''L.A. Confidential'' and modern film noir -- Film noir has been many things to many great directors. But with ''L.A. Confidential'', noir takes its purest form yet.

”L.A. Confidential” and modern film noir

Film noir is a vase. A chintzy cut-glass vase next to an empty bottle of bourbon in a fourth-floor walk-up — but still a vase. Over the years, it has served to keep whatever flowers are in fashion fresh. The new hibiscus on display is Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential, hitting video on the heels of its respectable Oscar showing against the boat flick, including a Best Supporting Actress trophy for Kim Basinger. While not the box office smash critics wanted — a lack of big stars, a period setting, and a plot that needs attention are the chief culprits — Confidential is a reminder of the things movies do right, in script, characterization, and narrative urgency. Above all, it catches the moral gray scale of the best film noir: the sense of rot at every level of society.

Confidential‘s roots are in tatty little classics like Fritz Lang’s 1953 The Big Heat, made at the end of noir’s original postwar flowering. Here the plot is straightforward (lone cop Glenn Ford battles his city’s Mob/city hall infrastructure), but the characters are full of curveballs. A cop’s widow keeps her husband’s memory alive only to blackmail his superiors. An underworld boss burbles with parvenu pride at his teenage daughter’s new dress. A gangster’s moll (the glorious Gloria Grahame) is clever and silly and doomed. Even the thankless role of the hero’s wife is given teeth through the antsy playing of Jocelyn Brando (Marlon’s sister).

The Big Heat is hardly self-conscious: Film noir had to drop out of fashion for well over a decade before it roared back as a statement of style. When Roman Polanski’s Chinatown was released in 1974, it represented the return of smoky corruption, with overlays of deco chic and post-’60s paranoia. Robert Towne’s script interweaves past homage and present angst, and Jack Nicholson dances along the edge of the abyss as J.J. Gittes, a private eye who tumbles to a (historically true) water scam in prewar L.A. But it’s Polanski who pries the genre open until it goes metaphysical; Chinatown‘s Noah Cross (John Huston) is, as the name implies, a figure of biblical evil, both for what he has done to his daughter (Faye Dunaway) and for what he plans to do to ”the future, Mr. Gitts, the future!”

Which is exactly where director Ridley Scott took film noir in 1982’s Blade Runner. In fact, Noah Cross would probably feel at home in the 21st century, where man has become so decadent that the android ”replicants” he has created are his superior in every way. The original release of Runner made the noir connection explicit, with Harrison Ford’s robot hunter providing Bogie-esque voice-over narration. But even 1992’s improved director’s cut (minus the VO) plunges us into a world where all is compromised, from the top of the Tyrell Corp. to the depths of the rained-out streets.

Having exhausted past, present, and future, film noir headed inward, into the hermetic surrealism of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. As with all these other films, there’s complicity between the state (the small-town cops of Lumberton) and its supposed enemies (villainous kinksters like Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth). But Lynch is more interested in the corruption of hero Kyle MacLachlan and the self-immolation of shady lady Isabella Rossellini than in separating the tangled strands of right and wrong.

With L.A. Confidential, film noir comes home: It’s a reactionary movie in that novelist James Ellroy and director Hanson aren’t concerned with the permanence of evil (Chinatown), the death of the future (Blade Runner), or the impossibility of ”normal life” (Blue Velvet). Instead, Confidential bracingly plunges us into the pleasures of old-style craft: dialogue that snaps, plot points that pay off an hour later, and characters that defy pigeonholing. If there’s a theme to the film, in fact, it’s that we stereotype others at our peril. The priggish hall monitor of a cop (Guy Pearce) has a self-serving agenda and reservoirs of bile; the thug police detective (Russell Crowe) is capable of the deepest honor; the LAPD’s cynical slickster (Kevin Spacey) trips over the stirrings of conscience. None of them are at first seen for who they are — by us or by each other — but as they independently investigate an apparently random diner massacre, all they have is each other.

Hanson never takes Confidential to the next level, as Polanski did: He never indicts the world. He doesn’t want to. Perhaps the director knows a well-wrought film like this stands out like a rose in the current Hollywood dung heap. Or maybe he just wants us to look at the vase. L.A. Confidential: A- The Big Heat: A- Chinatown: A+ Blade Runner: B+ Blue Velvet: A