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"Off the record, on the Q.T., and very hush-hush."
Deep within the seemingly endless extras packaged on the new Blu-ray release, its cameraman, designers and others proudly assert that Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential does not look like a Film Noir. They're only partially correct. The color and widescreen thriller does not mimic the heavy Germanic style of the 1940s noirs, with their perpetual shadows and ubiquitous Venetian blind effects. However, L.A. Confidential righteously nails the second noir wave of semi-docu police procedural pictures, the tough-guy shows that prevailed in 1953 when James Ellroy's tale is meant to take place. The new featurettes access a number of clips from Crime Wave, a perfect representative of the later non-expressionist noirs.
The Warner Bros' release L.A. Confidential is easily the best American movie of its year and the best crime thriller since 1974's Chinatown. It has plenty of action, intrigue and sex, and a knowing connection with Hollywood culture just before Rock 'n' Roll and teenagers took over. Dante Spinotti's camera moves lovingly through a world of adult vices as they play out in a faded downtown diner, a sex party in the Hollywood Hills and a lonely motel amid a forest of oil wells.
The movie introduced two formidable male stars to a wide audience and cemented the stardom of a third. We must pick and choose between attractive but seriously flawed heroes. Officer Bud White (Russell Crowe in his breakout role) is little more than a thug for Dudley Smith's (James Cromwell) secret torture sessions and yearns for the opportunity to do real police work. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) takes payola to entrap luckless actor hopefuls for muckraking Hush-Hush publisher Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), and feeds his ego on glamorous consultant work for Badge of Honor, a Dragnet-like TV show. Cop's son Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) talks like a Boy Scout but is really a hotshot political player willing to risk his life to gain publicity and rise in the department. L.A. Confidential has open eyes when it comes to the L.A.P.D.'s involvement in the dark side of Los Angeles, a quality denied the Production Code- bound noir originals.
"Something has to be done. But nothing too original, because hey, this is Hollywood!"
In James Ellroy's vision of Los Angeles, nearly everyone has a secret: organized crime, civic corruption, sleazy snoop magazines and exotic prostitution rackets. A notorious true-life elite police detail dubbed The Hat Squad served to 'discourage' criminal outsiders from upsetting the cozy relationship between the police and the entrenched mobsters. It was portrayed in 1995's disappointing Mulholland Falls. L.A. Confidential re-invents the Hat Squad as a secret conspiracy organized by Captain Dudley Smith to take over the vice rackets. L.A.'s growing racial divide is highlighted when Smith's renegade cops scapegoat Mexican- and African-Americans to deflect suspicion from their criminal schemes.
All three of our heroes are active participants in the general corruption. All three are duped into helping execute the black rapists framed by Dudley Smith and his ruthless 'two-man hit teams.' The trio's eventual bonding to defeat the Smith conspiracy changes very little in the department; the openly corrupt institution instead morphs into a modern monolith more adept at hiding its still-substantial flaws. The final scene mentions a new police building under construction away from City Hall, today's Parker Center.
"You'll do as I say and ask no questions. Do you follow my drift?"
Hollywood glamour is a major part of a soured nostalgia evoked by period music, Sid Hudgen's tattletale scandal magazine and brushes with shady celebrities like Lana Turner and Johnny Stompanato. Film Noir 'history' is further referenced by dream girl Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger, winner of a Best Supporting Oscar for the role) and her masquerade as Veronica Lake, specifically the Veronica Lake from This Gun for Hire. The seamy side of tinsel town is represented as well. The Hollywood hopefuls that get off the bus every week fall prey to men like crooked D.A. Ellis Loew (Ron Rifkin). Old Mrs. Leffertz (Gwenda Deacon) agonizes over the identification of her daughter's body, replaying a scene from the classic The Naked City, in which broken-hearted parents moan, "Oh Lord, why couldn't she have been born ugly?"
Meanwhile, L.A.'s future is being decided by media-savvy vice lords like Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn), a high-class procurer of sex and drugs who nevertheless presides over the groundbreaking for the new Santa Monica Freeway. L.A. Confidential presents the city's history as a mass of conspiracies, corruption and criminal activity, and we can't help but think that it's not too far from the truth.
L.A. Confidential was also one of the best-looking films of its year, which makes the boost to Blu-ray all the more rewarding. The Los Angeles neighborhood settings look almost 100% correct. Bud White stalks through a back yard with laundry hung out in the hazy light; the Griffith Observatory is visible behind Pierce Patchett's swank designer house in Los Feliz. We can see that Bud's cheap suit is made from material much coarser than Jack Vincennes' slick sports jackets. To please the ears, 5.1 soundtracks are available in English, French, Spanish, German and Italian.
James Ellroy: "Los Angeles: Come on vacation, leave on probation."
For once we have a movie so rich and well crafted that it deserves a full menu of extras. The new commentary taps the memories of James Ellroy, Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Guy Pearce, James Cromwell, costumer Ruth Myers, Kim Basinger, Brian Helgeland and others. Helpful name ID subtitles pop up when the speakers change. The observations and recollections are relaxed and loose, leaving critic Andrew Sarris to sing the film's praises. James Ellroy mentions the unsolved murder of his mother, an event echoed in the background of L.A. Confidential's Bud White, the cop who punishes woman-beaters.
The on-camera interviews in the featurette docus (most in HD) are more focused and tightly edited: Whatever You Desire is a general making-of piece, while Sunlight and Shadow addresses Dante Spinotti's fine cinematography. A True Ensemble tells the rather miraculous story of the casting of L.A. Confidential. Curtis Hanson was denied direct funding by the studios because "nobody wanted to see" an ensemble period piece in the noir style. The project was turned down when Hanson couldn't be persuaded to collapse the three main police characters into one: "Then you could hire a big star!" Independent financing led to the providential casting of Australians Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe, relative newcomers.
The seemingly limitless Blu-ray volume allows for the recycling of a couple of older featurettes, as well as the Interactive Location Map Tour and director Hanson's original Photo Pitch in which he sells his vision of the early 1950s. New to the mix is the 2003 L.A. Confidential TV series pilot, starring Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Vincennes, Josh Hopkins as Bud White and David Conrad as Ed Exley. It's amusing to see the rather racy original toned down to the PC confines of TV work. A selection of trailers is also accessible.
The late Jerry Goldsmith's great soundtrack is isolated in 5.1 on yet another audio stream. Not mentioned in the box copy but announced on a cover sticker is a second CD disc, a music sampler of L.A. Confidential's top 6 pop tunes featuring Chet Baker, Betty Hutton, Kay Starr, and Dean Martin.
L.A. Confidential had the misfortune to come out in the same year that Titanic stampeded the Academy, but it has remained one of Warners' most popular titles. "Neo-noir" wannabes have overrun Hollywood, influencing every genre including comic book movies. It's good to know that some Hollywood filmmakers understand what noir is all about, and can still make entertaining thrillers informed by the styles of the past, instead of merely imitating them.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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