Le Noir et le Blanc: Hybrid Myths in Devil in a Blue Dress and L.A. Confidential

By Shefrin, Elana | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Le Noir et le Blanc: Hybrid Myths in Devil in a Blue Dress and L.A. Confidential


Shefrin, Elana, Literature/Film Quarterly


Introduction

Carl Franklin's Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) and Curtis Hanson's LA. Confidential (1997) are contemporaneous Hollywood films that bear many similarities in time and space: literary genre, cinematic lineage, thematic dualities, complex characterizations, and physical context. However, each Californian screenwriter-director has conceptualized his ethnographic perspective within a racially based sociohistorical mythos of post-World War Il Los Angeles. Thus, an unusual confluence of events in the two films' productions is counterbalanced by an overriding distinction: Devil in a Blue Dress' author, filmmaker, and major characters are African American; LA. Confidential's corresponding counterparts are Anglo American. This distinction complicates horizontal comparisons of the films' subject matter based on literary and artistic merits alone. Additionally, it elicits vertical comparisons based on economic and political conditions, and asks how those factors informed the fictional lives of the characters in the 1940s, as well as the nonfictional decisions of the filmmakers in the 1990s.

In order to critique the two films multidimensionally, this analysis compares the similarities and differences between the two "revisionist" histories presented by the filmmakers, as instantiated within the narrational boundaries of three quintessential American markers: the city of Los Angeles, the detective persona, and the femme fatale. By alluding to Homi Bhabha's "overlap and displacement of domains of difference" (2), both fictive histories are shown to displace the realities of the white/black racial divide into a. film noir discourse, while masking the hybrid myths that intertwine the color-conscious cityscapes and their inhabitants. However, while Hanson's discourse metaphorically reveals the "black" natures operating under white people's actions, Franklin's discourse realistically illuminates the "white" injustices operating above black people's actions. It is this reverse point of view that enables Franklin's fictive history to provide the opposite side of the coin to Hanson's.

At the time of the films' commercial releases in 1995 and 1997, both Franklin and Hanson conducted various promotional interviews. They each asserted that one of their primary goals was to fabricate a uniquely personal visual style for their productions. While they both acknowledged that they had obviously drawn upon noir traditions in establishing those visual styles, they nevertheless purposed their films to be more significant than traditional exposés of shady moral behavior. Because of this common goal, both directors publicly elaborated on the techniques and sources they used to construct their respective cultural ethnographies. A comparison shows that their approaches were remarkably similar, and lends support to the perception that their two ethnographic perspectives can be seen as hybrid myths of the same historical period.

The Two Films as Cultural Ethnography

Although neither Curtis Hanson nor Carl Franklin would argue that their films' settings recreate the "real" mid-twentieth century Los Angeles, both men dedicated prodigious amounts of time and energy toward visually, aurally, and kinesthetically reconstructing their personal versions of an authentic production locale. Their painstaking efforts were focused more on recapturing rather than on re-imagining the sights and sounds of that era. Both embarked on preproduction research campaigns that utilized ethnographic data, evocative music, iconic photographs, detective novels, and noir cinema to situate themselves and their actors within the proper mood and framework for making the films.

Asserting, "nothing is more important than the music," Hanson personally began selecting the music for L.A. Confidential while he was cowriting the screenplay, and maintained continuity by scoring particular songs to various scenes during the filming. Hanson emphasizes: "In picking the music, my goal was to help delineate the characters and also provide a counterpoint for the individual scenes that they're caught up in" (Video Interview). …

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