By David Raether, veteran TV writer and essayist
The fall of 1997 was when Curtis Hanson’s classic crime noir film, L.A. Confidential, was released. In much the same way that Peter Bogdanovich’s comedy What’s Up Doc? was an homage to the screwball comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s set in a contemporary frame, L.A. Confidential is a loving tribute to the classic film noirs of the 1940s and ‘50s.
Set in the 1950s, the film explores contemporary themes of political corruption, racism, and violence in Los Angeles, portraying the city as a dark and brooding place. The screenplay won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, along with an Oscar for Kim Basinger as Best Supporting Actress.
So what is film noir? Well, it literally means black film, and has several distinctive elements. First, film noirs are almost always shot in black and white. The cinematographic style of these films was pioneered by two great American cinematographers—Gregg Toland and Nicholas Musuraca. Toland was the cinematographer on Citizen Kane, and many film historians believe that the film’s remarkable visual style and unusual camera angles came from him. Musuraca emphasized shadow and light in the films he shot, a feature that is distinctively film noir.
A number of film critics have noted the influence of German Expressionism on the look of these films. German Expressionism was a unique type of art that developed in 1920s Weimar Germany emphasizing a distorted reality in the mediums of film, painting, and architecture. In a good film noir, the look of the movie constantly feels familiar and yet strange at the same time.
Thematically, film noirs are crime dramas. But there is an added element of cynicism and alienation. The characters all seem guilty of something. Nobody is to be fully trusted, and the world is dark, mysterious and unsettling. There is a constant undercurrent of sexual and personal betrayal and menace.
L.A. Confidential comes from a tradition of film noirs. Before you rewatch Hanson’s masterwork, check out these five movies that influenced it and the genre itself.
Talk about star power! This movie was directed by Howard Hawks (Bringing Up Baby), based on a novel by Raymond Chandler, from a screenplay by a trio of screenwriters that included Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner. Plus, it stars Humphrey Bogart as private eye Phillip Marlowe and Lauren Bacall as the alluring Mrs. Vivian Rutledge. Everyone’s motives are suspect as Marlowe tries to make his way through a world of family intrigue and murder.
Another dark-side-of-Hollywood tale, this time starring Jack Palance, Ida Lupino, and the magnificent Shelley Winters. There’s lots of yelling and recriminations and regrets in this movie. And it goes really dark; be aware that it ends with a suicide. This picture is based on a play by seminal American playwright Clifford Odets, and was directed by Robert Aldrich, who directed these classics of American film: Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), The Dirty Dozen (1967), and The Longest Yard (1974).
Set in San Francisco, this film was based on a police procedural drama of the same name on CBS radio. (Yes, radio!) It’s a taut thriller about San Francisco detective Ben Guthrie (Warner Anderson) pursuing two psychopathic killers (Eli Wallach and Robert Keith) who are involved in a drug-smuggling operation. The lineage of Guy Pearce’s straight arrow detective in L.A. Confidential, Ed Exley, can be traced pretty clearly back to Anderson’s Lt. Ben Guthrie.
Back in the early ‘70s, Paramount head Robert Evans took screenwriter Robert Towne out to lunch and offered him the then-enormous sum of $100,000 to adapt F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, for the screen. Towne reportedly turned down the offer saying, “I don’t want to try to outdo Fitzgerald.” Instead, Towne offered to sell Evans a screenplay he had written about water rights in the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles. Disappointed, Evans reluctantly bought the screenplay for a relatively paltry $20,000. The rest is film history. Chinatown became one of the finest American films ever made. Directed by Roman Polanski, and starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston. If you haven’t seen this movie in a while, watch it again. If you’ve never seen it, what are you waiting for?
By the way, here’s a piece of trivia about Chinatown. Many people think the last line of the film is: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” But the last line of the film is actually: “As little as possible.” Inspired by a real comment, Nicholson mutters it to himself after witnessing a horrific killing he inadvertently caused.
This refers to a piece of advice that screenwriter Towne received from two real-life Los Angeles cops when doing a ride-along in Chinatown. He asked them what their approach was in policing a section of the city that had complicated ethnic and criminal gang elements.
Because they often couldn’t tell who were the good guys and who were the bad guys, they replied, “We do as little as possible.” As cynical a piece of Los Angeles advice as you will ever hear.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication. You can follow him on Twitter @davidraether.