Chinatown is pretty much considered the gold standard of neo-noir. Many a flick has been compared to that 1974 masterpiece, but precious few have been fit to so much as hold its fedora. L.A. Confidential is the notable exception, and now this exquisitely crafted period-thriller finally gets its due in a top-shelf two-disc special edition.
Based on a sprawling crime novel by James Ellroy, 1997's L.A. Confidential is as taut, smart and suspenseful as they come. Its mystery is clever, full of twists and (maybe best of all) cleanly logical. Its moral universe is murky but riveting. Its action sequences are big, ferocious edge-of-your-seat stuff. In short, L.A. Confidential is close to flawless. It's one of the best films of the Nineties and an obvious labor of love for writer-director Curtis Hanson and co-writer Brian Helgeland, a pair of Ellroy buffs who spent two years paring down the 1990 book into a narrative fit for the big screen.
"Welcome to Los Angeles," purrs sleazy tabloid writer Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito) in an opening voiceover monologue that catapults us into the L.A. of the early 1950s, a la-la land where the lines between the good guys and bad guys are nearly indistinguishable. Hoodlums rub elbows with movie stars. Cops behave like hoodlums. Perhaps the moral bankruptcy is an inevitable byproduct of a place that trades on illusion and fantasy.
In this tableau, L.A. Confidential gives us three (count 'em, three) cops as central characters. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is corrupt and thuggish, but he has a particular aversion to the brutalization of women. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is sharp, ambitious and smugly assured of his superiority. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is corrupted by the minor celebrity he has earned as a technical consultant on a "Dragnet"-styled television show called "Badge of Honor." The three men find their lives entwined after an ugly brawl erupts in the LAPD on Christmas Eve, an incident dubbed "Bloody Christmas" in newspaper headlines.
A subsequent internal affairs inquiry needs someone to testify against the cops who instigated the fight. Exley obliges in exchange for a promotion to detective in the homicide division. The investigation also ensnares Jack, who is coerced to snitch out a few fellow officers when he is threatened with being yanked off the TV gig.
The reverberations of "Bloody Christmas" barely have time to settle before another episode sets the city on edge. Six people are slaughtered in a downtown diner. Among the victims is a young hooker (Amber Smith) and a crooked cop (and Bud White's ex-partner) named Dick Stensland (Graham Beckel).
The so-called Nite Owl massacre ultimately takes Bud, Ed and Jack on an odyssey through a Los Angeles underworld that includes Hudgens' Hush-Huh magazine (a thinly veiled version of the real-life Confidential rag), a ring of call girls cut to look like movie starlets and a gangland war to fill the leadership void left by imprisoned crime boss Mickey Cohen.
In the DVD's copious bonus material, Hanson says he was drawn to the story's interplay between image and reality. Indeed, L.A. Confidential has fun piercing that dichotomy. The Los Angeles of the film sells itself as a sun-drenched paradise, but the reality is far different. It is a city in which criminality seemingly permeates every strata of society, a place so sinister that the investigation of one crime (the Nite Owl slayings) can inadvertently stumble into an entirely unrelated kidnapping and rape. Illusion is so deeply entrenched that high-priced whores undergo plastic surgery to pass themselves off as celebrities, a phenomenon that leads Ed Exley to mistake Lana Turner -- who famously dated mobster Johnny Stompanato -- as a high-priced whore. It is no accidental irony that the film's most emotionally grounded character, Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), is a call girl who markets herself as a Veronica Lake look-alike.
But Hanson and Helgeland mine for more than irony. The full-blooded characterizations of Bud White, Ed Exley and Jack Vincennes have depth and maturity, elevating L.A. Confidential above so many hardboiled wannabe pictures. The three protagonists are not your typical heroes; in less-complicated films, their considerable flaws -- White's brutality, Exley's arrogance, Jack's corruption -- would render them villains. And yet the writing and acting here is so masterful, so precise, that audience sympathies ebb and flow in a natural progression. It is an astounding feat. Never does L.A. Confidential feel clumsy.
It helps, too, that nearly every production aspect feels spot-on, from the crisp visuals of ace director of photography Dante Spinotti to the lush music score of Jerry Goldsmith (who evokes memories of his bravura work on Chinatown). The cast is excellent top to bottom, with great supporting work from DeVito, David Strathairn and James Cromwell.
Such alchemy was not lost on critics. L.A. Confidential earned a trifecta of best motion picture and director honors from the New York Film Critics Circle, Los Angeles Film Critics Association and National Board of Review. Despite such acclaim, the pic played second-fiddle to Titanic at that year's Academy Awards. Nevertheless, Hanson and Helgeland picked up Oscars for best screenplay adaptation and Kim Basinger nabbed the statuette for supporting actress.
The two-disc special edition is housed in a plastic keepcase with a swinging tray. A slipcover boasts the same artwork as the case. Also included is a six-track CD.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1, the picture improves on what was a very good 1998 DVD incarnation. Details and colors are sharp and rich, although a number of scenes are beset by slight noise and grain.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is (alliteration alert!) clear, crisp and consistent, with no discernible drop-out or distortion. There is effective use of sound separation, especially in scenes punctuated by gunfire.
An embarrassment of riches, with the bulk of bonus material found on Disc Two.
Disc One is anchored by a commentary featuring Ellroy, Crowe, Pearce, Spacey, Basinger, DeVito, Helgeland, Spinotti, Cromwell, Strathairn, production designer Jeanne Oppewall, costume designer Ruth Myers and film critic Andrew Sarris. It's one of those non-scene-specific commentaries that string together anecdotes and asides that have been recorded separately. Much of it is interesting, but it feels disjointed and a little cold.
The first disc also includes a music-only track, as well as trailers and TV spots.
Disc Two has some new featurettes in addition to a few holdovers from the movie's previous incarnation on DVD. First up, the new stuff:
Whatever You Desire: Making L.A. Confidential is a meaty kitchen-sink retrospective boasting interviews with cast and crew. A lot of material is covered, from Hanson's initial search for a studio to various production aspects, such as casting, set design and cinematography.
The 21-minute Sunlight and Shadow: The Visual Style of L.A. Confidential details the look of the picture with insights from Hanson, Spinotti and others. The filmmakers discuss how they were determined that L.A. Confidential not mimic the dark stylistics of film noir, opting instead for sharp and clear images that would draw moviegoers into the story.
In A True Ensemble: The Cast of L.A. Confidential (24:32), the movie's actors ponder their characters. Hanson says he was determined to ignore studio qualms about the then-unknown Australians playing Bud White and Ed Exley. The director contended -- correctly, it turned out -- that marketable movie stars would have made it tougher for audience sympathies to evolve as they do.
Among the better bonuses is L.A. Confidential: From Book to Screen. The 21-minute, six-second mini-doc features interviews with Ellroy, Hanson and Helgeland for a thorough explanation of how the novel was condensed and reworked for the big screen.
The remaining featurettes are leftovers from the '98 DVD release. Off the Record (18:49) is a comprehensive making-of overview with extended interviews of Hanson, Helgeland, Ellroy, producer Arnon Milchan and cast members. While much of the material turns up again in the updated Whatever You Desire, there is still plenty of worthwhile information here, including some audition footage of Crowe and Pearce.
Photo Pitch is fascinating. When Hanson was seeking financing, his pitch to would-be producers consisted of 15 postcards and still photos from the 1940s and '50s. In this eight-minute, 24-second piece, the director expands on each image and what he hoped to convey about the movie that he had mapped out in his head.
The L.A. of L.A. Confidential is an interactive map of locations used in the story. Click on a specific locale, and up pops a movie clip with explanatory voiceover from Curtis Hanson.
Still not satisfied? Rounding things out is L.A. Confidential, a 45-minute TV pilot from 2003 starring Keifer Sutherland, Josh Hopkins and David Conrad. The series was never picked up.
Also included is a nifty six-track CD of music from the soundtrack:
Johnny Mercer, "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive"
Chet Baker, "Look for the Silver Lining"
Betty Hutton, "Hit the Road to Dreamland"
Kay Starr "Wheel of Fortune"
Dean Martin, "Powder Your Face with Sunshine"
Jackie Gleason, "But Not for Me"
Truly a modern-day masterpiece, L.A. Confidential has it all: muscular script and direction, tremendous acting and a strong sense of place and time. Although the 1998 DVD was among the better packages of its time, this bonus-packed special edition gives the movie its due - so much so that I believe it worthy of the DVD Talk Collector Series.