No Longer Confidential:
How L.A. Confidential Redefines Film Noir by Reversing the Tropes of the Genre
While many argue that films in the Western genre are the most representative of the time period they were made, film noir may actually be even more representative of its time. Born during a period when American Nationalism was at an all time high, the noir came to fruition when the whiter you were, the more American you were. As the genre matured, tropes within it started to become more recognizable and mirror 1950’s American ideals. The most notable among these were that, white men, especially those in the institutions that upheld order such as the police, were of proper moral standing, minorities and non-Americans brought evil into the country, and women that were sexually promiscuous existed to bring the downfall of man. Because L.A. Confidential (1997) came out in a time when America was more progressive, the film goes against these typical noir concepts by systematically tearing down the tropes of the genre by showcasing the corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department, highlighting how minorities are blamed for crimes they were not part of, and identifying how women are exploited and then setup to be the femme fatale by men.
The plot of L.A. Confidential is similar to that of classic noirs. Set in 1950’s Los Angeles, L.A. Confidential follows three police officers, Bud White (Russell Crow), Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), and Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) as they investigate the homicide of a fellow ex-officer. As the plot webs through several interesting characters, including a tabloid magnate (Danny DeVito), a Veronica Lake look-alike prostitute (Kim Basinger), and a millionaire with shady dealings (David Stratharin), the film explores themes of corruption and morality by challenging the LAPD officers. By the end of the film, those that are normally portrayed as bad, such as minorities and femme fatales, are understood to be byproducts of white male power while those that are considered model citizens, like white police officers, are ripped apart for taking advantage of their power.
During the opening act of L.A. Confidential, film historian William Luhr states the film, “explicitly condemns white racism and associates evil not with exotisized peoples from across the border but with the white power structure.” As a result, L.A. Confidential removes the credibility of Anglo-centric institutions by showing that police officers not only operate in a grey area, but a downright illegal area, contrary to that of officers in classic noirs. In noirs of the forties and fifties, police officers are typically portrayed as the epitome of good. Because of the Hays code, which censored films in Hollywood, it had to be clear to the audience who the bad guys were and who the good guys were. According to Mick LaSalle “In the case of politicians, police and judges, they could, under some circumstances, be movie villains, so long as it was clear that they were bad apples and not representative of their institutions.” As a result, only individual officers could be seen as villains, not the entire department. In order to avoid this distinction and get around the code, noirs of this period used the private investigator in place of the police detective. Because the private investigator was not considered real law enforcement, filmmakers were free to make these characters more questionable than their officer counterparts as the code would not cite the film for negatively portraying social institutions. This adhesion to telling the story through the private investigator is completely absent from L.A. Confidential, as the film whole-heartedly explores the idea of the entire Los Angeles Police Department as being corrupt. In the opening act of the film, the audience sees Bud destroy the Christmas decorations of someone committing domestic assault, Jack take a bribe for arresting a marijuana smoker, and Ed as he is openly asked by his police chief if he is willing to beat a confession out of someone. Right off the bat, all three of the central lead police officers have their morality checked and two of the three choose to break the law without a second question. If a film did this in the fifties, the Hays code would instantly reject the film and it would never see the light of day, but in post Rodney King America, audiences are aware that the LAPD is not a bastion of proper morals. Because of the highly publicized case of Rodney King, a black motorist, being assaulted by police officers in Los Angeles in 1991, by the time L.A. Confidential was released in 1997, the idea of corrupt police was no longer new to film audiences. Allowing the film to explore a story about morally corrupt police detectives.
Now that the film has corrected the conception that police officers are infallible, L.A. Confidential next dismantles the idea that ethnic groups are inherently immoral by showing how they are incorrectly framed for crimes they did not commit because of racial bias. Throughout L.A. Confidential, there are two prominent instances in which minorities clash with police officers. The first of which is in the opening act where most of the LAPD assaults a group of Mexicans that are rumored to have assaulted and killed a fellow officer. While some of the younger officers try to limit or stop the beating, the older officers do not question whether or not it is right to beat up the group. While it can be argued that the attack is just revenge fueled, there is additional evidence suggesting that the officers act on racism. For example, when the police department interacts with a group of African Americans, the group is already assumed guilty of homicide by the force before questioning starts, showing racial bias does play into the forces’ decisions. After linking three black men to the crime, the police department does not look much further in the investigation. It is later discovered in the film, that the group was not responsible for the homicide and the arrests could have been avoided if the police dug just slightly deeper for evidence. In classic film noir, minorities were not later exonerated for their crimes as society at the time believed ethnic groups were inherently immoral and wanted to see them punished. However, by the late nineties, the civil rights movement of the 60’s propelled the image of minorities. As a result, L.A. Confidential is able to depict that minorities were falsely accused of crimes and were incarcerated because of racial bias.
Finally, the film attempts to reverse the status of the much-abused femme fatale, who is finally given sympathy and shown to only be an agent of men looking to cause harm in other men. The long-standing tradition of the femme fatale is that she causes the downfall of the men around her. The seductive female has always been able to entice the protagonist of the film to do things they typically would not, putting the protagonist in precarious situations. As a result, while the audience likes to observe the physical attributes of the femme fatale, they do not like her as a person and rejoice when the hard-nosed private investigator punishes her for her sins. However, L.A. Confidential portrays its femme fatale in a different context by offering her a bit more sympathy. The femme fatale in the film is a prostitute named Lynn Bracken. Not only is Lynn supposed to look like Veronica Lake, she is supposed to actually be Veronica Lake. Lynn works for an escort service whose gimmick is that they use plastic surgery to make their prostitutes resemble famous film stars. By setting up Lynn’s character in this way, the film implies the idea that the femme fatale is a manufactured concept made by men for men. But what does this really mean for the audience? When Lynn is told by the escort service owner to cheat on Bud with Ed, the audience holds Lynn less accountable for her crimes as they see she is only a tool being used to hurt the protagonist as she really is against hurting Bud. The audience realizes this later in the film when Bud assaults Lynn and instead of rejoicing about Lynn being punished, they are hurt that Bud would do something so heinous to a woman. While the idea of a man hitting a woman in any other genre would naturally evoke this response from the audience, it is quite revolutionary that in a noir the audience is on the side of the film’s femme fatale. As a result, the film does what most other classic noirs do not, with the exception of perhaps Rita Heyworth in Gilda, which is give sympathy to women and show that they are not the ones looking to be the downfall of men and instead are exploited by men. The reason that this idea has found its way into film noir is because, like the civil rights movement did for minorities, the feminism movement has brought to the forefront the idea that men routinely exploit women for their own purposes. Challenging the conception that the femme fatale’s corruption of men was part of their agenda.
Accurately reflecting the new views society had towards race and sex in the late nineties, L.A. Confidential represents how noir can stay the same in conventions and also completely flip on the ideas that it projects. Through tearing down the previously infallible police force, defending ethnic groups, and sympathizing with the femme fatale, the film implies ideas that are opposite to what classic noir is known for. Because of film noir’s ability to stay relevant with the times and structurally resemble the classics of the genre, it will be able to remain intact for years to come which may serve as the answer to why the genre was been so integral to film since it started out nearly seventy years ago.
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