In films like "The Big Sleep" and "Double Indemnity," big cities and smoke-filled rooms and femme fatales - another French term popularized by the genre - surround the lead character, almost always a flawed, tortured man with a conspicuous past and an uncertain future. By about 1960, the fog cleared and Hollywood went Technicolor.
In the last decade, film noir, now often classified as neo-noir or ironic noir, slowly has resurged, thanks to directors like Quentin Tarantino, the Coen brothers and John Dahl ("The Last Seduction," "Red Rock West").
The new class has had less heart and more head than the old movies, which had Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck. The movies have become more about style and less about substance, with an affected cool rather than a realistic terseness ringing in the dialogue.
The two new films "L.A. Confidential" and "U-Turn" embody everything that was great about the old noir, and everything that is rotten about the neo-noir.
Adapted from a novel by the acclaimed crime fiction writer James Ellroy, "L.A. Confidential" is a pitch-perfect crooning of a song by Sinatra - it is overtly smart and stylish, but underpinned with hues of lust and luridness. A gravel-voiced narrator (Danny DeVito) begins the film by extolling the virtues of Los Angeles, only to then reveal the darker tones of the city of angels. Directed with intelligence and freshness by Curtis Hanson, the film is about the double-edged blade we constantly try to keep in the hilt - but which somehow gets out.
It is set in 1950s Los Angeles and revolves around the stories of three members of the L.A.P.D. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is a pristine and political warhead with a heart (cold as it seems) for "justice." A raw energy pulsing through his veins, Bud White (Russell Crowe) includes beating up wife-beaters and out-of-town mafiosos in his brand of "justice." The only style of "justice" Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) wants to bring in is a front-page headline and a $50 pay-off from a tabloid reporter (DeVito) who gives him tips on felonious activities.
The definitions of "justice" ascribed by the three are rigorously challenged, however, when they become involved in a case dubbed "The Nite Owl Massacre," in which there are multiple homicides in a diner. One of the victims was a recently discharged police officer (the partner of Bud). Another was a girl in the upscale prostitution ring of an inscrutable business-man named Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn). This group of girls differs from any Heidi Fleiss ever ran in that they have the appearance (sometimes surgically given) of Hollywood movie stars.
Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger) has an uncanny resemblance to Veronica Lake that disarms Bud and infatuates Ed. As these two brood over truth and love, Jack is trying to stay straight as a consultant on the TV show "Badge of Honor."
Spacey brings a mesmeric intensity to his performance that stings you in the gut when he responds to the question of "Why did you become a cop?" with, "I don't know."
Basinger has not been so enchanting that I can ever recall as Bracken, her cool blue eyes pools of longing that touch beyond the vanity of her occupation and makeup.
It is the rare and wonderful film that combines dramatic tension, character development and sophisticated wit with such effortless skill that never once does it insult your intelligence.
"L.A. Confidential" is such a film.
"U-Turn" is not.
Mostly because it is directed by Oliver Stone. I am one of his hugest fans, but he never has and never will make a film in a genre other than Oliver Stone. He deserves his own category in video stores.
I love his id, but he has become so enraptured in it he no longer can sense what is the story and what is him. It does not help that "U-Turn" is an uninteresting compilation of noir cliches: the lead character, Bobby Cooper (Sean Penn) is running away - in a red Mustang convertible, no less - from his past when he breaks down in the middle of the desert.
He's in a small town composed of an odd cast of characters: the redneck, wily mechanic (Billy Bob Thorton), the dangerously gorgeous woman (Jennifer Lopez), the off-kilter husband of the woman (Nick Nolte).
There is not one fascinating figure in the entire film. I knew exactly where "U-Turn" was going, but I did not know it would take its time to get there. The film feels especially bloated and lumbering at two hours and 10 minutes.
Stone works so overzealously to provide symbolism and style that in the end, even though the film is as black as the bottom of old hiking boots and as bloody as the Red Sea, he has made the antithesis of noir. His film is broad, boring and balmy.
Did I mention that the film proceeds at the rate of a desert wind? It's dull. It's tedious. Do yourself a favor if you are planning on entering the theater to see it - make a u-turn and go see "L.A. Confidential."
Jason Myers is a senior at North Hagerstown High School.