Film noir is a retrospective cinematic term referring to a collective era of stylish Hollywood crime dramas. Prominent in the 1940s through 1950s, its films emphasized cynicism and sexuality, frequently flipping popular conventions of gender and masculinity. Women are often portrayed as cunning and intelligent characters designed to work over the males in sexually-motivated manners. These typically low-budget stories told hardboiled crime fiction tales that reflected the post-Depression, wartime and postwar sentiments of society.
Stylistically, noir films are associated with low-key black and white visuals that spawned from the cinematography of German Expressionism, despite the term’s French name (meaning “black film”). The dark stocks lowered production costs but also established the conventions of lighting, sound, and composition that defined the genre. Jump forward to modern filmmaking and we find the term neo-noir referring to a similar brand of crime drama with modernized themes, content, and visual style not possible in the original noir era. One of the most prominent and well-received examples of the neo-noir style is L.A. Confidential (1997). The film is more than just an homage to a former era of filmmaking -- it’s evidence that the relevancy of the style still influences filmmaking decades later.
Corruption and deceit are two of noir’s most common themes, and L.A. Confidential is brimming with both. For the bulk of the picture, there isn’t a clear antagonist. Every player has the possibility of suddenly emerging as the foe; and of course, one eventually does. For the majority of the labyrinthine story, all the major characters appear to be on the same side as they investigate seemingly segregated and wild plot points that suggest irrelevant and unrelated origins. Yet right around the time the film uncovers its sinister masterminds, it also manages to connect all the dots and pick up the breadcrumbs it had been leaving behind. As The New York Times wrote in their 1997 review, the film is a “vigorously surprising tale that qualifies as true mystery rather than arbitrary thriller and that revels in its endless complications.”
This twisted crime mystery is ripe with double-crosses, cover-ups, shady dealings, crooked cops, and bad blood -- exactly the stuff noir is made of. Voice-over narration guiding us through these shifts is popular, too. L.A. Confidential doesn’t exactly have one, but it plays with the idea using Danny DeVito’s character Sid Hudgens, a writer for the local Confidential stand-in gossip publication Hush Hush.
Roger Ebert writes, “L.A. Confidential is described as film noir, and so it is, but it is more: Unusually for a crime film, it deals with the psychology of the characters, for example in the interplay between the two men who are both in love with Basinger's hooker. It contains all the elements of police action, but in a sharply clipped, more economical style; the action exists not for itself but to provide an arena for the personalities. The dialogue is lovely; not the semiparody of a lot of film noir, but the words of serious people trying to reveal or conceal themselves. And when all of the threads are pulled together at the end, you really have to marvel at the way there was a plot after all, and it all makes sense, and it was all right there waiting for someone to discover it.”
Noir is typically the tale of a loner. Bogart’s Sam Spade captured it well in The Maltese Falcon (1941), and the cops in L.A. Confidential are hardly social animals. Though they operate as part of a police force and not a one-man PD agency, they all come with a sense of distance -- from each other, from the group, and often from themselves. Each has their own inner problem: Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is smart but immoral, Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is obsessively “by the book” and lives in the shadow of his cop father, and White (Russell Crowe) is angry and vengeful, with a desire to help women in distress that clearly overcompensates for something in his past. (Here, the voluptuous and commanding Kim Basinger serves as the ambiguously trustworthy Lynn Bracken, the axis upon which many of the film’s men pivot. ) The Los Angeles setting amplifies the loner theme with its informality. Those who aren’t somebody in Hollywood are nobody, and with a cast of actors who (in 1997) were all unknown faces, L.A. Confidential is a film full of nobodies.
Director Curtis Hanson spends plenty of time in the daylight, but when things go dark, he truly opens the noir playbook and puts shadows and lighting to use. Noir is an existential genre that plays on the emotions of its hero/antiheroes. It forces them into desperate situations or nihilistic moral systems. When Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) asks Ed Exley if he “would be willing to shoot hardened criminals in the back to offset the chance--” he’s setting up themes as well as foreshadowing plot. There is a sense of uneasiness in the nighttime, and the majority of the film’s harder emotional moments take place in the shadows. When those classic prison bar shadows make their entrance in the film, it stands as a beautiful combination of old and new filmmaking.
The dark dialogue throughout the film is terse and pithy. Captain Smith spouts some of the film’s most memorable lines, such as “Go back to Jersey, sonny. This is the City of the Angels, and you haven't got any wings,” and “Don't start trying to do the right thing, boy-o. You haven't the practice.”
The “honorable” police force in L.A. Confidential mocks its true corruptive nature. Noir movies traditionally create an image that obstructs reality. The image of the LAPD in L.A. Confidential is further managed by their involvement with the Dragnet-style show Badge of Honor, for which Jack Vincennes serves as technical advisor. The show, as corrupt as the LAPD itself, maintains the image of the real police force through fictional programming. It’s a clever design of obstructing reality within a greater obstruction.
L.A. Confidential builds upon the genre that birthed its type of storytelling and puts a modern spin on the material. It’s overly-complicated, excessively violent, undeniably nihilistic, and rooted in the traditions of film noir.