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On the Level: ‘L.A. Noire’ and the Set of ‘Intolerance’

Ed Smith

The decaying set of the 1916 movie is a perfect partner to Rockstar's story of a tragic hero chasing an American myth.

This article contains story spoilers for L.A. Noire.

During a flashback scene in L.A. Noire, protagonist Cole Phelps stands on the deck of a departing World War II battleship and affirms: "This is the American century." The rest of the game's plot, however, implies different. After trawling through crime scene after crime scene on the streets of Los Angeles, encountering downtrodden people of color, homeless veterans and corrupt businessmen, Phelps' optimism becomes ironic.

By the end of the conflict, America has played its part in defeating fascism. But in the 1947-set L.A. Noire, within its own borders, the country finds new avenues for injustice. A conspiracy among Los Angeles' politicians, land developers and police force involves building ostensibly ideal homes for returning war heroes. But the materials used are cheap and the houses are secretly burned down, thus allowing the constructors and stakeholders to collect insurance money. Poetically, it is America's victory in war and the establishment of Phelps' idealized "American century" which creates an opportunity for avarice and greed.

Header and all L.A. Noire screenshots courtesy of Rockstar Games

When you visit the Intolerance movie set, during a mission from L.A. Noire's traffic desk, little of this is known. The set itself however points to the venality, mismanagement and eponymous intolerance that will eventually lead to the collapse of an empire.

Intolerance, directed in 1916 by D.W. Griffith, tells four stories from across human history concerning prejudice, government oppression and the ways social non-cooperation destroy civilizations. The present day narrative, wherein a young working class man is fired from his job by a greedy mill owner and then imprisoned for a crime he doesn't commit, seems to connect most directly to the story of L.A. Noire, which involves capitalists mistreating war veterans and the police disproportionately targeting the poor and people of color in order to increase their own lots.

If L.A. Noire is about corruption in capitalist America, it seems fitting that Phelps traipses around the Intolerance set, itself a relic of slow decay and dead dreams.

But the rickety wooden set, which Phelps tears around in pursuit of a wanted man, was built for a section of the film set in ancient Babylon, which details the war between Prince Belshazzar and Cyrus the Great, of Persia. Their dispute over which of the ancient gods is rightful eventually compels Cyrus to invade, thus ending the Babylonian Empire.

It frames the more modern tale appropriately. Just as Griffith relates the abuse of worker rights to the end of an empire, L.A. Noire implies that, for example, denying housing to war veterans and preying on the disadvantaged directly contravenes grand American values, and will eventually lead to their end.

L.A. Noire

The production of Intolerance itself represents the failure of a grand project. After the success of Birth of a Nation, itself a film that highlights the ugly prejudices and oppression upon which America is founded, Griffith and the production studio Triangle conceived Intolerance as an unprecedented epic. The exact production cost is unknown, though estimated at around $2.5 million, the equivalent of $55m today—in its time, Intolerance was the most expensive motion picture ever made, and the majority of its budget was spent on the Babylonia set.

The film, however, was a box office flop. Griffith spent the rest of his life in debt (portions of the movie were funded out of his pocket) and Triangle was forced to go on sale in 1918. A year later, the studio closed.

The Intolerance level sets up Phelps as a tragic hero. We have seen, quite literally, behind the scenes.

If L.A. Noire is about the inherent corruption in capitalist America, it seems fitting that Phelps traipses around the dead Intolerance set. An ambitious project, and a film full of wonderful moments, it was nevertheless too grand and ruined by its own money. Like the "Hollywoodland" sign, which looms large over Team Bondi's recreation of Los Angeles, it is a symbol of American prosperity.

And like the same sign, which in the 1970s collapsed and was scheduled to be destroyed—and was also the site at which struggling actress Peg Entwistle committed suicide in 1932—the Intolerance set is a relic of slow decay and dead dreams.

By the end of L.A. Noire, after unearthing the myriad forms of corruption at the heart of an American city, Phelps himself is killed. His reflection aboard the battleship is a pained lamentation of what might have been.

L.A. Noire

The Intolerance level sets up Phelps as a tragic hero. We have seen, quite literally, behind the scenes. We know that the initial awesomeness of the Intolerance set, the impressive veneer of American culture, disguise something much more dangerous. Phelps, however, continues to wear the badge and buy into his own reputation. He is only too happy to rise through the ranks of the Los Angeles police and act as marketing for the city itself.

When he's disgraced and demoted, like the county coroner, Carruthers, who tells him "it's not you I feel sorry for, it's your wife and kids," we feel only limited sympathy for Phelps. We knew what was coming. But Phelps' officiousness and willingness to believe the American myth—his own myth—blindsided him. It is only just that the same social code that lifts him up eventually chops him back down.

L.A. Noire

As the location for one of L.A. Noire's biggest gunfights, the Intolerance set represents the push and pull between police and criminals for control of the remnants of something. Be it through dealing drugs or serial killing, the perpetrators in L.A. Noire try to exert themselves on society. 

The cops, similarly, enact a redoubled crackdown on Los Angeles' crime: he is eventually exposed for a fraud, but Phelps is initially used by the LAPD as a poster boy for its modern, moral police service.

At the Intolerance set, these two forces—the criminal and the system—violently clash. The gun battle which concludes the traffic desk section captures, in a single moment, the far-reaching and overarching fable of L.A. Noire: despite the country's glorious façade, people in post-war America are still fighting to survive.

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