L.A. Confidential (Two-Disc Special Edition) – DVD Review

It’s not much of a stretch to think that if Titanic had not premiered in 1997 and simply destroyed all box office and award competition in its path, that it’s very possible that Curtis Hanson’s elegant and exciting L.A. Confidential could have ended up being awarded the Oscar for Best Picture that year. Much like a similar comparison between Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Best Picture Winner Dances with Wolves, it’s Hanson’s smart and gritty crime film rather than James Cameron’s period blockbuster that seems to have aged with the most grace. With its cunning adaptation of James Ellroy’s mammoth novel being condensed and altered into a story with its own beating heart, Confidential ends up the best Noir film since Chinatown and ranks amongst the best Crime films of the 1990s.

To think that a film with a cast of Oscar winners and nominees such as Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger (who won a Supporting Actress statue for her performance in Confidential), and David Strathairn would somehow be difficult to get made is an odd proposition today, but that’s the reality that film-makers faced when trying to get this picture together in the late 90s. With a budget of only $15 million, and extensive use of art direction due to the picture’s 1950s period, director Hanson and the casting agents had to try and get character actors instead of big stars for their main roles. Now while some of these actors went on to be some of the biggest names in Hollywood, at the time when this picture was made, many in this cast were just working stiffs. What they managed to do though, was to light the screen on fire with terrific performances that bring real humanity to the tough guy aesthetic of the picture, and made L.A. Confidential a jumping off point for many later successes.

The film really is a thing of beauty, seeing especially how it manages to weave its story together, taking three main characters who are all horribly unlikable, and then somehow turning the film into one where you can’t help but root for each of them as they search for some small morsel of redemption. To think, its possible that without this picture, or perhaps with more studio interference, audiences may never have discovered Russell Crowe, who absolutely seethes with tension and charisma as Bud White. Crowe is a mountain of a man here, breaking chairs and faces with a ferocity that many Hollywood stars cannot produce on screen.

Crowe is matched blow for blow though with the audacity and determination of Guy Pearce’s Ed Exley and the ridiculous charm of Kevin Spacey’s Jack Vincennes. Pearce plays Exley as the smug detective who initially drives huge wedge between the three characters early on in the movie, but ends up fighting to keep them together to try and make sense or a horrible killing that made him the department’s golden boy. Vincennes wants his own form of Hollywood stardom, but has to make a choice whether his soul is the worth the price of this limelight.

While Spacey was the only one with a track record, having won a Best Supporting Oscar for his role in 1995’s The Usual Suspects, Crowe and Pearce were both little know Australian actors with their first big Hollywood break, and each makes the best of it with incredibly intense, complex performances. While each may have more signature roles than the ones played here in this film, it’s easy to make the argument that their work here is as good as any in their careers. Each brings a flash of energy to each moment they’re on screen and manage to keep you entranced, even when the material throws you a curve ball in its narrative. In fact, L.A. Confidential can be downright labyrinthine in its storyline, but as the picture builds up to its violent conclusion we stay with these characters because of these fine performances, and what you’re left with is a morality tale and a detective story that ends up being one for the ages.

Much like the film’s story, one of the striking things that really sets the film apart is just how gorgeous the movie is for this type of Noir, but also how it pulls back all that glitz and glamour to reveal a very seedy underbelly in Hollywood. The production design and art direction by Jeannine Claudia Oppewall and William Arnold is brilliantly put together, and serves as a way for the filmmakers to put you off guard when the movie actually strikes you with stark violence and Machiavellian corruption. On the surface, the look of this world seems more suited to the simpler stylings of a 1950‘s TV show like Dragnet than that of a gritty, massacre-laden Los Angeles, but much like the main characters of this picture, you have to dig deep to find the real truth of what’s going on here.

In many ways, L.A. Confidential is a snapshot in time. Both as a gorgeous look at 1950’s Los Angeles that maybe never really was, and also as a motion picture that perhaps couldn’t be made today with these stars at these salaries for this budget, this movie ends up a moment where simply everything comes together at just the right period. This was a risk that ended up being worth taken by its studio and producers, when on paper it didn’t necessarily make much sense to bring out a picture within a genre that hardly produces blockbusters with a cast largely of unknowns. Not as epic as Heat or as edgy as The Usual Suspects or Reservoir Dogs, L.A. Confidential nonetheless still stands with those pictures as one of the most important Crime films of that period and one of the best pictures of the 1990s.

The print on this disc may not be able to stand up to the recent Blu-ray version, but it still manages to sparkle, giving you all the wonderful color and images brought to you by Cinematographer Dante Spinotti. The print is still pretty crisp and there apparently hasn’t been much degradation to its image in the decade plus since the movie’s release. The sound is also fantastic, giving you all the wonderful music and sound design of the picture while never overpowering dialogue.

Commentary by Andrew Sarris, James Ellroy, Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Guy Pearce, James Cromwell, Ruth Myers, David Stathairn, Kim Basinger, Brian Helgeland, Jeannine Oppewall, Dante Spinotti and Danny DeVito – It’s a neat idea to have all of these voices discuss how this movie effected them or what it was like during the production of the film, but at the same time, there are so many people and voices on this track that it becomes a jumble, and this you’re not really sure who is actually talking at one time or another. Still there’s some really interesting tidbits, its just too bad that this wasn’t better thought out.

Whatever You Desire: Making L.A. Confidential – This is a terrific Featurette that goes about half an hour and shows how difficult it was to put this movie together. The movie was being made at a studio that was more interested in making Batman & Robin at the time, only had a modest budget for a period picture of this size and had no major stars. That a masterwork was somehow made was some sort of miracle and I think Curtis Hanson kind of realizes that here.

Sunlight and Shadow: The Visual Style of L.A. Confidential – This is an amazing look at all the work done to create the look of this movie. From Dante Spinotti’s Cinematography to the Costume Design by Ruth Myers, we see how this movie was made to look and feel from the ground up. My favorite section of this shows how perfectly Dante Spinotti lights the final shootout of the picture, with ambient light that comes through walls as more and more as the bullets fly through it. Without CGI to help, the lighting had to be just right, set up after set up, and its achieved wonderfully on screen.

A True Ensemble: The Cast of L.A. Confidential – Showing how this cast ended up coming together, this Featurette has an extensive look at the actor‘s backgrounds and how they were approached for the movie. You also get an intimate look at the work done in many scenes, for instance a fight scene between Crowe’s Bud White and Ed Exley played by Guy Pearce. James Cromwell talks about how the moment became very real because Crowe and Pierce were so into their roles that they probably would have torn each other’s heads off if it weren’t for Cromwell and the other extras there to stop them on screen. It’s that type of authenticity that makes this movie so amazing to begin with.

L.A. Confidential: From Book to Screen – This is a Featurette that focuses more on the struggle it was for Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland to come up with a screenplay from this massive book by James Ellroy than the real differences between the movie and novel. While very interesting, I wish that more of this was focused on the items and events that were added and excised than on the process itself.

Off the Record – Straight from the last version of this movie on DVD, this small Featurette shows some neat behind the scenes footage, but was more for PR purposes.

Photo Pitch – This goes into detail about how Hanson was able to convince the studio to make this picture by showing them all vintage photos from the ’50s and how he was going to translate those photos into the style of his picture.

The L.A. of L.A Confidential – This is a location by location feature that looks at the different locations within the city that were used in the movie and how they helped create atmosphere for the film.

L.A. Confidential – I didn’t even know this existed, but apparently there was an L.A. Confidential pilot for a TV series starring Kiefer Sutherland. You can see why this show didn’t get picked up, but still its neat to have this on disc.

L.A. Confidential is a masterpiece. Unfortunately until now, it didn’t really have a DVD that was worthy of it, but this new edition changes everything. This DVD represents the best possible disc for the movie, utilizing the best features from the previous edition, as well as insightful Featurettes and odd gems that are all part of this film’s legacy.

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Warner Bros. presents L.A. Confidential (Two-Disc Special Edition). Directed by Curtis Hanson. Starring Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, James Cromwell, Kim Basinger, David Strathairn, Danny DeVito. Written by Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson. Running time: 138 minutes. Rated R. Released on DVD: September 23, 2008. Available at Amazon.

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