4 stars out of 4. A near-classic reshaping of a sprawling crime novel that glorifies the spirit of a city none will ever truly understand.
A huge work of fiction about a city that exudes explanation. A period piece about cops in the 50’s teetering on the edge of the dream factory. That it believably stars two Aussies is a testament to director Curtis Hanson’s desire to consistently toe over the line of fiction vs reality.
What L.A. Confidential does so well is not simply recreate the period as many films of this type do, but to accurately craft its story amidst the characters so that the setting just seems to fall into place naturally. By keeping the style and photography naturalistic this avoids what is now the film noir cliché that has made the term one of derision instead of one of the great American art forms. We the audience are actually allowed inside the character’s motivations and thought processes so that their arcs become the story arc and intermesh with one another so by the final credits the true plot becomes visible and concise.
It remains a film that can be revisited and firmly enjoyed time and time again because it never once insults one’s intelligence. The sure handed quality to the production creates an atmosphere of confidence which then spills over into the film itself. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to relax and enjoy a well crafted adult picture for adults that isn’t afraid to take risks in order to better serve its source material. This is most defined by the insistence upon relatively unknown leads to better suit the roles as written instead of using star power to make it more studio approachable. The usage of stars is carefully controlled to both side and character parts so that it creates a perfect balance of performers in order to better shape the world onscreen, much like the classic studio stock companies of old.
However, my one caveat to this strong recommendation is that each time I come away a bit unsatisfied. Instead of the usual feeling of being left wanting more, I get a sense of not seeing the whole picture. This is likely due from jettisoning the majority of backstories and virtually over half the novel which actually takes place over a ten year span. Thus the narrative seems even more fractured than what it should be and when the pieces are fit together one still gets the feeling of things being left out. Admittedly this is a minor qualm, but it still hasn’t gone away after all these years so I cannot simply write it off as a necessity of adapting to the screen. I have not yet read the novel and know several characters turned out wildly different so it must be viewed as more of a companion piece to the film. Yet, I still can’t shake the feeling of incompletion. This is why I can never place L.A. Confidential in the pantheon of greats, because it isn’t quite seamless in its presentation or narrative.
Any time you make a film set in the LA of the past, you invoke all the classics that have gone before and a certain stylistic approach people have in their minds. Whether or not it has anything to do with them or the hardboiled fiction that were their inspiration is irrelevant. There is one picture that was able to make that jump to classic status by incorporating more modern techniques into a poetic and timeless synthesis with the past, and one that the audience is reminded of throughout L.A. Confidential. Chinatown is that picture and probably the one time anyone ever achieved something onscreen remotely close to the poetic weathering of humanity Chandler’s prose created. The great Jerry Goldsmith provides the score to both films and one cannot help but see the similarities that the similar musical touchstones weave together.
I can write all of that above and yet still enjoy the hell out of myself revisiting this murky slice of the past. What is the most striking nearly twenty years on is just how dedicated and complete the direction is and all without the over-reliance on technology or proven trends we have today. To be completely honest it was a lucky thing to get the film made in 1997 and would be a miracle to be made in today’s landscape. It may not be completely perfect or seamless in its presentation of 1953 LA, (A number of shots can’t help but scream the 90’s.) but its well-drawn characters delving into the eroded humanity that is inherent to the city of angels is a refreshing breath of fresh air to this day.
Released on VHS, Laserdisc and DVD. The LD had a Dolby Surround mxidown and 5.1 ac3. The DVD was good for the time with DD 5.1 but suffered from noise and edge enhancement. It wasn’t updated until the simultaneous DVD SE and Blu-ray release from WB. The Blu-ray is a welcome improvement in every way. Picture quality dramatically increases with a nice natural look, good color and no visible edge enhancement. Sound is carries in the Dolby TrueHD lossless codec in the same 5.1 track. The sound is very subtle and the surrounds typically carry the scenes and only kick into high gear during the few action moments or more bombastic score cues. I did notice a slight bit of noise in one scene but overall this is a great improvement to the DVD’s lossy rendering.
Had now for a few bucks under the Fox label, this one is a steal. There is a Japanese release with slightly improved specs but likely not worth the import cost.