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LA Confidential and Film Noir
One of the most influential film movements in the 1940 s was a genre that is known today as film noir. Film noir was a recognizable style of filmmaking, which was created in response to the rising cost of typical Hollywood movies (Buss 67). Film noir movies were often low budget films; they used on location shoots, small casts, and black and white film. The use of black and white film stock not only lowered production costs, but also displayed a out of place disposition that the conventions of film noir played upon. It is these conventions: themes, characters, lighting, sound, and composition, which are seen in the movie LA Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997). This paper discusses the techniques used in LA Confidential that link the movie with the typical cinematic conventions of the film noir style.
Film noir often tackled subjects that dealt with common underlying themes: corruption, deceit, mystery, etc (Sobchack, 271). One of the most well known and acclaimed pioneers in film noir is the movie The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941). This film was based on a private investigator, Sam Spade, hired to investigate a case. The Maltese Falcon is now viewed as the typical film noir style movie because it contains traits and qualities of filmmaking that were adapted by film noir filmmakers. Film noir started during the mid 1940 s and has been a popular film style ever since, yielding such contemporary movies like The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, 1995), Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994), and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (Guy Ritchie, 1998). These films have proved that film noir is not a method dedicated to past decades, but rather an innovative style of film that influences movies today.
LA Confidential, like other contemporary film noirs utilize many stylistic qualities that the earlier film noir movies grasped. Often times film noir movies were based upon corruption, usually in an urban type setting. Location in these movies would often times consist of nighttime scenes in a busy city. Los Angles, the location of LA Confidential, is a typical setting for film noir movies due to its newer west coast image and the absence of rural traditions. The city was chosen largely because of its informality. People living in a city do not interact with each other as people of a small town might. Film noir played upon the idea of loneliness and solitude; two traits that are easily found in a big city (Monaco 246).
Nighttime scenes were chosen because of the mystery that comes with darkness. Night projects a feeling to the viewer that he or she would not absorb in the daytime, very much the same way horror movies play themselves upon the night. Just like the basis of the big city, film noir acts upon the conventions of mystery and suspense: it is easier for the filmmaker to play with the viewer s emotions if he or she is placed in a setting of uneasiness. The nighttime images in LA Confidential portray that anxiety and allow the mystery of the plot to expand. This use of nighttime and darker images lends the movie to take advantage of the stylistic low-key lighting.
The movie begins with the narration of Sid Hudgens, editor for Hush Hush magazine, a sleazy tabloid concerned with getting a news story no matter what the consequences are. Typical of film noir, the story is adapted from a tabloid or pulp fiction novel. Sid Hudgens describes a town of beauty, filled with beaches, people, and economic potential. He tells how anyone can achieve the American dream in Los Angeles and how it truly is the greatest place to live. Sid s voice suddenly turns sour as he reveals the truth about Los Angeles: an image is sold to the gullible; a pleasant image sent throughout the media. Unfortunately, it s all a lie.
The story continues with the addition of Edmund Exley to the Los Angeles Police Department. Exley is a skilled detective with all of the book smarts a cop could possess. Usually, the protagonist in film noir would have an inner conflict between what he feels is right, and what is expected of him. In the movie, Exley must decide if giving up his chance for promotion is reason enough to fight for what he believes is right. The catch is that he immediately clashes with the rest of the force.
It turns out that behind the honorable image of the LAPD, the force is a horribly corrupt authority revolving around money, power, and fame. Film noir commonly hid themes of corruption, deceit, and crookedness behind an idea of the American dream (Schatz 113). This idea is boldly seen in the movie American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999). One of the arguments in the movie suggests that behind every seemingly normal family is a household of embarrassment.
Edmund s co-workers, Bud White, Jack Vincennes, and Dudley Smith are more interested in advancement than honesty. When a case is solved in Los Angeles, there is a big to-do about the man behind the case. This publicity allows an officer to advance in the department, but also blurs the truth about the actual case findings. Edmund comes to a point in the movie where he decides to testify against his peers, throwing away any chance he has for betterment, but at the same time preserving his integrity. This was common in film noir: the idea that sacrifices must be made for absolute justice.
Edmund believes that a cop should do everything by the book and honesty, where Bud White believes that as long as justice is served, justice is served. In the movie, Bud decides to shoot a suspect, and manipulate the scene as though it appears that the suspect shot at Bud first. Bud did this to prevent the suspect from getting off on some loophole in the justice system. As it turns out, the suspect was innocent of the crime. This is another film noir convention: the first suspect is usually not the one that the protagonist is after. In addition, the LAPD distorts the truth not only in favor of serving justice but to make some extra money as well. Sid Hudgens pays cops like Jack Vincennes to create stories for Hush Hush magazine.
Edmund Exley is the typical good cop. He was the son of a cop who unfortunately had the same reputation as the other cops; the lawless reputation that led to the police force s downfall. Edmund, we quickly see, is not a team player only because the team will not let him play. He quickly achieves respect from Dudley Smith, the captain; however, is never fully liked by him because he constantly gives up opportunities to advance. Edmund, unlike his co-worker and co-protagonist Bud White, believes that a cop is a respectable job, unneeded of extra attention: a well-done job is all the reward anyone could ever want. This idea that the hero often avoids the fame of success because is compromises his moral code is typical of film noir. It is also the idea that Bud White is taught to grasp throughout the movie.
Bud White is the exact opposite of Exley: he believes that the right thing to do is to get justice before asking questions. Bud s character is written so that he clashes with Exley, often times a quality in film noir and also cop films. Usually there embodies a duo whose other half is a total opposite. Using these two distinct personalities, film noir allows the two main characters to build upon one another, helping in the development of the story. It also allows each of the characters to understand their own particular flaws; that is they learn from the mistakes of the other one. Bud also interacts with Lynn Bracken, the femme fatale, and the two build upon each other as well.
We can immediately see the corruption in the movie through a seemingly cut and dry case, when it is linked to a larger conspiracy. Like the Maltese Falcon, the movie involves a mysterious case with several twists throughout. Those twists are often established with an essential character known as the femme fatale. In The Maltese Falcon, as well as many other film noir movies, the femme fatale plays an important role in creating a character that builds in development throughout the movie.
Lynn Bracken, a prostitute cut to look like Veronica Lake, plays the part of the femme fatale who aids in the development of Bud White. We see in the movie that Miss Bracken is a small town girl with real hopes, dreams, and ambitions. In some film noirs we are led to believe that the femme fatale is the destructive force which leads to the protagonist s downfall (Maxfield). In LA Confidential, Curtis Hanson uses the femme fatal as an aid to help the protagonist mend his errors. This is the role Lynn plays aside Bud White, a cop with a weak spot for women, and a vengeance for those who beat them.
In the LA Confidential screenplay, Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson do a remarkably well job of developing Miss Bracken into an unforgettable femme fatale. We are first introduced to her as a person and not an object, despite the fact that her job makes her look like an object rather than a person. We are to immediately react to her personality, finding something in her that we understand with. She is an innocent person being driven by a more powerful force. In most film noir movies, the femme fatale is a stereotype. Lynn Bracken however, is not a stereotype in the way that most other film noir movies make the femme fatale: that is that the femme fatale uses her appeal to distract the protagonist. Nonetheless, we still see her as a stereotype: the hooker with the heart of gold.
Film noir movies like to project an image that tends to hide or obstruct reality. As mentioned before, the image of an honorable police force mocks the actual corruption. It is then ironic, that the police force in LA Confidential is affiliated with the television show Badge of Honor. Hanson uses the show to project an image into our subconscious. In the television show, the media s interpretation of the Los Angeles Police Department is emphasized. Equally ironic, the show Badge of Honor is just as corrupt as the police department is; cast members are blackmailed in favor of obtaining stories for Hush Hush magazine.
Hanson also uses cinematic and film techniques to help project the typical conventions of film noir. Some of these techniques are used very much in the same way older style film noir movies were done in, while other techniques were created to adapt to the modern expectations of the viewer. In addition, some techniques used mostly because of modern Hollywood conventions are actually used to help the film noir develop.
Looking at the film stock used in LA Confidential compared to film stocks used in other film noir movies, both film stocks display a concept that enhances the film noir style. The Maltese Falcon was filmed in a high speed, grainy, black and white film stock. Black and white film was originally used because it was cheaper to make and develop than color. Black and white also created a documentary feel to the movie, and projected a sense of realism. Quickly, the use of black and white added to the mood of film noir, making it a common practice. The graininess of the film stock helped in distorting the film into an unbalanced media. Using black and white film turned this genre into a no longer clean cut, pleasing film style. It was intended to keep the viewers on the edge of their seats, and the grainy film stock help in doing just that.
However, the film audiences over the years have come to trust in color film stock, as it shortens the separation from the imaginary and the real. Hanson however, uses the color film to his advantage, creating a seedy mood. In Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981) for example, Kasdan uses the color to his advantage much like Hanson does in LA Confidential. Both use color to heighten the impact of certain items on the viewer. In the night owl scene, Hanson takes advantage of the psychological effects that blood portrays in the movie. With black and white film, blood looks like chocolate syrup, which does very little in grabbing the audience for commiseration. If we can see the deep redness of the blood, the killing seem more real, the case more important, and the need to discover the truth more significant.
Another imperative aspect of filmmaking is the idea of lighting. Now it is important to know that in film noir the concept is lighting, not illuminating. Where illuminating is used to generate enough light to visually see the subjects, lighting provides the right amount of light to create a mood. It is also important to know that the typical way to light a scene is to use a three point lighting system. This method consists of three lights, each having their own purpose on lighting the scene.
The key light is used to generate the majority of the light, or to illuminate the scene. However, if a subject is shot with one light, severe shadows are attached to the subject. To drown those shadows out, a fill light is used. This fill light is placed at the opposite corner, almost like a second corner of a triangle. The harsh shadows are then washed out, providing an even light at the subject. Then a third light, the back light, is placed behind the subject and off to the side to illuminate the back of the subject. This separates the subject from the background, creating a sense of depth in the two-dimensional screen space.
LA Confidential uses unconventional lighting to portray disturbing images. Instead of three lights, only one or two lights are used. Or sometimes the low-key lighting is achieved by turning down the fill light, creeping up the shadows. This technique is used to break the film free from the conventions of the classical Hollywood style, which is what film noir did in the 1940 s. For example, there are dimly or low-key shots of the villains to portray a negative image of that character. Likewise, a brightly-lit hero can project the protagonist as more of a likeable character. In addition, by using no back light, the subject might tend to be lost into the background, adding to the sense of disorientation that is carried throughout the film.
Other movies have made use of stylistic lighting as well. In The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972), Coppola uses a single light above Marlon Brando s face to create a seriously disturbing image. With the light positioned directly above his face, pointed down, Brando s eye sockets are completely darkened. We can only see certain parts of his face, and what we do see is not very complimentary. Of course, the idea was not to portray Brando as a bright, happy person, but a dark, seedy villain instead.
Composition also helps in the conventions of film noir as seen in LA Confidential. Canting the shot, or using a Dutch angle, tilts the scene to one side, creating another typical uneasy event. Usually, canting a shot symbolizes that something is about to or has already gone wrong. The Dutch angles also compliment the skewed lines that are formed in the mise-en-scene. Film noir tended to use the mise-en-scene to compliment what was going on in the story at the time. Film noir took these conventions from German expressionism, which was developed in order to portray an eerie reality (Schatz, 116). Hanson uses these type of shots during the shoot-out scenes between the police force and the enemy. Another, and probably most impressive use of canting is when the police force riots against the prisoners. We are shown overhead with an abnormal angle, with the camera jerking us around, creating as sense of confusion.
Various shots are often used to send signals to the viewer in the film. Edmund Exley is often times shot from below. This creates an angle in which Edmund s physique is distorted, making him look more powerful and more of a hero. In Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), many shots are used from underneath the character, to make them appear more powerful and more heroic than a normal front view shot would have appeared (Schatz, 121). Likewise, shooting a subject from above creates a downward angle on the screen. This degrades the character, creating a shallow and horrible person. In LA Confidential, Hanson uses these angles for the criminals.
A soundtrack is also imperative in portraying a theme in film noir. To start out, the musical score in a film reflects on the characters and the growth taking place at the time. In LA Confidential, when Edmund is dejected by hi colleagues, the soundtrack is a somber, almost slow type of music. When Bud White reveals himself to Lynn Bracken, the music is soft, adding to the sentimentality of the scene. When both Edmund and Bud solve the case at the end of the movie, the music is more uplifting. However, at no point in the movie does the music become too upbeat: even when the music is uplifting, it still has traits of depression, a quality in film noir music.
In addition to the soundtrack, sound is used to help the film along. In a typical street scene, we might hear the sound of other people talking, cars passing by, or a radio playing. In LA Confidential, the absence of sound as well as the focus of sound is used. Instead of walking down a busy street with people talking, Edmund is walking down a dark, vacant street. We can also hear nothing but his footsteps, adding to the feeling of loneliness in the city that film noir tends to portray. Simple sounds such as gun shots, pencils tapping against a desk, or doors closing are heightened so that we are made more aware of them. Hanson wants us to feel the loudness of the gunshot, heightening its impact upon the target.
In closing, LA Confidential makes use of cinematic and story-line techniques to link the movie with the conventions of typical film noir movies. Though LA Confidential, like many other contemporary film noir movies adapt certain practices to a modern audience, the filmmakers find ways to make those adaptations necessary in developing the film noir style. A basic message is portrayed by both generations of film noir: corruption is hidden behind a fa ade of honorable images. It is safe to say then, whether film noir comes in the form of LA Confidential, Pulp Fiction, Chinatown, or ever The Maltese Falcon, film noir is a genre accepted and loved by all generations, keeping it a method of filmmaking that will never fade.
Buss, Robin. French Film Noir. New York: Marion Boyans, 1988.
Dequina, Michael. LA Confidential. Available: http://www.imdb.com/reviews/89/8945.
Ebert, Roger. LA Confidential. Available: http://www.suntimes.com/ebert/ebert_reviews/1997/09/091903.html
Maxfield, James. The Fatal Woman: Source of Male Anxiety in American Film Noir, 1941-1991. London: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996.
Monaco, James. How to Read a Film. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Schatz, Thomas. Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking and the Studio System. New York, New York: Random House, 1981.
Sobchack, Thomas and Vivian C. Sobchack. An Introduction to Film. Boston: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1987.
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