Wednesday, 28 November 2007

L.A. Confidential

Martin Hall goes all noir on us with a piece about L.A. Confidential.

For decades, audiences have swarmed to the big screen to view these shadowy masterpieces. Creating careers for such greats as Cagney, Bogart, Edward G Robinson, Bacall and more, these films have now evolved into Neo-Noirs spawning the newly released L.A. Confidential (1997). But why is it that we still love these films after nearly 70 years in evolution?

Film Noir is not an easily definable genre as such. It is more a matter of tone and mood being generally pessimistic in and tone reflective in mood; A genre which works around a myriad of frameworks such as Docu Noir (The Enforcer 1976), Heist Noir (The Asphalt Jungle 1950), Amnesia Noir (The Long Wait 1954), Gangster Noir (High Sierra 1941), Woman-in-distress Noir (My Name Is Julia Ross 1945), and runaway Noir (You Only Live Once 1937) to name but a few. These numerous frameworks work around a similar character structure and cinematography making Film Noir more of an umbrella term than a specific genre description.

Conventionally, in a Film Noir the male character must choose between two women. The first, a devoted woman who is loyal and in love with him, the second the Femme Fatale. This Femme Fatale will use the male character for personal gain to help her achieve money or power.
Film Noirs make use of dark sets, single source lighting with copious shadows and the effective use of chiaroscuro. Single source lighting was preferred as a result of necessity as during WWII, film production was massively reduced and there was little finance within the Hollywood film industry to pay for equipment. And so in an attempt to reduce costing within the industry only one light source was used; this also hid the fact that a full set was not always constructed, another budgetary flaw.
Night scenes, which were hugely popular during the silent-era of film making, were impossible to effect due to the noisy and bulky equipment required. However, as technology advanced, it brought lighter cameras and greater creative possibilities for cinematographers.

The stylistics of Film Noir features was directly influenced by German expressionist cinema of the 20s and 30s. Characteristics such as montage, surreal settings, cantered camera angles and inventive cinematography were directly influenced by this movement. German films emphasised a character’s psychology and analysed their actions, looking more at what they were thinking such as in Fritz Lang’s M (1931). This expressionist approach to film making inaugurated the ‘Black’ style utilised by directors of the time and created a model for the coming Film Noir genre.

The majority of Film Noir motifs such as criminal content, tough male characters, costume and period echo the Hollywood gangster. It was during America’s post 1929 Depression – era in which most gangster Noirs were spawned, such as Little Caesar (1931) and The Public Enemy (1931). These films reflected the attitudes and trends of America and encompassed themes of the period at hand, organised crime, murder and corruption. Filmmakers presented contemporaneous themes within their films. As events such as Prohibition, Depression in America and eventually War were what were happening during the birth of this genre, the attitude of Film Noir became a sombre and pessimistic one.

With this influx of Gangster Noirs, there was an outcry from the Legion of Decency that the placing of this criminal iconography in the forefront of the public conscience was corruptive and would cause imitation. This led the evolution of Gangster Noirs in which actors typecast as gangsters reversed roles and portrayed the side of good. This is evident in ‘G’ Men (1935) for example, in which James Cagney plays the government official and not, as expected, the gangster.

During the 60s and 70’s there was a substantial decrease in the number of Film Noirs released due to the changing attitudes in film making. However, during the mid 80s, the early Noir Fiction novels were republished causing an eruption in the creation of modern Film Noirs known as Neo – Noirs. Thus films such as The Big Easy (1987) and Blood Simple (1985) were created. Some of these, such as L.A Confidential, retained the on-screen time period whereas most updated the genre and placed the film within modern day society. For example, Dirty Harry (1971), Clint Eastwood as a hardened cop in 1970’s America, nonetheless this is most certainly a Film Noir as it exhibits a degree of cynicism and pessimism and classic Gangster and Runaway Noir narrative characteristics.

So now, with our optimistic lifestyles and bright futures, why do we hark back to the past and look to crime for entertainment? Unlike the by gone days of classic Film Noirs, film makers today have no political view or standpoint but appear to be concerned with style and content. The Film Noir offers filmmakers a huge creative canvass upon which to paint their masterpiece. With its shady sets, expressionistic lighting and a 1950s’ aesthetic, L.A. Confidential is a smash. With a story line to match and a list of stars to impress, L.A Confidential promises to be a huge success.

The Film Noir genre is one, which has been pastiched and parodied myriad times over the years such as in Blade Runner (1982), an eclectic film drawing tremendously from Film Noir. This pastiche draws from the paradigms of Amnesia Noir and Runaway Noir but relies heavily also upon the conventions of Sci-Fi. Films such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) successfully parodied Film Noir as Bob Hoskins and the comic character Roger made fun of its conventions.
With modern writers such as James Ellroy and Edward Bunker (Straight Time 1978) having their novels adapted for the screen, Film Noir, hosting a stylistic and thematic legacy, will continue to visit our screens for a long time to come.

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