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L.A. Noire’s re-release reminds us of its best crimefighter

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Herschel Biggs is back on the case

Herschel Biggs concept art for L.A. Noire Team Bondi/Rockstar Games

The re-release of L.A. Noire for the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One affords the opportunity to talk about my favorite video game character of all time, Herschel Biggs.

L.A. Noire was a troubled and long overdue project for Team Bondi, but if nothing else, they delivered Biggs, the burnout on the arson desk and the spine of what every pulpy detective story needs: a moral code. All the characters are supposed to be too hard bitten, too cynical, too bureaucratic or compromised for the viewer to grant anyone such sincerity of belief. But this is the essential payout of memorable film noir. It’s in Bud White’s fists, and in Roy Batty’s tears. It’s in the briefcase for which Jules Winnfield would die trying, real hard, to be the shepherd.

Biggs, marvelously performed by Keith Szarabajka, is the same vessel for L.A. Noire. In the game, the player-controlled protagonist, Det. Cole Phelps, flies too close to the sun after he’s promoted to the L.A.P.D.’s vice bureau. He’s discredited and reassigned to arson, where he can snoop all he wants, but he’ll never get to those he was about to expose.

As the story culminates, Phelps is still fixated on proving facts — and his own intelligence — rather than proving crimes. Biggs is the paper-pushing skeptic who believes Phelps is imagining a conspiracy out of ordinary tragedies to redeem his tattered wonderboy résumé. Then on the second arson case, in the Morelli home, when the fire inspector off-handedly refers to the charred bodies as “evidence” and not people, Biggs busts out. And then he lays down the other truth of the genre, which is that there never is a smoking gun — but you don’t need one if you’re really gonna get the bad guys.

Jack Kelso, the insurance investigator and a former sergeant in Phelps’ Marine unit in World War II, plays a large role in cooperating with Phelps (as a playable character, too) to unravel the game’s real mystery. But both he and Phelps are morally compromised, Phelps by his pointless infidelity and Kelso, with his guilty knowledge of the morphine heist. Neither are particularly likeable.

Biggs’ failure is simpler and more relatable, especially to older people like me. He hasn’t given a shit for two decades. Now he does. When a character in film noir starts giving a shit, the whole enterprise begins its move toward justice. In L.A. Noire that starts with Herschel Biggs, no longer an arson badge cooperating with insurance companies or real estate developers in L.A.’s postwar boom, but a classic corruption fighter.

“I was never his friend,” Biggs says of Phelps in L.A. Noire’s final scene. Even at Phelps’ funeral, Biggs made no equivalences or allowances for him. For all of its affected sophistication and complication, film noir is still just a fairytale of right and wrong. The hero is the one carrying that message all the way to the end. Even if they have to be reminded along the way.