The noir genre brings a certain style to the story to deliver the message more effectively. Recognizing a film as noir, the audience has a preconceived idea of how the film will approach the characters, plot, and themes. The noir genre is generally known for portraying a dark and depressed city filled with crime and corruption sometime during the 1930s through the 1950s. Many noir films depict the police and law enforcement of those times, while others focus on issues of race and class and the powerful elite. Noir is very much based on perspective, leaving the audience without absolute knowledge of the situation, to create a mystery that often times turns out to be not what it seems. Many of these mysteries come with a signature noir twist at the end. These unique elements are used creatively to enhance the perception of race and class within the story being told.
The neo-noir genre is different from the traditional genre in that they are from two different periods of time. Traditional noir films found in the classical and postclassical periods (1920s through 1950s) depict the times they were created in, as most noir films are set in the 1930s through the 1950s. Neo-noir films seem to be generally made in the 1970s through the present, using a retrospective view of the 1930s through the 1950s. Therefore the additional component of neo-noir not found in other noir films is the telling of history and the past. These films now had the ability to manipulate and bend the truth of the times they are set in. This creative freedom allows the filmmaker to choose what he or she wants to say and how they want to say it, all for the enhancement of the audience’s understanding.
Chinatown is an example of a noir film in which the characters and their situations are fictional, but they are placed in a historically real world to enhance the understanding of the story and of that specific time. The film discusses the corruption and injustice that plagued Los Angeles’ history. In a broad sense, the film depicts the Los Angeles water wars, in which water was basically taken from elsewhere and brought to the city. Los Angeles became a growth machine, where people from all over the country came to make their fortune exercising this new opportunity. With the Water Department, a stigma was brought about Los Angeles that to sustain this extreme population growth, it had to take water from some other area. This event is a highlight of the corruptive and deceitful nature of those who have historically been in power in Los Angeles.
“It’s a symbol from reality,” as director Roman Polanski describes his own 1974 film, Chinatown (Roman Polanski). Polanski is explaining how his film serves as a metaphor for the prominent theme of injustice that infected Los Angeles throughout history. The negligence among the people in power results in the death of the innocent character Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) at the end of the film. When what has been done during this scene is fully realized, everyone involved is let go without question. When the protagonist of the film, Jake (Jack Nicholson), is astonished by the events that have just occurred, he is told “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown” (Chinatown).This statement is representative of the injustice not only in Chinatown, but Los Angeles as a whole. The town has been filled with so much injustice and corruption, because it’s Chinatown, no one will care. It is also something to point out that Jake Gittes makes his seemingly very substantial living off of exposing corruption and affairs. It says something about a society that the people have to turn to a private investigator and hire him to bring some justice or civility. Roman Polanski seems to have sought to bring these components of Los Angeles’ history to a generation that was unfamiliar with them.
The Los Angeles Police Department has had a rough history, to say the least. Many noir films have sought to enhance an understanding of the LAPD’s notorious reputation. The film L.A. Confidential, is filled with examples of LAPD brutality, racism, and corruption. Although these specific events are fictional, they are easily believable looking at the real events such as the Rodney King Riots or the Rampart Scandal. The film takes an interesting comparison of the good cop vs the bad cop policing style with the incorporation of the two completely different characters, Bud (Russell Crowe) and Ed (Guy Pearce). Bud is the type of officer who takes the law into his own hands, often using violence and brutality to bring justice. His character is representing the stereotypical version of the ruthless 1950s LAPD officer. Ed, on the other hand, sticks to the book and believes the system will bring justice. His character represents the ideal police officer that we hope the police force will become. This incorporation of two different types of officers represents where the LAPD came from, to what they hope to become. It is interesting to note that as the film progresses, the two characters seem to blend together to form a more realistic version of what a police force is: not completely ruthless, yet not completely just. These two different officers enhance our understanding of the heterogeneity within the LAPD, which may not have been present in the times the film is set in, but could very well be representative of the LAPD at the time the film was made. This is an example of a film that uses a historical perspective of noir to describe the current state of a society.
The film Devil in a Blue Dress addresses similar issues as the other two films do, but from the point of view of the black community. This perspective is quite different because the racism that is visible portrays the elite as evil and cynical. The film enhances our understanding of race and racism through the rather blunt depiction of the way blacks were viewed at the time. Racism is quite visible geographically, being that blacks weren’t welcome everywhere. Often the main character, Ezekiel (Denzel Washington), has to be cautious of where he goes or hide himself to avoid being singled out. Racially restrictive covenants, a racist police force and government, and an unfair economic and social situation among races that are depicted in the film also contribute to the audience’s better comprehension of that time period. The literal and specific events depicted in the film are again fictional, but not at all unrealistic with our knowledge of history.
With all that being said, most noir films are not completely historically accurate. They are not intended to be. Noir films cannot be used for research purposes nor as an accurate representation of specific events. The intention is to inform an audience of a world they might not have been familiar with. Although there are many motivations to filmmaking, it is an art of entertainment. Just with any other art, it can be used communicate an idea, but it is entertainment that creates the blockbusters and draws the crowds. The majority of people would not find watching a stale documentary on racial tensions during the 1940s entertaining, but they would find entertaining a neo-noir film starring Denzel Washington. In the form of entertainment, noir films seek to bring light to an era that is unknown to the current generation. The entertainment value of noir is a strategy and tool for informing audiences on a truthful subject or issue. Using fiction often times allows a point to be more easily made or an impact to be greater received. Fiction is not bound by the constrictions of history. The literal truth can be stretched to make a point about the greater truth. The brutality against blacks in Devil in a Blue Dress could be exaggerated for impact, but that just brings out more of an underlying truth. The elements of narrative fiction serve as a tool for the communicator to amplify the truth. Often the point and impact is better received with use of fiction rather than history.
The noir film genre seeks to tell stories through numerous similar conventions, myths, and icons. Often these conventions are used to inform an audience of the times the stories are told in. As seen in the neo-noir films Chinatown, L.A. Confidential, and Devil in a Blue Dress, this genre enhances our view of the history of Los Angeles by incorporating examples, metaphors, and exaggerations to bring truth to the foreground.