then, is that of L.A.'s seductive façade. The opening montage, narrated with winking gusto by tabloid journo Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), sets the scene: sunny beaches, glittery nightlife, and Hollywood glamour masking an underbelly of sin. Sid pursues juicy "sinnuendo" ("gotcha" stories of celebrity queers, Reds, and potheads) for "Hush Hush" Magazine, a stand-in for the real-life tabloid Confidential. Meanwhile, the Dream Factory tries to stay above the fray, and at ground level, drug dealers and pimps peddle their wares to hopheads and johns: the prostitutes caught up in the murder investigation turn out to be "cut" to resemble movie stars.
The all-natural resemblance of Lynn Bracken (Best Supporting Actress winner Kim Basinger) to Veronica Lake underscores the sad irony of Lynn's existence. Though she plays the sultry femme fatale to most men (including Ed), she takes a risk and reveals herself to Bud, with whom she strikes up a smoldering affair. Pulling the strings of power both legitimate and illegitimate are police Captain Dudley Smith and Lynn's boss Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn), a wolf in millionaire's clothing. In ways large and small, everyone (heroes and villains alike) is angling for a payoff. Because morality is relative and arguably pointless in Ellroy's L.A., the story's late-breaking heroism proves all the more poignant.
The trappings of the story, all false fronts, add considerable texture and thematic interest. The fictionalized "Hush Hush" to "Badge of Honor" (the Dragnet stand-in for which Vincennes consults) share time with real-life characters and events: the LAPD's "Bloody Christmas" fiasco, the opening of the Santa Monica Freeway, and celebrity thug Johnny Stompanato. The satisfyingly complex plot gets jolts of adrenaline from a few expertly staged, heart-stopping shootouts. The work of production designer Jeannine Oppewall, costume designer Ruth Myers, and cinematographer Dante Spinotti is as good as it gets.
But L.A. Confidential is nothing without its brilliant performances, especially by three leads. Though the actors have become familiar, Pearce's lean, hungry Exley and Crowe's vulnerable but self-conscious White still have in their realism an almost documentary impact. Spacey turns in a career-high performance, investing in Vincennes' eyes a deep soulfulness that gradually comes forward and sadly recedes. Hanson's flawless neo-noir (and his winning seriocomic follow-up Wonder Boys) hold out hope that the director may yet bust out with another great picture.
Warner provides a very nice high-def upgrade to L.A. Confidential in a Blu-ray special edition that's mirrored in a DVD reissue. The Blu-ray image significantly improves upon the old DVD and by its nature offers more detail than the new DVD can provide. Aside from an occasional hint of edge enhancement, the picture accurately represents Dante Spinotti's brilliant photography. Because of the source's use of soft lighting and the presence of film grain, the film remains distinct from many of the shiny, sharp offerings on Blu-ray, but that's a good thing: vive le difference. Just as the artful period look of the film gets a proper showcase, the Dolby TrueHD soundtrack handily recreates the theatrical experience, with subtle surround effects punctuated by gut-punches and gunshots.
In addition to a Music-Only Track, Warner throws in a second disc that's a CD Sampler of 6 songs from the film: Johnny Mercer and the Pied Pipers' "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive," Chet Baker's "Look for the Silver Lining," Betty Hutton's "Hit the Road to Dreamland," Kay Starr's "Wheel of Fortune," Jackie Gleason's "But Not for Me," and Dean Martin's "Powder Your Face with Sunshine (Smile! Smile! Smile!)".
An Audio Commentary by critic Andrew Sarris, author James Ellroy, Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Guy Pearce, James Cromwell, costume designer Ruth Myers, David Strathairn, Kim Basinger, screenwriter Brian Helgeland, production designer Jeannine Oppewall, cinematographer Dante Spinotti and Danny DeVito is constructed of bits and pieces, and has some gaps, but this is a nice way to repurpose yet more detailed interview material than you'll find in the fine featurettes: the participants are interesting to a one, though I especially enjoyed the anecdotes and insights of the two once-upon-a-time young Aussies (Crowe nails Ellroy when recounting the edgy phone messages he would receive regularly during production).
Taken together, the four new featurettes add up to a 97-minute documentary. Technically, you can't take them together, as there's no "Play All" option, but these thorough conversations about four aspects of the film do a great job of highlighting what makes the film important and successful. "Whatever You Desire: Making L.A. Confidential" (29:28) finds Hanson, producers Arnon Milchan and Michael Nathanson, Crowe, Pearce, Spacey, Basinger, DeVito, Cromwell, Strathairn, Oppewall, Spinotti, and Myers covering the bases of how the film came together, from script to casting to production.
"Sunlight and Shadow: The Visual Style of L.A. Confidential" (21:02) deals with design theory, covering production design, cinematography, costumes and locations, and the attempt to balance a sense of period reality with the sense of audience comfort and undistracted relatability. Participants include Hanson, Spinotti, Ellroy, Myers, Oppewall, Basinger, Crowe, Pearce, Strathairn, and Spacey.
"A True Ensemble: The Cast of L.A. Confidential" (24:33) runs down the cast and their characters, with Hanson, Nathanson, Milchan, Crowe, Pearce, Spacey, Basinger, Strathairn, DeVito, Cromwell, Ellroy, editor Peter Honess, and Helgeland. Perhaps of most interest is "L.A. Confidential: From Book to Screen Off the Record" (21:07), which takes a look at how Ellroy's massive novel was condensed into a coherent story. We hear from Ellroy, Hanson, Nathanson, Pearce, Helgeland, Crowe, Milchan, and Spacey.
Another very cool new extra is the rare 2000 TV Pilot L.A. Confidential (46:29) starring Keifer Sutherland and with a script by Oscar winner Walon Green (The Wild Bunch, Law & Order). While it's easy to see why this didn't make it onto either HBO or FOX as a miniseries or series, it ahd the makings of, at least, a noble attempt to return to the novel and flesh out the characters at greater length.
After the involving new documentary material, it's a surprise to rediscover how efficiently the 1998 featurette "L.A. Confidential: Off the Record..." (18:46) tells the same story. The comments by the actors are mostly EPK soundbites, but the filmmakers lay out in detail the story of how the unusual project came together, Hanson gives his take on each of the characters, and the featurette ends with a summation of the film's themes. Even after everything else, this remains worth a look. Participants include Hanson, Ellroy, executive producer David L. Wolper, Helgeland, Basinger, Milchan, Pearce, Crowe, Spacey, and DeVito. This is also the only place on the disc to catch electrifying glimpses of the screen tests for Crowe and Pearce.
"Photo Pitch" (8:21) returns from the original DVD. It's an essential bonus feature, with Hanson recreating (from the floor of the Formosa restaurant) his original photo-assisted pitch to Milchan. Hanson would repeat the pitch to his design team and actors.
Returning from the original DVD is a cool feature called The L.A. of L.A. Confidential, an interactive map tour of 15 locations, each with a short video segment narrated by Hanson, who briefly explains each spot's history, location, and use. Last up is a selection of five Trailers & TV Spots. This modern classic deserves a place of honor by any home theatre, and Blu-ray offers the optimal presentation.
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