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‘The Big Sleep’ and ‘LA Confidential’

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  • Pages: 9
  • Word count: 2197
  • Category: Sleep

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For this essay I have taken two films of a similar genre and style from two different cinematic periods and compared them against to attempt to highlight the similarities and differences that will inevitably be present. The two films I have chosen are ‘The Big Sleep’, made in 1946 with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and ‘L. A Confidential’, made 41 years later in 1997 – with a stellar cast including Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger and Danny De’Vito.

I chose these two films as they both originated from books; Raymond Chandler’s legendary ‘gumshoe’ Phillip Marlowe (Bogart) is adapted brilliantly by 40s film noir director Howard Hawks, and the brutality of James Ellroy’s work is powerfully adapted for the screen by Curtis Hanson. An additional reason was that L. A Confidential pays homage to Bogart’s generation of life weary detectives whilst bringing an added and stark realism which was lacking from the classic film noir pictures of the 30s, 40s and 50s.

The opening sequences and title scenes of both films play an important role in telling us what to expect from the movie, and both do it to great effect. L. A Confidential starts with old footage of a prosperous 1950s Los Angeles, a city in which the American Dream can be found, and as the narrative suggests, it is easy to come by. However, this pretty picture slowly starts to deteriorate and the scenes of families playing is interspersed with ‘the underbelly of America’, to quote “the city the politicians don’t want you to see. “.

Straight away we know this is not going to be either cheery or representative of anything the city portrayed itself as 50 years ago. The Big Sleep takes a different approach, it does not introduce Los Angeles in the way Confidential does. To be frank it did not have to. We begin with the silhouette of a man and a woman, both smoking and blowing away the titles as they do so. We are told from this two possibilities, one – that there will be a love interest for the main character, and two – that the covering of smoke represents the shrouded, mysterious and dangerous world that we are about to be led into.

The only one similarity in these two openings is that they both give us an atmosphere to hold onto for the rest of the film. The reason that the two films differ in this respect is to do with the time they were made, and the audiences knowledge of past times. Film Noir such as The Big Sleep were popular for showing us the side of America that was not present in the Papers or on television.

People were having the wool pulled over their eyes, told that happiness was something to be touched, and also something to be snatched at, but films like these, ‘Key Largo’, ‘The Third Man’ (my personal favourite) were simply showing people the underworld that the men in suits were hiding. L. A Confidential has the narrated introduction therefore, to set the pace and explain to those of us not educated in this idealism, what previous generations were taught over decades of film making, in four minutes.

This is the key difference that I will continue to highlight throughout this essay. The soundtrack to each film is another device used by the director to create the atmosphere that he wants you to be part of. It is a way of further engaging you with the characters and keeping your attention. The Big Sleep gives us an epic score by Max Steiner, who carefully manipulates the timing and tone of his music to represent the tension- the nervousness or the happiness Bogart in particular is feeling at certain points.

There are scenes where there is no background music, and these are generally when there is a one on one conversation and information crucial to the plot is being divulged or when the director has decided he wants your undivided attention so you notice all the minute actions and thoughts of the actors. L. A Confidential uses the score in a similar way, but also cleverly places songs that powerfully underline the characters feelings.

For instance, when Bud White, one of our troubled heroes, is in deep thought about Lyn Bracken, our troubled heroin, Curtis Hanson decides that the most effective way to depict his feelings without the use of dialect is to integrate a song with a chorus line of “yearning for love”. what is interesting about the way that the music is used is that we are constantly reminded of the era we are in by the selection of tracks from the likes of Dean Martin and Leonard Bernstein. It is not as though we would not know otherwise, but the sheer brutality and bad language is something we attribute more to our generation than the 1950s.

Jerry Goldsmith’s score has the same effect as Max Steiner’s at certain points though, as it conveys an atmosphere of tension and suspense. The settings in both films are used to much the same effect and with the same intentions in mind. The Big Sleep does what we would expect from a Film Noir, it gives us stark and lonely scenes, in deserted hideaways, where our hero (Bogart) can hide in the shadows and observe the enemy. We are given such baron landscapes in this genre of film as to further highlight how far from the truth the image people were given is.

If for instance Humphrey Bogart was running around the central business district of Los Angeles it would eradicate any point made about the reality of L. A during the course of the film. This is an attribute that can be credited to Curtis Hanson’s film as well. It is an idea that first really began with the Film Noirs of this era. As the opening titles suggest, it is not going to show us the nice side of the city, and it doesn’t. We are taken from the decrepit Black ghettos to the seedy whore houses and down to the isolated ‘interrogation’ houses used for extracting information from criminals who refuse to talk.

It is certainly not the idealised Hollywood we are still force fed today. Two tools that go hand in hand with settings when trying to create a certain ambience is the lighting effect and the cinematography. As it is black and white, The Big Sleep relies heavily on the high contrast of shadow and light, on the faces of people on close up shots, to the complete engulfing of them in shadow as they escape a crime scene. There is little alteration in the types of shots as in 1946, they did not have the technological advancements to achieve such angles captured in L. A Confidential.

What they did have however was used well. There are a reels of reaction shots as Marlowe (Bogart) has a impeccable idea or fits another piece to the puzzle, there multitudes on middle shots presenting the on screen chemistry between Bogart and Bacall (his future wife). There is a collection of characters eye view shots, letting us know when Bogart has found some important information. However, what really provides the atmosphere is the mixture of spy shots (the view that appears to be watching a character) and the shrouding of peoples faces by shadow, this gives the real air of mystery and corruption.

L. A Confidential has a lot more access to advanced cinematography, and therefore does not need to rely on the actors every move to hold the audiences attention as The Big Sleep does. It uses a lot of cutaway shots and switches between narrative to give us a collective feeling for the characters. There are still characters eye view shots but they are now filmed in such a way that it genuinely appears as if the character is carrying out an action.

For instance, during the scene when Edmund Exley walks into the bathroom of the Night Owl and sees the pile of corpses, there is a shot of what he would see, the camera tilts and wobbles nauseously before cutting back to his face which has gone pale. The lighting is used to full effect as well There is one shot outside the Night Owl when the reflection of the neon sign is reflected on Exley’s (Guy Pearce’s) windscreen. Another prime example of lighting working in cooperation with camera angles to create a certain mood is when Wendell “Bud” White (Russell Crowe) stands tall over a suspect.

We see him from over the suspects shoulder (who is coincidently tied down on a chair), there is an absence of light from his upper body, but a thin streak shows his fists clenched tight. We immediately feel the suspects fear as we can guess almost without thinking what White is going to do next. This is the joy of well incorporated lighting effects, the director has kindly done all the thinking for you. There is one major similarity I have yet to point out, and this is that both films are set in the late 40s early 50s, and consequently L. A Confidential pays homage to films made around the mid 20th century.

There is a lot of iconography which is common place in The Big Sleep. In James Ellroy’s stylised adaptation, many of the characters dress in sharp suits, drink a lot of hard liquor and chain smoke cigarettes. Something that was an everyday occurrence for actors and actresses of the time. Smoking and drinking were past times that had none of the implications that they do now, and it was considered quite acceptable and very cool for people of any age to do so. All the small traits that we now see as iconic were not necessarily meant to have an effect, but as times change, views and opinions do too.

Some of the images that were obviously meant to have an effect were such things as the witty hero, who can work his way out of most confrontations with a few quick remarks and the troubled and sometimes obnoxious lead role, who has either such good values that we can forgive their problems or wins us over with their pure presence. These are present in both films. The witty hero in The Big Sleep is Bogart, even though he is a womanising, sarcastic and hard drinking man we connect with him for his almost cute insecurities and nervous twitches.

He tends to rub his ear when he gets worried or agitated and is constantly told by women especially he is too short. This is exactly the same for Bud White, he is a character you would absolutely despise for his lack of idealism and violent nature. However, his one redeeming feature that sums him up as merely misjudged is his distain of men who abuse women. There are so many iconic images in L. A Confidential it is hard to name them all, but everything you see in The Big Sleep has been included with a twist, into this great modern film noir. My last point is the treatment of different ethnic and gender based groups in both films.

In The Big Sleep there is a rare view on women which is made surprising due to the time it was made. Lauren Bacall’s character, Mrs Rutlidge, is not shown as the hapless and unintelligent love interest for Bogart’s Marlowe that you may expect for a film made in the 40s. During this era women were denounced as pretty little things that shouldn’t raise their voices or make their opinion heard. Mrs Rutledge is not one of these women, she is independent and quick witted, constantly matching Marlowe and occasionally stopping him in his tracks. She is the antipathy of the stereotype who is not afraid of making enemies.

There is a parallel here, but as L. A Confidential was made in the 90s, it does not have to make a direct statement about the time, merely highlight it. It does this with its portrayal of Blacks and Mexicans in the eyes of the law. It shows that whenever a case required speedy closure, all police officers had to do was bring in a gang of immigrants or African- Americans and no questions would be asked. Although, arguably, the treatment of these racial groups has changed little since the days of overt racism, it is not quite as easy to get away with blatantly beating them in the holding cells for crimes they did not commit.

In conclusion, I think it is fair to say that there are numerous differences and similarities between these two great films. But what one has done for this generation the other did for previous ones. L. A Confidential ensures we get to see the underbelly of democracy from a stylised, modern point of view. The overall message of these two films is very similar, the differences come mainly in the levels of violence that people are now willing to observe and the technology that is at the disposal of the directors. What has not changed and never will change is the means and determination to create great film.

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