Directed by Curtis Hanson
Starring Russell Crowe, Kim Basinger, Kevin Spacey, Guy Pearce
Warner Home Video; widescreen (2.35:1)
Extras: Interactive map tour of the film's locations, a making-of documentary, Hanson's photo pitch, more
You want backroom deals, civic corruption and wanton police violence? "L.A. Confidential" delivers them in spades. Adapted from James Ellroy's wicked take on Los Angeles' history, it's also informed by the kind of Angeleno apocalypse Mike Davis brought to life in "City of Quartz." Where else could you hear dialogue like "I want to do an all-hophead issue, all schvartze jazz musicians and movie stars!"? The film revels in the "evil that men do as they satisfy their ambitions while building a city in the desert" theme that "Chinatown" pioneered in the 1970s. But "L.A. Confidential" doesn't have the same layers of nuance; it embraces the happy-ending theory of filmmaking, which finds Russell Crowe's lion of a character instantly falling in love with Kim Basinger's high-class call girl, the two of them ultimately driving off to small-town Bisbee, Ariz., for a bucolic recovery from the urban blight.
While "L.A. Confidential" was a critical success at least partly because of its character-driven plot, the DVD fixates on that hulking fourth protagonist, the city itself, juxtaposing its sometimes-shady history with the mythical land of movies, sun and sand. In one of the nicest extras, director Curtis Hanson lends a breathily melodramatic voice-over to descriptions of the present-day status and history of locations in the film. It's a treat to learn that City Hall was the home of Superman's Daily Planet building in the '50s serials -- those are the kind of details that provide the perfect counterpoint to the sense that L.A. is constantly vacillating between "real" history and its presence on film.
A smattering of other DVD clips provides historical background on L.A.'s mob scene and the Bloody Christmas scandal -- which figure prominently in the picture -- but the most valuable feature is a short documentary on the making of the film. Gems include snippets of Crowe's and Guy Pearce's screen tests. It's easy to see how Crowe became the Insider, the Gladiator and, in general, an all-around thoughtful Mel Gibson replacement for mainstream American cinema.
Hanson spends much of the documentary discussing how his vision for the film arose from still photographs of the era. He pitched the film to the actors by sitting them down in the Formosa Café -- the place where, in the movie, straight-arrow Ed Exley (Pearce) mistakes Lana Turner for a prostitute -- and narrating the story over the photographs. Hanson also muses about the theme of illusion and reality as it relates to the film world and his portrayal of the '50s. But the really interesting segments are the ones in which Hanson and his cinematographer, Dante Spinotti, discuss how they wanted to create a new type of noir film using naturalistic lighting. Unlike '40s and '50s noir, "Chinatown" and "L.A. Confidential" portray evil not as some creature cosseted in shadows but as a gentleman strolling under the midday sun. Indeed, it's men like that who built and ran the city.
A fascinating subtext woven throughout the documentary is Hanson's and producer Arnon Milchan's contention that the film was incredibly easy to make. It requires a suspension of disbelief to buy Milchan's declaration that it was the passion in Hanson's eyes that made him want to make this film; we've been so conditioned to think of big Hollywood producers as scheming hustlers out of "The Player" who don't care about the creative merit of their productions. But Milchan appears refreshingly free of the slimy, wheeler-dealer persona, and his credits speak for him; they include movies as disparate as "Free Willy," "Pretty Woman," "Brazil" and "Fight Club." Those movies, along with "L.A. Confidential," make for a pretty good summation of Hollywood's paradox: high culture, experimental film and crass commercialism, all packaged in tempting strips of celluloid.