May 23, 2011

The Spirit of ’47: A Primer to the Influences of L.A. Noire

Filed under: Features — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Gregory Gay @ 1:34 pm

Rockstar and Team Bondi’s latest game, L.A. Noire, hit stores last week. The game shoves you into the role of detective Cole Phelps as he solves a number of brutal crimes in the aftermath of World War 2 – think of it as a mix of Phoenix Wright and Grand Theft Auto. The thing is, L.A. Noire isn’t just a sandbox game set in the 40’s. It’s a love letter to the film noir genre – a distinctive cinematic genre from the 1940’s and 50’s mired in the shadowy world of crime.

Like every other Rockstar game, L.A. Noire will probably sell roughly a bajillion copies, and a few of those owners may just feel an urge to dive deeper into the game’s source material. Given that possibility, I thought this would be a good time to go into a bit more detail on the movies that have influenced L.A. Noir.

Before we really dive into the conventions of film noir, we need to step back a decade further. In the midst of the Great Depression, people were more desperate than ever to escape the burdens of daily life. But as you might expect, this was a bit of a problem when money was scarce, and entertainment would have been considered the most frivolous of purchases. Books were expensive, but this was largely because paper was expensive. In the early 1900’s, some genius then hit on the idea of releasing stories printed on newspaper pulp. Due to their low price and somewhat low-brow writing style, pulps became insanely popular during the depression. Magazines sprung up featuring stories from dozens of different genres. There were science fiction pulps, romance pulps, westerns and, of course, the hardboiled crime thriller.

It’s on the last type that I want to focus. These crime pulps featured heroic detectives – cocky heroes not afraid to get their hands dirty. Pulps were, predominately, a reflection of their time. They take place in a dangerous, uncertain world, but one where hope prevailed. By and large, pulps were optimistic. There was a sense that though the world was less than ideal, a golden age was on the way. Any sufficiently hardy man could change the world with a bit of science, a good uppercut, and a keen eye for the details of a crime scene. Nowhere was this more obvious than in pulps like Doc Savage. The world is full of ignorance, and monsters lie around every corner, but such evils will always be defeated.

If the pulps of the 30’s were a reflection of the prevailing mood throughout the Great Depression, then film noir equally reflected the 1940’s. Film noir submerges – nay, drowns – us in a far more cynical world. The second World War ended our innocence. Millions were dead, and half of the world was left in ruins. Mankind now had possession of a bomb that could destroy entire cities. While those that fought in the war were still celebrated, there was this niggling little voice in the world’s subconscious telling us that the glory days were over.

While pulps often had a theme of spreading hope across the globe, noir was largely about the desperate struggle to keep hope alive inside of one person. The heroes of film noir are often the only honest detective left on a police force full of corrupt bastards on the take. They may be flawed men, but damnit, they are the last light in the darkness.

The bulk of L.A. Noire‘s action takes place in 1947. As it turns out, this was a pretty good year for film noir, so I will focus most of our examples on four flicks from that year – The Lady From Shanghai, Out of the Past, Lady in the Lake, and Kiss of Death.

A predominant theme of noir is that of facing, and eventually overcoming, your past. Out of the Past revolves around  unassuming gas station owner Jeff Bailey, who is just trying to live a quiet life in a small town when his past comes calling. It turns out that Jeff used to be a private eye in New York City, and that a complicated case from his past had finally caught up to him. In Kiss of Death, a former bank robber is trying to turn his life around after being arrested following a bungled Christmas Eve robbery. However, he is forced back into the criminal underworld as an undercover informant – a condition of his early parole.

This conflict between hope and corruption is handled by L.A. Noire with aplomb. Detective Cole Phelps is tortured by what he witnessed in the Pacific theater of World War 2, and becomes a police officer with the hope of doing enough good deeds to overcome the horrors of war. It quickly becomes apparent that Phelps is probably the only officer on the entire force that doesn’t have something seriously wrong internally. Sure, surrounding you with loons and psychopaths is all part of the standard Rockstar package, but it actually fits the themes of film noir pretty well.

If I asked you, right now, for the first thing that comes to mind when I mention film noir, you would probably mention the dialogue. I’d also have accepted “fedoras” and “deadly dames,” but even those who have never watched a single noir film are well aware of the genre’s penchant for overwhelming, heavily stylized language. While the heavy-handedness of the dialogue has been blown a bit out of proportion by neo-noir flicks like Sin City and Brick, it is true that film noir has a certain vocabulary to it – thick with the slang of the time, and dipped in a heavy layer of snide sarcasm.

L.A. Noire takes two approaches to dialogue, neither of which quite capture the feel of the genre. The standard, in-game dialogue does a good job of reflecting the language of the late 1940’s, but it lacks most of the distinct style of noir. Other than a few snappy lines of dialogue, the characters are just talking to each other like people from that time would talk to each other. This is preferable, however, to the narrator that occasionally interjects at the beginning of each of the tutorial cases. Noir dialogue often walks a fine line between poetry and ridiculousness.  The key is to stay on the poetry side, but L.A. Noire‘s narrator falls over the other edge often enough that I have to assume that the developers are aiming for satire. Parody feels a bit out of place with how serious the rest of the game has felt so far, but considering that this narrator has been absent since the end of the tutorials, I’m not quite sure what they were going for at all.

(Sidenote: Brick is a good example of how to handle this balance correctly. The dialogue is over-the-top, but it is good.)

Equally important to the story and dialogue in film noir is the cinematography. Like all movies of the time, noir flicks were in black and white. However, rather than treating this monochromatic pallet as a technological necessity, noir directors often used it as a tool. The interplay between lights and shadows became an artistic method of conveying the themes of the storyline. By carefully controlling the contrast between objects, the viewer’s eyes can be directed to certain clues or focused on the facial expressions of certain characters. Obscuring a face in shadow was a common technique to add menace to a particularly sinister bad guy. In a way, shadows were as essential as the dialogue as a vehicle to tell the story. Out of our handful of 1947 films, Out of the Past is the best example of contrasting light and shadow, and is a beautiful film to watch as a result.

Beyond the dramatic use of blacks and whites, noir also furthered the use of a number of non-standard camera techniques such as wide and low-angle shots or Dutch angle views (viewing a scene from a skewed perspective). Location shooting became the norm, and many movies were actually shot at night – a rarity up until this point. A couple of other films from that same year highlight other interesting examples of the experimental artistry of noir. The Lady From Shanghai ends with a thrilling shootout in the middle of a hall of mirrors, where each of the characters confronts their own personal demons while hunting their counterpart. Even though the film was largely a flop – its climatic sequence became a movie trope and has since been aped by a number of other films.

Another 1947 film, The Lady in the Lake, had an even more interesting artistic hook. The entire movie takes place in the first person, effectively placing the viewer in the shoes of famous detective Phillip Marlowe. As gamers, we’re pretty used to this kind of perspective, but at the time, watching a hand reach out to light a cigarette was akin to black magic.

L.A. Noire is an incredibly cinematic game. It has some terrific set pieces – from thrilling car chases to a dramatic shootout on a decrepit movie set. However, its particular brand of cinema lacks any of the artistry of the film noir that has influenced it. The camera is mostly controlled by the player, and cut-scenes usually hold the view steady. The game has an optional black and white filter, and it looks pretty cool when enabled. However, it is not the default option and largely exists as an after-thought. From a financial angle, I suppose that it makes sense to present the game without a weird visual hook, but it feels like a genuinely missed opportunity.

Despite a plot that hearkens closer to pulp, The Saboteur is the closest that a video game has come to truly capturing the visual flare of film noir. This open-world game, released in 2009, put players in the role of an Irish freedom fighter as he helps overthrow the Nazi occupation of Germany. At first, Paris is presented in black and white, but color slowly returns to the city as Sean Devlin frees the populace from their German oppressors. Unlike L.A. Noire‘s color-removing filter, the black and white used in The Saboteur feels like it was ripped straight from a good noir flick. There is a cool contrast between shadows and the various sources of light, and your Nazi enemies actually feel more threatening in the darkness. Looking past the use of black and white as a visual hook, it is a really cool way to reflect the thematic push of bringing hope back to the French people. Just as L.A. Noire plays with the themes of film noir, The Saboteur is a great example of the themes of pulp – the world isn’t in great shape, but it’s nothing that a good punch to the jaw, a few well-placed explosives, and a rousing speech can’t solve. Unfortunately, L.A. Noire doesn’t do as good of a job of capturing the visual style of its respective genre.

While a number of noir-inspired games have been released over the years, L.A. Noire is probably the first one to come from a major label. It’s certainly the first one that I’ve seen advertised on billboards. It’s definitely a good game, and its face-capturing tech is really impressive. It is a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to actually capturing the various elements of great film noir, but it does its job well enough that it might just drive a few more people to check out the films that have provided so much influence.

If you dug L.A. Noire‘s style, you should definitely take a look at the movies mentioned in this article. Here are a few more films you should check out as well:

  • Laura
  • The Maltese Falcon
  • The Third Man
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
  • Double Indemnity
  • The Big Sleep
  • Chinatown
  • Brick

I’m also going to shove in a recommendation for the band The Gaslight Anthem. In addition to being a fantastic mix of blues, folk, and punk, the band writes lyrics that are highly evocative of film noir dialogue (hell, they even have a song called “Film Noir”).


  1. What? No recommendation for “Touch of Evil”? Also… The Saboteur was awesome! I loved the style of that game.

    Comment by Ujn Hunter — May 23, 2011 @ 6:31 pm

  2.  You’re right – Touch of Evil is a great movie!

    Comment by Gregory Gay — May 23, 2011 @ 7:05 pm

  3.  A great read. – Meus from GAF

    Comment by Mohamud 'Shino' Warsame — May 23, 2011 @ 8:16 pm

  4.   A great read. – Meus from GAF

    Comment by Mohamud 'Shino' Warsame — May 23, 2011 @ 8:16 pm

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