You want drama? You’ve got drama. You want action? You’ve got action. You want glamour? You’ve got glamour. You want mystery? You’ve got mystery. You want film noir? You’ve got film noir. You want sleaze? You’ve got sleaze. You want spotless heroes and corrupt villains? You’ve got spotless heroes and corrupt villains, most of whom you can’t tell apart. “L.A. Confidential” has it all in aces, one of the most absorbing, compelling, most thoroughly enjoyable crime thrillers to have come along in the past decade.
Based on the novel by James Ellroy (“The Black Dahlia,” “Street Kings”), adapted for the screen by Brian Helgeland (“The Postman,” “Mystic River”), and co-adapted and directed by Curtis Hanson (“8 Mile,” “Wonder Boys”), this 1997 combination police procedural and underworld exposé has already stood the test of time. About a year ago, not knowing that Warner Bros. were going to reissue the movie on Blu-ray, I re-watched it on regular DVD for the first time in maybe half a dozen years. I sat transfixed for over two hours, glued to the set. For whatever reason, I had forgotten just how good a film it was. Now that I’ve had the chance to watch it yet again, this third time on BD, it has convinced me that it must go down as one of the best crime flicks in the genre.
If you weren’t around in the 1950s or haven’t heard about it, there was a magazine back then that helped establish today’s supermarket gossip tabloids. The magazine was “Confidential,” and it specialized in scandal, particularly as it concerned celebrities, the editors sending out spies to dig up dirt wherever they could find it. The mag finally ceased publication after being sued for libel any number of times, changing hands, watering down its content, and losing circulation. Anyway, that’s the reference in the movie’s title, and, appropriately, “L.A. Confidential” takes place in the early Fifties and is all about crime and corruption. That also makes it perfect for the film-noir tone it sets–somber, pessimistic, and despairing–characteristics of the genre that had its heyday in the late 1940s and 50s.
Ellroy’s fictional story explores the ethics of the Los Angeles Police Department of the day and the changes that occur in the personal and professional lives of several LAPD police detectives. The principal subjects of the drama are a quartet of policemen. First, there’s Det. Lt. Ed Exley, played by English-born, Australian-raised Guy Pearce, adopting an American accent. Lt. Exley is a straight-arrow cop, the son of a former hero of the Department. Exley is such an uptight, high-minded Boy Scout, though, that the rest of department despises him. Second, there’s Officer Bud White, played by New Zealand-born, Australian-raised Russell Crowe, also embracing a respectable American accent. A coincidence that both actors are from Australia? I dunno, except that on one of the disc’s accompanying featurettes, the filmmakers say they chose the best available relatively unknown (at the time) actors they could find for the major roles. Officer White is a tough, honest cop who starts out as pure muscle for the force and slowly acquires a conscience. Exley and White initially hate one another, each representing the opposite of the other. As their Captain explains it to White: “The Department needs smart men like Exley and direct men, like you.”
Third, there’s Det. Sgt. Jack Vincennes, played by Kevin Spacey, whose previous big-screen roles had largely been as villains. Here, his character is that of a celebrity cop, the technical advisor to a hit TV show, “Badge of Honor,” a program patterned after “Dragnet.” Vincennes enjoys publicity, and he’s not above contributing information to and receiving tips from a gossip magazine editor. The fourth cop is the Chief of Detectives, the one who presides over all these guys, Capt. Dudley Smith, a veteran of the force played by the always capable James Cromwell.
On the periphery are several other characters. There’s Lynn Margaret Bracken, played by Kim Basinger. Bracken is a gorgeous, high-class call girl, a Veronica Lake look-alike who becomes involved with both Bud White and Ed Exley and serves as the film’s femme fatale. Then there’s Sid Hudgens, played by Danny DeVito. Hudgens is the slimy editor of the tabloid “Hush-Hush,” who bribes people like Vincennes for inside info. And there is Pierce Patchett, played by David Strathairn. Patchett is a highly suspicious millionaire who builds freeways and civic projects, while running a porn ring on the side.
The movie retains much of Ellroy’s labyrinthine story line, one reminiscent of those by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and the like before him, with characters coming and going and new plot twists every minute. Suffice it to say the narrative involves plenty of wrongdoing, double dealing, and murders, starting with the killings of gangland hoods and then a multiple homicide at a greasy spoon, both of which escalate into things far more involved.
The deeper we get into the case, the more engrossing it becomes. Indeed, it’s hard to take your eyes off the screen for a second or miss a line of dialogue. Moreover, it’s hard to recall a movie with a better ensemble cast, every person I’ve mentioned and others contributing to the film’s gritty appeal.
With a terrific cast, great period atmosphere, and an abundance of who-done-what-to-whom, “L.A. Confidential” offers riveting entertainment for those who enjoy good detective stories, good character dramas, good thrillers, and plain-old good filmmaking.
The Academy nominated “LA. Confidential” for nine Oscars, including Best Picture and Director. It won two: Best Supporting Actress (Basinger) and Best Writing (Helgeland and Hanson).
Finally, remember the name “Rollo Tomasi.” It’s become almost as famous as “Keyser Söze” did a few years before.
Warner Bros. use a VC-1 encode and a dual-layer BD50 to reproduce the 2.40:1 ratio movie in 1080p. The opening shots use stock footage from the 1950s, which looks intentionally grainy and blurry; then, when the regular part of the digitally remastered high-def picture starts, it’s quite a contrast. Although the image retains a degree of roughness from a light, natural film grain and can also look a bit soft at times, for the most part it acquits itself nicely. Colors are strong and deep; black levels are solid; and definition is mostly crisp. It may not be absolute reference quality, but it’s quite realistic and probably well represents what was on the original print.
Ordinary Dolby Digital is the default audio track, so if you have the capability to play back Dolby TrueHD, you’ll need to remember to change your audio setting. In TrueHD 5.1 you’ll hear a reasonably wide front-channel stereo spread and a smooth midrange response, just the things for a movie that concentrates as much as this one does on dialogue. For most of the movie there isn’t much surround activity beyond some musical ambience reinforcement. However, the final shoot-out is worthy of any new action thriller, and it will give your rear and/or side speakers quite a workout.
Disc one of this two-disc Blu-ray set contains the feature film and a slew of standard-def extras. The first one extra is an audio commentary by a number of people involved in the filmmaking, starting with movie critic and historian Andrew Sarris; the book’s author, James Ellroy; screenwriter and co-producer Brian Helgeland; production designer Jeannine Oppewall; cinematographer Dante Spinotti; costume designer Ruth Myers; and stars Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Guy Pierce, Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito, David Stathairn, and James Cromwell. They each have a little to say, with Sarris trying tying things together.
Following the commentary, we find a number of newly made (2008) featurettes. There’s “Whatever You Desire: Making L.A. Confidential,” twenty-nine minutes; “Sunlight and Shadow: The Visual Style of L.A. Confidential,” twenty-one minutes; “A True Ensemble: The Cast of L.A. Confidential,” twenty-four minutes; “L.A. Confidential: From Book to Screen,” twenty-one minutes; “Off the Record,” eighteen minutes; and “Director Curtis Hanson’s Photo Pitch,” eight minutes. Then, there’s “The L.A. of L.A. Confidential Interactive Map Tour” of some of the actual locations around Los Angeles and Hollywood used in the movie, followed by “L.A. Confidential,” a TV series pilot filmed in 1999 and eventually released on television in 2003; a music-only track showcasing Jerry Goldsmith’s score; several TV spots; and a theatrical trailer.
The extras on disc one conclude with a generous forty scene selections; English, French, Spanish, German, and Italian spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Swedish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Disc two is an “L.A. Confidential” CD sampler of music used in the movie. Here we find six tracks: Johnny Mercer and the Pied Pipers doing “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive”; Chet Baker doing “Look for the Silver Lining”; Betty Hutton doing “Hit the Road to Dreamland”; Kay Starr doing “Wheel of Fortune”; Dean Martin doing “Powder Your Face With Sunshine (Smile! Smile! Smile!); and Jackie Gleason with “But Not for Me.”
OK, maybe I’m exaggerating when I say “L.A. Confidential” has already established itself as a genuine screen classic. But it’s got me convinced that it can hold its own with the likes of “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), “The Big Sleep” (1946), “Out of the Past” (1947), “Bullitt” (1968), and “Chinatown” (1974). Still, I’m a mystery and detective fan, so maybe I’m showing a bias.