LA Noire and the American Institution
Noir commonly attempts to expose the dark hearts of American institutions. In the novels of Raymond Chandler, and in films such as The Naked City and LA Confidential, corporations, police officers, and a vaporous force describable only as “The System” all come under fire. The antagonists are typically corrupt politicians and landowners. They present a veneer of wholesome Americana, but only to disguise murky capitalist agendas.
Noir portrays oligarchies as crooked and impeachable. It’s a genre best analogised by the real-life story of actress Peg Entwistle, who committed suicide beneath the glossy facade of the Hollywood sign. The outward visage of the American city might be glamorous, but underneath it, terrible things still happen.
Like its influencers, LA Noire is an exposé of American organisations. It probes into perhaps the most sacred institution of all: the nuclear family.
The game’s overarching plot involves a conglomerate of corporate and government high-ups called The Suburban Redevelopment Fund. Ostensibly, the Fund is providing affordable homes for returning World War II veterans. In reality, it is creating low-quality “matchstick” houses, then deliberately burning them down in order to collect insurance payouts.
In one of the game’s missions called “The Gas Man”, detective Cole Phelps is investigating a fire at a Fund-developed house that has claimed the lives of the Morelli family – husband, wife, and two children.
This immediately follows a scene where Cole is kicked out of own his home and separated from his own two children, after his wife discovers his affair with a German lounge singer. There’s an immediate parallel between these two sections. Two families have been destroyed, as it were, razed to the ground like the suburban home from Cole’s case. With Cole sifting through the charred ruins of the household, it’s as if he’s examining the remains of his own home life. Then the coroner, Carruthers, remarks, “It’s your wife and kids I feel sorry for, not you Phelps.”
Just as the Fund’s backsliding is to blame for the death of the Morelli family, Cole’s infidelity results in the “death” of his own family – like Cole’s affair, the Fund’s scheme betrays the trust of people who depend on it. Cole and the Fund each try to maintain an honourable pretence, but ultimately are hurting the people that have come to trust them. Poetically, in both cases, these people are the same: families, model Americans, good folk. LA Noire concludes how corruption at a government level affects the lower, vulnerable echelons of society. Cole is that conclusion personified. He abuses his position as a father, husband and policeman and it’s the people below him, who rely on him for support, that are the ones who get hurt.
The American military also comes under scrutiny in the “Gas Man” case. Again, individuals serve as synecdoche for broader corruption.
The game’s flashback sequences show that, while serving in the Pacific, Phelps inadvertently caused the murder of several Japanese civilians. Nevertheless, he is awarded the Silver Star for bravery and heralded a war hero, which aids his rapid ascension through the LAPD.
Conversely, Ira Hogeboom, the flamethrower operator from Phelps’s unit, is admitted after the war to psychiatric hospital, where he is treated for PTSD. Traumatised by the murder of the Japanese civilians, which he unwittingly carried out under Phelps’s orders, Hogeboom is exploited as part of the Redevelopment Fund’s scheme and is used as a trigger-man for setting the cheaply built houses ablaze.
Where Phelps is emblematic of wartime propaganda, and how facts are distorted to foster public support, Hogeboom represents how, particularly during the Cold War, America turned to private and non-military organisations for its dirty work – how increasingly it fought its wars vicariously.
The Korean War is the eminent example. When it broke out in 1950, as well as deploying its own troops, the US had, by that time, spent two years training and organising South Korean provincial armies into a unified defence force, under a scheme called the Korean Military Advisory Group. This practise continued throughout the Cold War, with American advisors and weapons being used to develop the indigenous militaries of both Vietnam and Afghanistan. The Bay of Pigs invasion, the Nicaraguan civil war and the deployment of private military contractors such as Blackwater in Gulf War 2 are other examples of how, since the 1940s and 50s, America has outsourced its military concerns.
Hogeboom symbolises this shift in tactics. Like the Korean, Vietnamese and Afghani citizens, trained to wage war on communism, he’s exploited for the propagation of an American ideal, which in the case of the Suburban Redevelopment Fund is unbridled capitalism. “The Gas Man” case, and Hogeboom’s unfortunate fate, represent the results of this practise: chaos, destruction and death for those being used, immunity, convenience and profit for those doing the using. Despite the destruction their scheme has wrought, only one member of the Suburban Redevelopment Fund is brought to justice. The rest are shown speaking at Phelps’s funeral, continuing to use him as a propaganda tool to disguise their ugly truth.
The story of LA Noire is broad and sweeping. But “The Gas Man” is one moment where all of the game’s intents and symbolisms coalesce. It’s where the veneer of Cole Phelps is finally and completely pulled back, which places the actions of the Suburban Redevelopment Fund, and by extension, the American military and state, into horrifying context. The most lasting image is of the Morelli family, burned to a crisp, their muscles tightened by fire damage, to the point that they look as if they’re kneeling, praying to God. Family and religion – these are the founding ideals of America. And in “The Gas Man”, we see them subverted and destroyed by a nation that has lost its way.