Director Curtis Hanson’s gives us so much more than 'just the facts, ma'am' in L.A. Confidential (1997) a taut homage to the great film noir thrillers of the 1940s. In a year when James Cameron’s Titanic utterly dominated the box office and the Oscars, Hanson’s compelling detective yarn went almost unnoticed, though its popularity has steadily grown since. The reality of Hollywood being even more bizarre than the fictional stories it chooses to tell about itself, L.A. Confidential is a fascinating reconstitution of fact and fiction; a grittily perverse story from the pen of James Ellroy, the preeminent author of crime fiction set against the backdrop of a not-so-sunny southern California landscape populated by hoodlums, harlots and ham actors selling their souls for fifteen minutes of fame.
From the start L.A. Confidential had an air of kismet about it. Hanson and screenwriter Brian Helgeland were brought together by their innate love of Ellroy’s stories; Hanson having read at least a half dozen of the author’s work before settling on L.A. Confidential; a tale so unscrupulous that it pulled in Hanson completely – not for its plot – but for its fascinating assortment of disreputable characters. “I didn't like them…” Hanson later admitted, “…but somehow I continued reading. Then, I started to care about them.” Helgeland, who had been hired to write a different movie for Warner Bros. campaigned heavily to be brought on board. Nearly two years later a viable screenplay emerged, preserving the basic integrity of the novel while skillfully condensing its eight interwoven narratives into three.
Hanson also immersed himself in the L.A. of the 1950s as seen in films like The Bad and The Beautiful (1952) and In A Lonely Place (1950); extrapolating the myth from the legend and the reality from both, distilling his approach with cinematographer Dante Spinotti who concurred with Hanson’s decision to compose the visuals in the Cinemascope aspect ratio. Against producer Aaron Milchan’s objections Hanson sought out Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce for two of the film’s central protagonists – actors who, until L.A. Confidential were largely unknown to American audiences. Two months of immersive training, practicing their ‘American’ accents and the pair emerged certified ‘Dick Tracy’s’. Hanson also hand-picked Kevin Spacey and Kim Basinger for their roles. Milchan may not have agreed with Hanson’s choices, but he trusted the director enough to step aside and allow him to continue to shape the cast to his own likes.
L.A. Confidential concerns a series of brutal murders at the Night Owl Café and tie-ins to police corruption. Oscar nominated, rarely seen in 1997, but steadily gaining in reputation ever since, L.A. Confidential follows the exploits of three Los Angeles' police officers, each with ulterior motives for solving the crime. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is all show. He prefers the company of studio moguls and sultry starlets to his fellow officers and is, in fact, a consultant on a popular television police drama series. Edmund Exley (Guy Pierce), the son of a decorated officer is determined to make detective before thirty-five by any and all means, however cutthroat. Having come from an abusive home, Wendell ‘Bud’ White (Russell Crowe) has pledged himself to the salvation of all damsels in distress.
Bud’s current fixation is Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger) – a prostitute cut to look like Veronica Lake. Through an ingenious set of interwoven circumstances, all three officers come to investigate the comings and goings of one Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn); an upscale pimp running a high class brothel where call girls have been given plastic surgery to resemble famous movie stars. What is unclear to any of the officers until it is almost too late is how Capt. Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) and district attorney Ellis Loew (Ron Rifkin) fit into their investigation. Behind them all is Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito); the disreputable editor of ‘Hush- Hush’ magazine – itself a thinly disguised version of the real ‘Confidential’ – a precursory rag to the modern day ‘National Enquirer’. Sid, isn’t about to let good smut go by. And when scandal is in short supply he isn’t above manufacturing a little bit to fill his pages with Jack’s complicity. Sid frames them and Jack bags them, all for the publicity and the copy it sells. Regrettably, neither is aware of unseen forces higher up the food chain plotting to silence them both.
In the meantime Dudley, under the premise of ridding L.A. of Mickey Cohen and its mob rule, persuades Bud to brutalize known thugs inside a room at the abandoned Victory Motel. Bud thinks he’s doing good work – unaware Dudley is merely cleaning his own house to divert suspicion from the police’s complicity in organized crime. Bud and Exley are mortal enemies; the former regarding the latter as a greedy self-promoter; the latter regarding the former as nothing better than monolithic thug muscle. Through a strange set of crisscrossing circumstances, Bud, Exley and Jack find themselves exploring various facets of the same crime; the slaughter at the Night Owl Café where Bud’s partner (Graham Beckel) died.
Lynn and Bud become lovers, but not before she reveals to him the connection between Patchett and D.A. Ellis – an association that eventually leads to the discovery of Patchett’s body – wrists slit inside his fashionable L.A. home. In the meantime, Jack and Exley have reached a reluctant and very strained détente. Jack confides his suspicions about the case to Dudley who has thus far presented himself as a straight arrow, but who wastes no time in murdering Jack to keep his own secrets buried. Bud and Exley are sent to the Victory Motel on a wild goose chase by Dudley, realizing too late that they have been set up to be assassinated. Instead, the pair launches their own last stand inside one of the motel rooms. Bud is shot, but survives and Exley, having escaped the onslaught, reveals all he knows about the internal corruption, thereby achieving his goal of making detective before the age of thirty-five. In the final reel we see a badly wounded Bud and Lynn drive away from the station as Exley looks on, their future uncertain but perhaps brighter now that they have one another.
L.A. Confidential is a classy/saucy noir thriller (albeit in color). It sizzles like raw steak thrown over an open flame. The mystery - dappled in seedy mob hits, sunny California mythology and real life circumstances surrounding famous crimes circa the mid-1950s – delves deeply into those 'tabloid' grabbing headlines, riveting the audience to their seats. Even more rewarding, the Hanson/Helgeland screenplay doesn’t make things easy for us. L.A. Confidential is a complex narrative with its ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ premise abounding in insidious back stories. Like The Big Sleep (1946), or even Pulp Fiction (1994) we’re not entirely certain how any of these pieces fit together or even if they’re meant to. Ellroy’s novel is hardly an easy read, but the film does its level best to retain something of the intricacy of the book even as it inevitably had to jettison five of Ellroy’s subplots in the process. Overall, the telescoping of the story works – brilliantly so at times – its revelations seemingly coming out of nowhere until one stops to reconsider all that has gone before; the fragmented pieces thereafter making perfect sense.
In any other year, L.A. Confidential would have won Best Picture. In the year of overwhelming hype over Cameron’s Titanic it had absolutely no chance at all. But reviewed today, L.A. Confidential persistently works as a dark and brooding noir thriller. And it bears repeat viewing because the cast of characters are so finely wrought. Since the film is already ‘period’ it hasn’t dated; the vintage 50s pastiche retaining its strangely oppressive atmosphere that defies the faux sunny California backdrop; the myth and the reality thrust together, generating an intoxicating and visceral impact that continues to enthrall. In the final analysis, L.A. Confidential is a superior film to Titanic – texturally packed though never dense. This is a story destined to be around for a very long time.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray is a winner through and through. The image is solid, with very robust colors. Contrast levels and fine detail are superbly realized. As they used to say, 'Prepare to be astonished!' Minor edge enhancement on the DVD has been eradicated on the Blu-ray. We get a very sharp visual presentation with just the right amount of film grain that actually looks like grain - not digital grit. Good stuff. The audio has been remastered in 5.1 DTS and really delivers the 'wow' factor we've come to expect from Blu-ray. The studio packs this disc with a ton of extras including a comprehensive audio commentary, four informative featurettes, the pilot of a TV series, an interactive map that allows us to visit the haunts in the film and an isolated 5.1 of Jerry Goldsmith's evocative score. Yes! Yes! Yes! L.A. Confidential on Blu-ray comes very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)