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I've got to say, it was fun watching L.A. Confidential again. There's something about a film that is set in Los Angeles at the cusp of its economical explosion, be it Chinatown or this one, which is set in L.A. a couple of decades later, that is rich with fascinating dialogue and compelling stories. Maybe it's because we see the city before it became, well, whatever it is now. But either way, to see the scheming and criminal activity in an infancy stage like this is fascinating, and in retrospect, this sleepy little ensemble cast has three Oscar winners in it, one who got one from this film.
From the James Ellroy novel of the same name, the screenplay was adapted by Brian Helgeland (Mystic River) and Curtis Hanson (Wonder Boys), who would also direct. In thinking about recapping the film, I almost feel compelled to go full-bore into discussing the whole movie, but in looking at the integral plot points, the events in the film surround three Los Angeles policemen in 1950s L.A. There's Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce, The Proposition), an aspiring detective without a lot of real-world experience or respect from those under and around him; Bud White (Russell Crowe, Gladiator) is an effective but physically imposing presence, and Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey, American Beauty) is a technical advisor to a Dragnet-like television show and whose friends include Hollywood stars and seedy tabloid authors like Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito, Hoffa), who expose Hollywood's dark underbelly.
The fates of all of these characters start to slowly intertwine when Exley is called to a brutal crime scene, where several people have been shot to death, including White's recently discharged partner. Exley heads the investigation in a cold, calculating manner, while White's investigation is a bit more emotional, and Vincennes' seems to be a subtle mix of the two. Through their respective work, they discover that the criminal underworld in the town is much more organized and formidable than they could have possibly imagined, including widespread prostitution and police corruption.
What keeps this film alive, aside from its extensive intertwining story are a myriad of reasons. If I can sum it up in one sentence, is that it transports you back in the era without seemingly drowning you in it. One thing Hanson says several times in the supplemental material is that while this is certainly a noir film, the traditional noir style shouldn't be used faithfully. Shoot things in a relatively straightforward manner and let the performances, story and environment speak for themselves, and the viewer will be entranced by what occurs. In addition, the film's pacing surprisingly doesn't allow for muddling of character development. Exley, Vincennes and White frequently interact with one another, though it's rarely in a group setting. Realistically, the personalities of each really wouldn't mesh outside of the job, so why would they here? So each character has the various important people in their lives. White and Exley share the affections of a prostitute named Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger, Never Say Never Again), who looks like Veronica Lake, but they are unaware of the other's interests. Vincennes doesn't really have an important person in his life; his affection is for success, and for as many people who have cameras to see it as possible. And as those people who are steadily introduced into the trio's perspectives, it would normally be easy to confuse them, but Hanson gives them all a chance to show how important they are to the story. You are in their world, so you see how they work, and the way you're put in their world, it's almost as if you're a partner with the trio at various points, you watch what's going on just like they do.
And speaking of the story, one of the thrills in seeing this again reminded me of just how enthralling the story is. It doesn't do car chases, the shootouts aren't terribly spectacular, but the little things in the beginning of it that you might dismiss as idle banter wind up being portents to characters' actions. A little past the halfway point, something happens in the film that, if you haven't seen in before, you don't see coming (at least I don't remember anticipating it when I saw it the first time), but after seeing it now, you dread its coming. It doesn't completely pull the rug out from under you, but you're definitely knocked off your feet. That's a testimony to the work of the cast of the film. Pearce plays Exley as he's supposed to, with calm precision and little emotion, but you can easily see why he could be labeled a bookworm of sorts. As White, Crowe's rage is palpable, like a bull ready to charge, but that emotion is clearly unrefined, and when he often meets Lynn, he's almost a child when talking to her. She sees the calm after the storm. And Basinger won an Oscar for good reason; while her initial instructions from her boss might be diabolical, she sees White for who he is, and it causes her to become conflicted, in more ways than one. Her boss is played with a smarmy sort of moral gray cloud over him by David Strathairn (Sneakers), in one of yet another solid supporting roles, which also includes James Cromwell (Babe). L.A. Confidential is the type of police story you will enjoy and your parents fondly remember, even more so with the way that Hanson lets the story unfold.
With a VC-1 encode on this 2.40:1 widescreen presentation, L.A. Confidential looks good. Many of the tight shots possess a clarity that really helps them stand out, I could make out facial features on Crowe and Spacey rather well, blacks retain a fair level of consistency and are deep throughout most of the picture, providing a nice contrast. Tighter shots in the film help show off the clarity of an older title to high definition, they really do. And in the many exterior shots of L.A., there's a certain level of visible dimensionality that was nice to see as well. Where the disc falters a bit are the instances of image softness, which occur a little more frequently than my liking. It might not be a reference quality disc, but it certainly brings the goods on what it needs to.
Dolby TrueHD is the soundtrack of choice here, and it's more than serviceable. While you're not going to experience a lot of action on the low end, the dialogue is pretty strong in the center channel, and speaker panning is evident and effective when called upon. A nice scene early on in the film is when White and his partner are parked outside a house where a man is abusing a woman, and he rips down the Christmas lights on the roof. Those small bits of attention to detail help make the disc a modestly immersive experience. The music of the time also sounds clear throughout all speakers, and when Dudley tells an out-of-town criminal to leave L.A., the musical cue that follows it immediately sounds wonderful, without any perceived hissing or other sound artifacts. L.A. Confidential sounds as classy as the film is.
It's safe to say that the previous release of L.A. Confidential was decent, but a little bit lacking in the supplemental material department. So Warner has thrown some new material on here that's decent. The big piece is a commentary with Hanson, Pearce, Crowe, Spacey, Cromwell, DeVito, Strathairn, Helgeland, Director pf Photography Dante Spinotti, Editor Peter Honess, Production Designer Jeannine Oppewall, Costume Designer Ruth Myers, and at least one or two others not listed on the DVD. This is full of information about the film, about what the actors thought about the process (or their process in general), where they came up with small things for the film, thoughts on the book, production challenges, and any specific recollections that might come up. This isn't a group outing by any means, but it's rarely slow and full of information, and definitely worth exploring if you like the film. Next are a series of featurettes that include new interviews with Hanson, Crowe, Spacey, Basinger and a whole host of others. "Whatever You Desire: Making L.A. Confidential" (29:28) explores Hanson's motivations for making the film, and how he ties into his days as a youth, while Ellroy discusses writing the book. Hanson also talks about the resistance that Warner Brothers exhibited as he was trying to get a deal for the film. The cast discusses how they got to the script and their thoughts on it, while Hanson covers his intent for casting and who he wanted in the roles. As with any period film, the production design and wardrobe are covers, and the actors discuss working with Hanson, and the piece wraps up with the film's success since its release in Cannes. It's altogether not a bad piece, but it's your standard walk down memory lane. From there, "Sunlight and Shadow" (21:02) covers the visual style of the film, mainly with Hanson and Spinotti as the pair recall how they approached the film and what they wanted to do with it. The production design is touched upon here as well, but a couple of clips from period influences are thrown in as well for a reference point. A little more technical based, this wasn't too bad. "A True Ensemble" (24:33) touches on the film's cast, with their thoughts on the director and roles in some more decision. Hanson discusses his casting decisions some more, and screen test footage of the Aussies is put in here too. There's also some scene-specific recollections too, which is a fascinating discussion. "From Book to Screen" (21:07) covers Hanson and Helgeland's work in adapting Ellroy's novel, and the personal allure of doing so for each of them. Hanson and Helgeland discuss the challenges in adapting the material, and the differences between the book and the film. Helgeland discusses his first meeting with Ellroy, which was kind of funny, and Ellroy shares his thoughts on the gentlemen that adapted his book. It's another informative piece."Off the Record" (18:46) is the film's original on-set featurette, with plenty of camera footage from said set. However, after watching the other things, this felt a little redundant, but I understood the inclusion. Hanson recreates his pitch to the studios (8:21), using stills from the era to help make the case, and that's a nice feature to see. And for kitsch, the pilot episode of the L.A. Confidential show is here too. No, I don't remember it either, but apparently it was made in 2000, and stars Kiefer Sutherland as Vincennes. The pilot wasn't picked up, I wonder what he did after this. There's also a music-only track of the film that you can play, along with an interactive map of 15 locations from the film, which you can highlight and play a brief clip from, and get some historical context narrative to boot. But wait, there's more! A sampler of the film's music is included as a second disc CD for you to listen to and enjoy.
It's a damn shame that L.A. Confidential was released in the same year that Titanic was; any other year and people would be giving this film the proper credit that it deserves. In between this new DVD and time, people are catching up to it now, but I'd like to think that when parents took their teenage kids to Titanic, they snuck out to watch L.A. Confidential. And why not? With solid technical specs and slight above average supplements, this is as good as you're going to get, so feel free to take the plunge (or double-dip) accordingly.