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Will L.A.'s classic detective fiction surface in Rockstargames' 'L.A. Noire'?

April 21, 2011 | 12:37 pm

When given the controls of Grand Theft Auto, I can do little more than veer into buildings until I get busted. Once an expert at video games -- the seriously uncool kind, like Ms. Pacman -- I've fallen almost entirely out of the Playstation-Wii-Xbox loop. And yet: I cannot wait to play "L.A. Noir" from Rockstargames.

"L.A. Noire" is coming May 17 from Rockstargames, the same company that makes Grand Theft Auto; it's is available now as a pre-order for Xbox and PS3.

In the game, you are Cole Phelps (portrayed by Aaron Staton, Ken Cosgrove in "Mad Men"), a patrolman whose task is to work his way up through the ranks of the corrupt late-1940s LAPD. It was a violent time, full of big, stylish cars -- which I no doubt will smash into any number of buildings. Those buildings are said to be an incredibly fully realized reproduction of Los Angeles circa 1947. Some experts quibble, but chances are the landscape will be close enough. Close enough for me to crash a Packard into Echo Park Lake, I hope.

Anyway, "noir" is a concept that's fascinatingly multilayered. The word was applied, by French film critics, to a series of crime and detective films shot in the '30s and '40s in Los Angeles. During World War II, French filmgoers didn't see American films regularly, so when the deluge began, the critics started making connections that we hadn't seen. What they saw: dark, impressionistic lighting; gumshoes and cops; murky morality; criminals and bombshells; corruption, violence, cool cars, a sense of inevitable fate. And often, if not always, Los Angeles as a setting.

And many of those movies -- with A-list stars or from C-list studios -- came from books from authors writing here in L.A. Raymond Chandler's stories and novels formed the basis for seven films made from 1942-1947. One of the greatest noir films ever made, "Double Indemnity," was adapted by Chandler (with director Billy Wilder) from James M. Cain's original novel. Cain's work was the basis for nine Hollywood films in the 1930s and '40s, including original screenplays and his published books and stories.

Cain, for a time, and Chandler both lived in Los Angeles. The "noir" designation migrated from films back onto these two writers and a sensibility embedded in their work. Noir became a way to talk about a certain kind of fiction, moving forward in time to the works of Ross Macdonald and James Ellroy.

There is so much migration in what we think of as noir. It was something in the air in Los Angeles that was put to the page by Chandler and Cain, made into films, molded into a genre when seen from a distance, returned to Los Angeles to shape more detective fiction, more movies, even the real world. All along the way, the boundaries were permeable, these evolutions overlapping and bleeding into one another.

Chandler, for instance, wrote a dark screenplay about love and murder called "The Blue Dahlia." It came out in 1946 and starred Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. And it was playing in theaters when actress Elizabeth Short was murdered in January 1947; journalists looking for a hook to talk about the unusual killing called her "The Black Dahlia."

The Black Dahlia became one of the city's most famous unsolved murder cases. And it launched the career of James Ellroy, whose 1987 novel "The Black Dahlia," published in 1987, became a huge bestseller and rekindled an interest in the genre.

The Black Dahlia gets a mention in the promotional videos for "L.A. Noire." The video game includes a storyline involving a serial killer murdering women in a mode like The Black Dahlia.

Here, aficionados might quibble. The women's bodies they show are bloody, clothed and intact; we know the Black Dahlia was left naked, washed of all blood, elegantly coiffed and cut in two.

Similarly, two experts in 1947 Los Angeles who got to sample the game this week found that despite the many ways that its immersive environment is stunning and inspiring, there were some inaccuracies and frustrations. "I can plow a beautifully rendered Packard Deluxe Clipper 8 Club Sedan through three blocks of streetlights, but can't ride [Angel's Flight] the arguably most iconic piece of Angelenic transportation 315 feet?" writes Nathan on the 1947 Project website in an extensive review.

Admittedly, his version was not the final, and maybe someday in "L.A. Noire" Cole Phelps will be able to ride Angel's Flight up to Bunker Hill. And maybe there is more verisimilitude in the Black Dahlia-like killing spree in the real game -- it's hard to represent that kind of twisted violence in a rated-G online clip.

While others here at the L.A. Times will have the expert report on the game -- you know, people who actually play video games -- very soon, I'm waiting for my copy to arrive May 17 like everybody else. And I'll be sure to report back on any bits of Chandler, Cain and their ilk that I can find.

-- Carolyn Kellogg