Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential, based on the novel of the same name by James Ellroy from his L.A. Quartet series, is a masterful film noir. Set in 1950s Los Angeles, the film uses the city as a canvas to paint an expansive story about crime, corruption, sex, and murder. In the special features Ellroy describes the film as well as anyone can: “Three cops on a collision with their own horrifying demons and as the centerpiece the slaughter of six people in a coffee shop meat locker.”
Officer Wendell “Bud” White (Russell Crowe) does whatever he has to in the name of justice. He has a volatile, violent temper bubbling below the surface, and man-on-woman violence is gasoline to the fire raging within him. Captain Dudley uses White’s “skills” to deal with mobsters who come to town looking to fill the void left by the recently jailed Mickey Cohen.
Sergeant Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a cop who enjoys the perks of the job. He works on the Dragnet-inspired television series Badge of Honor and has an arrangement with tabloid publisher Sid Hudgeons (Danny DeVito) of Hush-Hush magazine, a disgusting fellow who loves photographing celebrities getting arrested.
Sergeant Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) is following in his father’s footsteps and hopes to become a detective. He is a by-the-book cop which is a detriment in the department. Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) informs Exley that if he is unwilling to plant evidence on, beat a confession out of, or shoot a guilty man in the back, then he has no use for him as a detective.
On Christmas Eve, a number of cops are involved in the beating of Mexican suspects alleged to be responsible for the injuries to other officers. Exley steps forward to testify, but squeezes the Chief of Police and the District Attorney to get promoted to Lieutenant Detective in exchange, which earns the scorn of every other cop. White and Vincennes get suspended. White’s partner, Dick Stensland, is expelled from the force.
As the officers start working cases, their paths began to converge. Exley is the lead investigator of six murders at the Nite Owl coffee shop. White becomes personally involved because his partner Stensland was one of the victims. He looks for clues in the life of one of the victims, Susan Lefferts, a young woman who is part of a prostitution ring of call girls made up to look like celebrities run by Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn). Vincennes helps Hudgeons set up a bust to photograph the District Attorney, who is gay, with a young male actor who has ties to Patchett. Vincennes has second thoughts and arrives before Hudgeons, but discovers things have ended tragically. As they all get closer to the truth, the bodies start to pile up and no one knows whom to trust.
L.A. Confidential is a great crime movie that always keeps you guessing. The film moves along at a brisk pace as both the plot and the characters reveal themselves. The cast of talented actors is one of the best assembled, and Hanson made a great choice picking relatively unknown Australian actors for two of the leads, making the film less predictable than if movie stars had been selected. The cinematography and production design captured the time without feeling dated.
The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won two: Kim Basinger for Best Supporting Actress, and Hanson and Brian Helgeland for Best Adapted Screenplay. It likely would have awarded Best Picture had it not been for the amazing technical feats achieved in James Cameron’s Titanic.
This Special Edition is definitely special with over three and a half hours of bonus footage. Revealing how much the project meant to those involved, the commentary track features quite a line-up: costume designer Ruth Myers, production designer Jeannine Oppewell, director of photography Dante Spinotti, author Ellroy, co-writer/co-producer Helgeland, and actors Crowe, Spacey, Pearce, Cromwell, Strathairn, Basinger, and DeVito.
An extra treat for serious cinephiles is a 5.1 music-only track featuring Jerry Goldsmith’s score. It is great to watch the impact that music can have on a scene, but there are too many empty spaces. There’s no way to fast-forward and know when to stop for the music cue.
A second disc provides detailed information on the film’s creation in a number of features. In “Whatever You Desire: Making L.A. Confidential,” Hanson makes up for not taking part in the commentary track. He talks about wanting to create the city of his youth and many of the other principles offer their thoughts on the project. “Sunlight and Shadow: The Visual Style of L.A. Confidential” has Hanson and Spinotti talk about the cinematography and giving the film a modern look. The actors take part in a mutual admiration society during “A True Ensemble: The Cast of L.A. Confidential” as they talk about the pleasure they had working with each other. The screenwriters and producers talk about the early stages of the movie in “L.A. Confidential: From Book to Screen.”
Special features from a previous DVD release include a short featurette on the film called “Off The Record,” Hanson shows the photos he used to make clear the look and feel of the movie he wanted to create to producers in “Photo Pitch,” and “The L.A. of L.A. Confidential” is an interactive map that presents clips from the film and the audio explains where in the city it was shot.
A Criterion Collection-worthy extra is a pilot for a planned 13-part L.A. Confidential mini-series for HBO. They passed on the project, and it was then produced in 1999/2000 for the Fox Network, who passed as well. It remained unreleased until it had aired on Trio’s Brilliant but Cancelled in 2003. The pilot starred Kiefer Sutehrland as Jack Vincennes and Eric Roberts as Pachette, which was hard to get my head around after just watching the film. It seems to be a reboot of the book, which had a lot more material available. The episode ends with a “To Be Continued…” but it wasn’t.
A third disc is contained within this two-disc set: a CD sampler of songs from the soundtrack by Johnney Mercer, Chet Baker, Betty Hutton, Kay Starr, Jackie Gleason, and Dean Martin.
L.A. Confidential is a classic film that will long be remembered and appreciated. Even if you don’t buy it, do yourself as favor and rent it. This is one film you need to see before you take, as Sid Hudgeons would say, the “night train to the big adios.”