LA Confidential; Hegel & the Film Noir

By Rick Segreda

Curtis Hanson's LA Confidential,adapted by Hanson and Brian Helgeland from James Ellroy's novel, won more critic's awards as Best Picture last year than any other film in any other year in recent memory. That being so, it didn't really go over big at the box office, making a modest profit of 50 million dollars, which is not bad, but certainly not Titanic grosses, much less anything like Scream or Men in Black, both of which earned profits in the range of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Don't get me wrong-I liked Titanic, but far prefered LA Confidential, and it is the latter film, with it's stylish recreation of post-WWII Los Angeles that should be a popular culture phenomenom. But it is not. Part of the problem is that for the last 25 years the prevailing movie audience has been teenagers, who determine what films are "in." LA Confidential is very much an adult movie, not only in that it is preoccupied with 30-something and 40-something adults, but also, and probably most difficult for the box office, it manages to both uplifting but disturbing at the same time, suggesting in a very adult way that (1) a very realistic and dangerous corruption can exist at the core of institutions, such as a police department, that are meant to maintain peace and justice in our society and (2) such corruption can be defeated, but not completely, and not without risks and sacrifices.

The essential narrative involves the investigation of a massacre at an Los Angeles diner, supposedly a mere cash register robbery, but one that has left every patron and staff at the diner brutally murdered. This particular plot is developed alongside another investigation story involving a case of police brutality against Mexican-Americans. Three police detectives with very different backgrounds, attitudes, and approaches to their work become involved in the search for answers in both plots, and along the way one officer, played by Kevin Spacey, regains a sense of idealism that he had lost in the cynical environment of his work, while the two others, played by Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe, evolve from animosity in their relationhsip to a solidarity based on an growing understanding and appreciation of each other's qualities as police officers and human beings.

Their investigations leads to a discovery of profound and entrenched corruption existing within the police department and the city government, and ultimately the struggle for good over evil involves pain, death, and sacrifice, and, again, most fatally for feel-good box office potential, the acceptance that justice is not always %100 triumphant, but that even %75 is a good thing.

Curiosly, this latter, and unique, quality of LA Confidential seems appropriate to a Hegelian approach to the evolution of film noir as a genre, even though it is not sync with current pop culture. In the old Hollywood of the 1940's, even in the darkest noir thrillers, such as The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, and Nightmare Alley, justice, or Justice, was always complete and triumphant. If the villians weren't caught and/or reformed, they died, and the censors left no doubt that this was always the case with crime. Later on, in Roman Polanski's and Robert Towne's brilliant, revisionist noir thriller, Chinatown, the truth about a crime is discovered, but not only does the villian played by John Huston get away with it, he manages to frame Jack Nicholson's private detective for murder. Similarly, that same year (1974), Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation and Alan J. Pakula's The Parralax View were noir thrillers, set in the present, that were not only reactions to decades of Hollywood-censor mandates about crime not paying, but also post JFK-assisination, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate affirmations of the general public's negative, cynical view about government and other public institions. All three of those films indulge in despair and paranoia. LA Confidential, while disturbing, refuses to indulge in despair and paranoia, and that might explain it's lack of mass appeal, unlike Chinatown which was a bigger success in its day. Wallowing in despair and paranoia lets the audience off the hook morally, since a hopeless situation does not challenge moviegoers to do anything. Why bother? LA Confidential does offer an answer, but it is not an easy one. It is also a partial return to the idealism of old Hollywood, but only partially, since it absorbs what we have come to know and accept about life in these United States over the past four decades. Hence, Hegel's thesis-antithesis-synthesis applies here, as a reflection of the growth of cinema as an art form, with the synthesis more truthful and honest than the thesis and antithesis that preceded it. A very grown-up and mature notion for a movie indeed, but the lukewarm audience response suggests that the general public has a ways to go.


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