Warner Bros. // 1997 // 138 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // October 6th, 2008
Off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush...
I fell in love with James Ellroy when he almost ruined my vacation. True story. I was on my way to a week in the Bahamas and needed some reading to get me through the day I knew I was going to spend in the airport. A friend had just recently recommended Ellroy's The Black Dahlia, so I brought that to keep me company during my airport adventures. From the first page I was hooked: compelling characters, complex plots, and only the darkest of the dark side of humanity. For someone raised on the tamer mysteries off the bestseller list, The Black Dahlia was a kick in the teeth. Despite the fact that no one in the book was sympathetic, I couldn't put it down, even as each character committed ever more despicable acts. I finished the book that day, and it was one of the most draining experiences I've had as a reader. I was honestly afraid that the story's bleak outlook was going to color the rest of my week. Luckily, I finished the book just as the sun was setting over Freeport on Grand Bahama Island, and that pulled me out of Ellroy's dark spell.
I mention this because Ellroy, as a writer, has an odd history. Before L.A. Confidential was made in 1997, he'd published at least a dozen novels of crime fiction, yet only had a single adaptation (1988's Cop) to his credit. I think my vacation experience explains why: his books deal with the dark heart of humanity and are difficult, if not impossible, to bring to the screen uncompromised. Much of that changed with L.A. Confidential. Although some of the darkness (and the many subplots) of Ellroy's novel were removed prior to filming, Curtis Hanson's adaptation doesn't shy away from exposing the corrupted, racist, sexist underbelly of 1950s California. The film served as perfect counter-programming to the behemoth of Titanic, and over a decade later still stands as one of the best crime films in recent memory.
Notorious gangster Mickey Cohen (Paul Guilfoyle, CSI) has just been put away for income tax evasion, and now a bunch of his heroin is missing. Although many gangsters would love to move in on Mickey's territory, Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) of the LAPD has launched a special squad to deal with such outsiders. On his team is an aspiring thug named Bud White (Russell Crowe, Gladiator). Bud's partner is murdered during an apparent robbery of a coffee shop called The Night Owl. The responding officer is rising star Detective Leiutenant Exley (Guy Pierce, The Proposition). His investigation crosses paths with that of Detective Vincennes (Kevin Spacey, The Usual Suspects). Both of their leads point to Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn, The Bourne Ultimatum), a pimp who runs drugs and prostitutes he has surgically altered to look like movie stars. Nothing is as it seems in the glittering city of Angels, and gallons of blood will be shed before the truth of the Night Owl Massacre is revealed.
Many dramas opt for a gritty feel, hoping that a dose of realism will enhance the on-screen action. L.A. Confidential takes the opposite approach. It revels in the hyperreal excesses, the Hollywood glamour, that the location and period allow. Everything from the costumes to the cinematography look just a little too perfect (especially the daylight scenes, which look like just a little shy of the exteriors in Edward Scissorhands). This perfection accomplishes two things. First, it keeps the audience guessing: if everything is so perfect, what's going to happen? What's waiting around the corner? The look of the film creates an incredible, almost subliminal tension throughout the film. Secondly, it makes the more grisly aspects of the film that much more disturbing. If the film had opted for typical noir darkness, then the revelations of mayhem and murder would have been boring, obvious. But underneath the perfect glitter of this L.A. those same murders seem even more out of place.
I know everyone knows it now, but not everyone did in 1997: Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe aren't American (Pearce was born in Britain and raised in Australia while Crowe spent his childhood in New Zealand and Australia). You'd never be able to tell that from L.A. Confidential. It isn't just a matter of covering their distinctive accents. Pearce perfectly embodies the part of the upwardly mobile scrabbler who has embraced the system with a vengeance. Crowe absolutely looks and acts the part of a 50s tough, long on muscle and short on brains. Both performances are simply astounding. Kevin Spacey deserves credit for creating a smarmy yet sympathetic Vice cop in Jack Vincennes. Despite the fact that Jack sells out generally innocent people for money and fame, Spacey keeps him honest and likable. While these three form the core of the film, they are surrounded by capable actors. Kim Basinger kills as Lynn Bracken. James Cromwell is positively terrifying as Capt. Dudley Smith. Also, this may be my favorite role from Danny DeVito who underplays his role as a tabloid reporter just enough to keep him interesting.
The film alone is worth a purchase, but it's the extras on this new Special Edition that will cause fans to double dip. Disc One houses a commentary with a staggering number of participants: Andrew Sarris, James Ellroy, Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Guy Pearce, James Cromwell, Ruth Myers, David Stathairn, Kim Basinger, Brian Helgelan, Jeannine Oppewall, Dante Spinotti, and Danny DeVito. They were all recorded separately, and insights tend to be played over scenes featuring that performers. Because of the sheer amount of participants, there's nary a dull moment in this 138 minute commentary. Jerry Goldsmith's score also gets an audio feature, with an isolated 5.1 version of his score. Both Goldsmith's score and the standard 5.1 audio track sound excellent and well balanced.
Disc Two contains a number of featurettes on the film. Several ("Off the Record," "Photo Pitch," "L.A. of L.A. Confidenial") are ported over from the previous DVD edition. "Off the Record" is an EPK-style making of, while "Photo Pitch" is a recreation of the pitch director Hansen used to seel the film. "L.A. of L.A. Confidential" includes an interactive map that allows the viewer to select sites and see what was filmed there. New to this edition are several interesting features. "Whatever You Desire: Making L.A. Confidential" is a new look behind the scenes of the film, featuring interviews with the major players in the film. "Sunlight and Shadows: The Visual Style of L.A. Confidential" covers the look of the film in detail, including input from cinematographer Dante Spinotti. "A True Ensemble: The Cast of L.A. Confidential" includes the story of casting the film, with yet more interviews from those involved. "From Book to Screen" covers the process of adapting Ellroy's difficult novel. Finally, we get a pilot for a mini-series based off of L.A. Confidential starring Keifer Sutherland as Jack Vincennes. Nothing ever came of it, but it's an interesting historical oddity.
This Special Edition is billed as Two-Discs. However, inside the case there's a third disc which contains six songs from the film. While not a full-blown soundtrack, this sampler is a good place to start for fans of the music in L.A. Confidential.
I'm not impressed with the video on this release. While colors (especially blacks) are generally strong, there is simply too much noise for my taste. For about the first half of the film, any time someone movies, their hair and the folds of their clothes shimmer with a haze of noise. It's quite distracting and disappointing considering the quality of the rest of the transfer. It does, however, seem to get better towards the end of the film.
The only people I can see being disappointed by the star-studded L.A. Confidential are die-hard fans of Ellroy's novels. While the darkness and intrigue of the film might seem extreme to most movie fans, it's positively child-like compared to the depths Ellroy reaches with his novels. It's likely we won't see a faithful adaptation of Ellroy's work for some time: it's just too risky for Hollywood, and a faithful adaptation would take more funds than a typical indie can procure. But, if this is as good as Ellroy adaptations get, there's little to complain about.
L.A. Confidential earns all the praise it has received throughout the years. With a strong story and a stellar cast, this film is sure to please fans of crime drama. This new Special Edition still suffers from a few video difficulties (none of them major), while offering fans an extended look at the development of the film. While the previous disc was no slouch, this Special Edition puts L.A. Confidential firmly in the "must own" category for anyone not yet hi-def equipped.
L.A. Confidential is guilty of being great, but keep that hush-hush.
Review content copyright © 2008 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 138 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Commentary
* Isolated 5.1 Score
* "Off the Record"
* "Photo Pitch"
* "L.A. of L.A. Confidenial"
* "Whatever You Desire: Making L.A. Confidential"
* "Sunlight and Shadows: The Visual Style of L.A. Confidential"
* "A True Ensemble: The Cast of L.A. Confidential"
* "From Book to Screen"
* L.A. Confidential
* CD Music Sampler