It’s Los Angeles, 1953, and the tide of crime is changing. East-coast gangster Mickey Cohen, who has been cozy working the west coast for the last decade, is heading to prison on a tax-evasion rap, leaving his profitable rackets dangling. Enter the Los Angeles Police Department, which, thanks to the sanctimonious national television show Badge of Honor, heralds a bogus new prestige. While the good men of the force have their eye on cleaning up the city, a lot of them want a piece of Cohen’s rackets. Surrounded by too many disgruntled and corrupt fellow officers and rumors leaking from the top, green police Sgt. Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) is trying to bring honor to the force and hopes he’ll be able to drag some of the more corrupt officers to justice. Across the same precinct , Officer Bud White (Russell Crowe), a bruiser of few words who doesn’t mind not going “by the book” as long as it leads to his idea of higher justice, stews. Mocking both of these men and most of the precinct is smarmy Sgt. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), who shows the cast of Badge of Honor how to walk and talk like real members of the LAPD when he’s not taking cash and working with low-life Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), a tabloid reporter.
These three very different police officers are drawn together when a series of investigations uncovers a wide-ranging conspiracy that involves Beverly Hills pimp Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn). Patchett runs a high-priced escort service that features women “cut” to look like movie stars. It also becomes clear that loose-cannon Officer White has a soft spot for Patchett’s resident “Veronica Lake,” Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger).
In bringing L.A. Confidential, the sprawling saga of popular crime-novelist James Ellroy to the screen, director Curtis Hanson had a series of vintage postcards, magazine clippings and stills that spelled out the texture he wanted for the film. Studio executives, actors and members of his creative team were given Hanson’s vivid pitch, which pulled a noir-flavored novel out into the layered sunlight of the City of Angels. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC (The Insider), quickly understood Hanson wanted neither the traditional “nostalgic haze” frequently relied on in films to suggest the period nor the clichéd smoke and diffusion of film-noir visuals so often used in urban crime stories. As Hanson eloquently put it, he wanted the “Light of Los Angeles.” In an interview on this disc, he explains, “The light is very much what this place is about. It’s why the movies came here in the first place — to be shot in that light. There’s a softness to the light that perfectly complements the palette of the desert landscape.” With that in mind, Spinotti took advantage of the city’s natural light and worked on interior locations and soundstages to simulate and match those natural layers, giving the film a more contemporary and realistic feel. Spinotti’s handsome work on the picture earned him an Academy Award nomination.
Warner Home Video recently released L.A. Confidential on Blu-ray, and the high-definition image transfer is very good. While occasional grain is evident, and there are minor incidents of softness, the transfer is a solid rendering of the way the film looked in theaters. The color palette has good stability, even in the sequences with the most contrast, and the light the collaborators worked so carefully to capture is vividly on display. The digital 5.1 audio track has good range, with surround channels busiest during music cues and the film’s dizzying shootout finale.
In addition to a special audio CD with selections of 1950s pop music from the film, this package includes a stash of solid supplemental features. Borrowed from the laserdisc and standard DVD released in 1998 is the “Off the Record” feature, which includes Hanson, producers David Wolper and Arnon Milchan and a handful of screen tests. Also returning from the 1998 DVD are an interactive location map and the film’s theatrical trailers. There are more than 90 minutes of excellent new documentary segments that feature extensive interviews with Hanson, Spinotti, Ellroy, all major cast members and a number of other key collaborators. Also included is the pilot for the L.A. Confidential TV series (2000) and a fun re-creation of the photo pitch Hanson used to sell the film to the studio, actors and other collaborators. Finally, in addition to a lone track featuring Jerry Goldsmith’s jazzy score, there is a jam-packed but rarely scene-specific audio commentary led by film critic Andrew Sarris; this features audio snippets cribbed from the documentary footage and nearly a dozen participants.