Inside LA - The Los Angeles Lowdown

Film Noir: A Dark Side Of The City Of Angels

Broadway, in downtown LA, 1945
Broadway, in downtown LA, c1945 – a prefect Film Noir location

There’s something very LA about Film Noir. In a similar way that the novels of Charles Dickens recreate the feel of Victorian London, Film Noir captures the aesthetic and atmosphere of 1940’s and 50’s Los Angeles. The different aspects of the city, from lovely sunny beaches to downtown concrete jungle, made a perfect setting for these dark stories, as the paranoid protagonist falls into a hellish labyrinth of his own making, lured by a femme fatale and starkly lit by German Expressionism. 

So, how did this stunning style of film come about and why is it so enmeshed with the City of Angels?

Background to Film Noir

When the prohibition of alcohol ended in 1933 a more sinister suppression began in America, the censorship of entertainment. The Hays Production Code required all Hollywood movie scripts be submitted to the organization and their rules spelled out exactly what was acceptable, and unacceptable, content. Representatives for the Hays Office would even show up on set to ensure that nothing improper was being filmed (for example if a man and a woman occupied a bed at the same time, one of them had to have their feet on the ground).

This coincided with the Great Depression, when the movie industry saw attendances halve and radio began competing as cheaper, stay-at-home, entertainment. Audiences later returned to theaters in even greater numbers in the 1930’s (they needed Hollywood’s brand of escapism even more by then), but it gave the industry a big shock, like many others in the US.

Meanwhile, the movie industry in Germany, one of the great powerhouses of film at the time, was also in crisis. The Weimar Republic had seen a flowering of movies in the 1920’s, with films there being seen as both an art form and a social commentator during a time of extreme economic crisis.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, the German movie community, with a high percentage of jews and homosexuals, had very little time to escape Berlin. Incredibly, around eight hundred of them made it to Los Angeles, and so the Golden Age of Hollywood began.

The Great Depression spawned a group of writers in LA and San Francisco, such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, who penned hard-boiled, crime novels, often based on real cases they knew about. These ‘pulp fiction’ stories were hugely popular, and reflected a nation that was experiencing intense social and economic anxieties. They depicted Los Angeles as a city both more open and less cultured than the older, East Coast, cities – a place that was in social flux.

This laid the groundwork for a style of filmmaking that caused French critics (sacré bleu!) to declare that at last, Hollywood was actually making art movies. They approvingly named the genre ‘Film Noir’.

What is Film Noir?

The main characteristics of the genre are a dream-like state, an unsettling strangeness, moral ambivalence, cruelty and eroticism. Generally the movies were black and white, with dramatic use of shadows and lighting. They almost always involve crime or an insurance scam. There would often be a voice-over by the hard-bitten male lead, who was usually a private eye or detective.

Noir movies were one of the only types of major studio films to show women desiring sex, although of course it never ended well for the woman. Weirdly, the other genre that showed women feeling sexual desire were biblical epics. Partly for this reason noir was very popular with female audiences, a fact that the Hollywood Studios were very aware of and they made every effort to capitalize on it.

LA Noir

As film production increased in the late 1930’s the B-movie made up a large part of a studios output. The crews that made the B-movies included many of the Weimar emigres, who were often given lower budgets, cheaper source material and fading (or ambitious young) stars.

Adapting the hardboiled crime stories of the 1920’s and 30’s, these films were mostly shot in black and white, giving full play to their expressionist sensibilities and social critique. Their sexually charged and violent atmospheres and backgrounds overcame many of the restrictions of the Hays Code, by using suggestion, symbolism, shadows and innovative music to create a powerful effect.

Hollywood had matured and its audiences enthusiastically responded.

With less access to the studio backlots the directors chose to film in downtown Los Angeles, which was more similar in style to the cities in Europe from whence they had come, and the neighborhood itself often became a character in the story. Its gritty urban landscape, often juxtaposed with the Westside’s brighter, warmer, more spacious persona, features in many classic film noirs.

Popular locations used in several noir movies include the Bradbury Building, Angels Flight, Bunker Hill, LA City Hall and Union Station.

Movies that filmed in the area include Double Indemnity (1944), D.O.A. (1949), Criss Cross (1949) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955). In the latter film gumshoe Mike Hammer walks the dusty, deserted streets of Bunker Hill, searching for a woman who’s disappeared. Hammer finds a book of poetry that she left behind, and he reads a verse by Christina Rossetti:

For if the darkness and corruption leave

A vestige of the thoughts that once we had

Better by far you should forget and smile

Than that you should remember and be sad.

In other words, ignorance is bliss.

Or is it? The private eye repeats the words again and again, but finds it gives him no existential peace. Quentin Tarantino was heavily influenced by this Film Noir classic when making Pulp Fiction (1996).

The lines from the poem can also be read as a ode to Victorian Bunker Hill itself, which was shortly to fall to the wrecking ball in the name of progress.

Birth of Neo-Noir

By 1960, with the end of the studio system and the B-movie, Noir as a genre was done, but its influence on film, through realism, psychology and symbolism, meant movies would never be the same again. Each new generation of filmmakers continues to spin its own versions of film noir, now known as neo-noir (meaning new noir).

Such films as The Long Goodbye (1973), Chinatown (1974), Bladerunner (1982), a sci-fi noir film, L.A. Confidential (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001) and, more recently, Aaron Katz’s Gemini (2017), follow in this rich tradition. All of them were set and shot in Los Angeles, the city once again showing its range of locations, suitable for shooting period, science fiction and contemporary movies, to new audiences.

Film Noir in LA Today

If you’re planning a visit to LA, or especially if you live here, discovering these films will open a window on a different side of the city than most people know, and it gives insight on an important period in Los Angeles and film history. Plus they’re just so enjoyable.

Our DTLA Murder Mystery Ghost tour begins at the Biltmore Hotel, last known location of Elizabeth Short – AKA the Black Dahlia – who was murdered in 1947. Her very sobriquet was pulled from a hugely popular noir movie, The Blue Dahlia, which came out the year before. The tour ends at City Hall, another location used in that very film.

The LA: Food + History + Design tour begins at Union Station, used in both noir and sci-fi noir (in Blade Runner), and visits other classic settings, such as Olvera Street, City Hall and the Bradbury Building, which features in D.O.A., Double Indemnity, Chinatown and Blade Runner.

Union Station

If you have any feedback on Film Noir: A Dark Side Of The City Of Angels please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Stuart Wood (Twitter) and Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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