L.A. Confidential

Upon its release in the fall of 1997, Curtis Hanson’s “L.A. Confidential” was instantly recognized by many critics as being one of the better movies not just of that year but of the decade.

I was not one of those people.

I loved the book, and I recognized the film as a well-made period piece, but something didn’t register with me upon that first viewing that really pissed me off. There was a natural ending at the two hour and seven minutes mark, when Exley exits the Victory Motel. Several LAPD squad cars are heading towards him in the background as he, back to the camera and silhouetted by the headlights, holds up his badge to identify himself as a police officer. That was the big adios, yet the film goes on another five minutes, first giving us the Cliff Notes version of the movie WE HAD JUST SEEN (in case, you know, you weren’t paying attention) and then making sure we know Bud, who seemingly was fatally shot at the Victory Motel, is okey dokey (which is in the book).

A friend who did love it encouraged me to see it again, going so far as buying my ticket, and I have appreciated the film ever since… as long as I shut it off where I think the movie should have ended. “L.A. Confidential” was even my first DVD purchase in the spring of 1998, a disc that has seen frequent viewings in my home. It’s hard to believe it’s been so long since Warners first released “L.A. Confidential,” and it is quite rare in an industry that has seen at least four different releases of “The Princess Bride” and who knows how many different “special editions” of “The Evil Dead” on DVD during the same timeframe to see such a time lapse before a newer edition comes out.

Once again, one has to ask themselves if it is worth picking up this new edition? Rarely is the answer “yes.” Most of the time, there are only a few new and not very special additional features added, and most of the old features kept are the lesser items that should have been deleted the first time around.

Despite being one of the first wave of DVDs released, the original DVD of “L.A. Confidential” was authored for 16×9 widescreen, and it appears this is the same transfer as before. The transfer was great before and remains great now, yet I only now noticed little things I had never noticed before, such as a hold wire on Ron Rifkin as Russell Crowe is dangling him out of his office, or a martini glass scratched into the inner door of the elevator after Ed Exley shoots Sugar Lee, or visible boom mikes. The colors are still vibrant, the blacks still sharp, and the sound mix is still mesmerizing. Another great holdover is the isolated track featuring Jerry Goldsmith’s trumpet-fueled score, magically weaved with some of the great song styles of the period (Johnny Mercer, Chet Baker, Dean Martin). To hear the score on its own, unencumbered by dialogue or other aural annoyances, adds to the appreciation of one of the movie maestro’s greatest contributions. Still, I admit it can be uncomfortable for some to sit there and watch a movie without any other sounds for several minutes at a time for a few bars to accompany the action.

The second question that weighs in on whether to upgrade or purchase for the first time is the quality of the bonus features. In addition to the music-only score, there are several returning featurettes from the first disc that are welcome inclusions. “Off The Record” and “Photo Pitch” are companion pieces that could not have been separated, and both are important documents from the film’s immediate past, featuring recollections of the major played unfiltered through time. “The L.A. of ‘L.A. Confidential’” still features the same 15 stops through the various locations, but the screen map has been updated to give a better sense of how wide-ranging the production shot throughout the region.

Looking at the individual new additions:

Commentary featuring author James Ellroy, co-screenwriter Brian Helgeland, actors Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, James Cromwell, David Straithairn, Kim Basinger and Danny DeVito, cinematographer Dante Spinotti, production designer Jean Oppewall, costume designer Ruth Myers and film critic Andrew Sarris

That’s a lot of people to keep track of, and if all the participants were recorded together (or maybe even seen together), that might have made for a richer and more interesting commentary. As it stands, most of the information procured has already been disseminated many times before in various articles and interviews. How hard would it have been to have an announcer introduce some of the less recognizable voicesr And what is a Director’s Commentary without the directorr

Grade: C+

Whatever You Desire: Making “L.A. Confidential” (29:27)

In 1997, Russell Crowe was best known, if you even knew who he was at all, for lousy American films like “Virtuosity” or “The Quick and the Dead” that showed little of the artistry seen in his Australian films like “Romper Stomper” or “Proof,” Guy Pearce was that strange cross-dresser from “Priscilla: Queen of the Desert” and David Straithairn was nobody if you weren’t familiar with the films of John Sayles. Thus, those 1997 featurettes spent most of their time talking to and about the more established stars (Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito and Kevin Spacey). Ten years later, all three are far better known, and their additional screen time in this featurette shows their rise in the Hollywood elite. All are great actors, and they deserved better then. It’s good to see they all appreciate what the film did for their careers, and their additional insights give extra gravitas to many of the repeated stories from Hanson, Basinger and others.

Grade: B+

Sunlight and Shadow: The Visual Style of “L.A. Confidential” (21:00)

There is a tendency, Curtis Hanson says at the start of this featurette, to shoot period movies through a haze of nostalgia, and it’s hard to argue with him. The film is the cleanest and brightest film noir movie ever made, and at the end of this document, you’ll wonder why anyone would ever shoot another noir movie… well, dark… again. Dante Spinotti, whose work with Michael Mann on “Heat,” “The Last of the Mohicans” and “Red Dragon” was instrumental in making those films so enjoyable, was truly robbed of accolades in the wake of “Titanic.” As good a DP as Russell Carpenter can be, Spinotti’s work here was unequaled in 1997.

Grade: A

A True Ensemble: The Cast of “L.A. Confidential” (24:32)

I know there is a cliche out there that says something like 90% of a director’s job. It’s a chestnut I don’t particularly ascribe to. Casting is important, but a great cast in the hands of a bad director or a poor script is still going to result in a crappy film. Curtis Hanson is not a bad director, and the cast of his movie is one of the strongest in any movie in many years. Naturally, this featurette focuses on its major stars (which now includes three Oscar winners), but it would have been nice to spend some time with some of the other actors who got their first big break from the film (Simon Baker), had a career resurgence from their appearance here (Ron Rifkin) or the many less-heralded character actors who small moments helped make the film a modern classic (Graham Beckel, Paul Guilfoyle, Bob Clendenin).

Grade: B

”L.A. Confidential” From Book to Screen (21:06)

Ellroy is one of the few modern American writers who is just as entertaining as an orator as they are an author. Just sit back and let him entertain you with his tales.

Grade: A

”L.A. Confidential” television pilot (46:27)

Originally planned as a 13-part miniseries for HBO, this pilot was shot for Fox in 2000, featuring Keifer Sutherland as Jack Vincennes and a bunch of people you’ve probably never heard of or you recognize but you don’t know their names. This pilot is a perfect example of what not to do when trying to turn a movie into a weekly series. All the major characters are here – Ed Exley, Bud White, Jack Vincennes, Dudley Smith, Lynn Bracken, Pierce Patchett – so clearly this takes place in the years before the movie, which according to the Bloody Christmas newspaper headline begins in December 1952. But when does it take placer Lynn (played by the alluring Melissa George) is fresh off the bus from Arizona, a fresh-faced twentysomething a world away from Kim Basinger’s beautiful but considerably older Lynn, which would put us sometime just after the end of World War II. The Hollywoodland sign is seen in the establishing shot, of which the last four letters were torn down in 1949. And the Chief of Police, William H. Parker, is identified in the pilot as “the new chief” but he didn’t become the top cop of Los Angeles until 1950. I go into these details because, during the course of the pilot, Bud and Lynn meetcute at a party at Pierce Patchett’s place in which Bud is working as security, yet the Bud of the movie has no idea who Patchett is just a year or two later. Nor do the Lynn and Bud of the movie have any recognition of each other, by name or by face, even though it is clear the pilot wants to push the romance between these two right out of the gate.

Putting this pilot on with the special features is curious. Most of the people buying this DVD will be huge fans of the movie and will probably notice and be annoyed about the glaring plot gaps between the show and the movie. Poor casting also hurt the pilot. Josh Hopkins (Bud White) and David Conrad (Ed Exley) do absolutely nothing to make us forget Russell Crowe or Guy Pearce, Ms. George looks nothing like Veronica Lake (or Kim Basinger, for that matter), and Mr. Sutherland has neither Kevin Spacey’s presense nor grace to effectively pull off Vincennes. The script by Walon Green is makes absolutely no sense and belies the movie, Ellroy’s source novel and the fine art of fact-checking, and Eric Laneuville’s directing is mind-numbing and monotonous. A failure on just about every level, and one that should have been kept hidden in the vaults.

Grade: F

End Verdict

”L.A. Confidential” is one of the best movies of the past fifteen years, and this DVD, with its fine mix of old and new features, is well worth picking up.

Rating: A-
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