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

There is something particularly LA about Film Noir. In the same way that the novels of Charles Dickens recreate the feel of Victorian London, Film Noir captures the aesthetic of 1940’s Los Angeles. The city’s varied demeanor (from sunny, beautiful, beaches to downtown concrete jungle) was the perfect foil for these dark stories, as the paranoid protagonist falls into a hellish labyrinth of his own making, lured by a femme fatale and lit with the extremes of German Expressionism. So, how did this stunning style of film come about and why is it so enmeshed with the City of Angels?

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 movie scripts be submitted to a federal bureau and it spelled out what was acceptable, and unacceptable, content. Representatives even showed 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, 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 saw a flowering of movies as both an art form and a social commentator during this time of extreme economic crises, in the 1920’s. When Hitler came to power in 1933, the movie community, with a high percentage of jews and homosexuals, had very little time to escape Berlin. Incredibly, 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, led by Raymond Chandler, who penned hard-boiled, crime novels. These ‘pulp fiction’ stories were hugely popular, and spoke to a nation experiencing intense social and economic anxieties. They depicted Los Angeles as a city less rigid and less cultured than the older, east coast, cities – a place that was in social flux. And so the groundwork was laid for a style of filmmaking that caused French critics to declare that at last, Hollywood was making art movies. They named the genre ‘Film Noir’.

Broadway in downtown LA
Broadway near Pershing Square, Christmas 1950

As movie production increased the B-movie made up a large part of studio 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 rising) stars. Adapting the hardboiled detective crime stories of the 1930’s, these films were shot in black and white, giving full play to their expressionist sensibilities and social critique. These sexually charged, and often violent, films overcame many of the restrictions of the Hays Code by using suggestion, symbolism, shadows and innovative music. Hollywood 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 became a character in the films. Its gritty urban landscape, often juxtaposed with the westside’s brighter, warmer, more spacious persona, features in many classic film noirs, including Double Indemnity (1944)D.O.A. (1949) and Out of the Past (1947). Popular locations included the Bradbury Building, Angels Flight, Union Station and Bunker Hill.

Angels Flight, in DTLA
Angels Flight in DTLA, a frequent location used in Noir movies

By 1958, 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 their own versions of film noir, now known as neo-noir; 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.

If you’re planning a visit to LA, or especially if you live here, discovering this style of film will open a window on a different side of the city than the one you may have been expecting, or realize if you do live here, and it will give you an insight on an important period in Los Angeles history – plus they’re just so fun to watch!

Los Angeles City Hall, Film Noir location
Los Angeles City Hall, a location for many Film Noirs, including ‘L.A. Confidential (seen here)’ and ‘D.O.A.’

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 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.

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)

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