More than any other genre, the city of Los Angeles is built for hard-boiled crime; Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald located their respective private eyes there, and the glossiness of modern L.A. serves an ironic counterpoint to the seediness encompassing those morbid tales of murder, mayhem, and mystery. Since the classic film noir cycle has been analyzed to death, I’m going to focus exclusively on several of my favorite neo-noir titles that deploy Los Angeles as a stomping ground for cops, criminals, detectives, and getaway drivers. There are some notable (and deeply regrettable) omissions: Mulholland Dr., Blade Runner, and Heat. Admittedly, these were neglected by design, so as to zero in on personal favorites/under-seen gems; I still found time to include one write-up on an established classic.
The Long Goodbye (dir. Robert Altman, 1973)
With its sly humor subverting the hard-boiled origins, The Long Goodbye represents one of New Hollywood’s high points, and, alongside McCabe & Mrs. Miller, my favorite Robert Altman jam. Sometime in the early Seventies, private eye Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould, terrific!) finds himself in a mare’s nest of trouble after aiding a close friend’s escape to Tijuana and taking on a case involving an alcoholic writer. This is less a faithful rendition of Chandler’s masterwork than a transposition of Marlowe’s attitude onto a blackly comic framework, with Altman deliberately avoiding the traditional detective thriller trope. While Mitchum’s sleepy-eyed, world-weary interpretation of Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely adheres to the tenor of Chandler’s creation, Gould fills Marlowe’s shoes admirably, reinventing the legendary dick into what Altman called him “Rip Van Marlowe”; even though the setting is early 70s, Marlowe and his demeanor are seemingly ripped from the 1950s – he even drives a rad 1948 Lincoln Continental. With Marlowe’s passé gestures and witty remarks (“That’s okay with me.”) at the forefront, his presence in the modern L.A. landscape generates a sort of je ne sais quoi; he’s not employed as a distancing device, but rather a figure out of his time, let alone element. It’d be unwise to spoil the secrets and potent resolution of The Long Goodbye, but keep the outcome of the opening sequence – an extended set-piece depicting Marlowe fetching cat food in the wee hours for his jabbering marmalade Tabby – in mind when the finale comes around.
Chinatown (dir. Roman Polanski, 1974)
The following capsule contains SPOILERS!
What else is there to say about Roman Polanski’s tour de force, Chinatown? Few films exhibit such a sheer sense of perfection; it’s a movie which not only stimulates the eyes but reminds one of the bottomless possibilities cinema can offer. In short, Robert Towne’s script – one of the very best Hollywood ever produced – uses the tumultuous California Water Wars as a springboard for a Chandler-esque detective mystery, wherein P.I. Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) finds himself delving into a case he never fully comprehends and seemingly expands with each clue. Aside from alleyway daytime exteriors and the nighttime climax in Chinatown, Downtown Los Angeles is hardly glimpsed; much of the inner-city action occurs in office buildings, libraries, precincts, and morgues – gloriously realized by production designer Richard Sylbert – orchestrating a almost cocoon-like universe shielded from prying eyes by walls, egos, and power. Here, L.A.’s Chinatown isn’t so much a location of interest than a token denoting a troubling ideology; some matters are so innately unfamiliar that it’s best to, as Gittes puts it in the opening scene, “let sleeping dogs lie…you’re better off not knowing.” In this world, corruption affects the populace whether they realize it or not, and everyone, good or bad, is a victim of their own instincts. Driven by a desire to assert himself, Gittes’ narcissism ultimately gets the best of him; corrupt power will endure and abide its tactics, leaving Gittes’ efforts mere acts of vanity.
The Driver (dir. Walter Hill, 1978)
Walter Hill’s second directorial effort, a neon-tinged existential crime-actioner, resonates less for its car mayhem than its depiction of Los Angeles as a landscape comprised of empty spaces. The loneliness of an Edward Hopper – clearly an influence on Hill – saturates each frame, yielding a melancholic ambiance, in this tale of a laconic getaway Driver’s (stone-faced Ryan O’Neal) attempts to evade a ruthless Detective’s (Bruce Dern) grasp. The movie also owes a great debt to the work of Jean-Pierre Melville, chiefly his Le Samouraï, as it paints a portrait of the Driver as a tragic, lonely ascetic who exists merely to survive and adhere to his own principles. The Driver might be best remembered for the signature chase scenes which bookend the movie, but the marriage of noir tropes and Western myth render it a specimen ripe for narrative deconstruction, as well as cinematic candy for lovers of 70s street fare. Bruce Dern’s intensely mannered performance might take some getting used to, but the morally bankrupt cop’s perverse determination is one of the film’s many charms; the Detective seemingly enjoys the hunt far more than the idea of eventual capture. The ethereally striking Isabelle Adjani co-stars as an escort-turned-gambler. Movies often depict the City of Angels as a locale constantly in motion, replete with the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Hill’s desolate mise-en-scène, at times emphasizing the arrangement of city architecture over human subjects as the guiding visual idea, transmutes Los Angeles’ urbanity that it resembles the vast open plains of the Westerns which inspired the film; except here, the cacti are monolithic.
Mike’s Murder (dir. James Bridges, 1984)
Conceived as a radical experiment in narrative delivery – structurally akin to Irreversible – a disastrous test screening forced writer-director James Bridges to re-edit his opus, enforcing linear storytelling, omitting a brutal murder, and jettisoning much of Joe Jackson’s score. Even in its compromised form, however, Mike’s Murder is very unconventional for an early 80s studio picture; it’s a sorrowful tone poem exploring the unpromising lives of L.A. fringe dwellers, most of whom are either losers or dreamers, with ominous undercurrents propelling the story forward. At the center is Betty (Debra Winger), a quiet, self-effacing bank teller who falls hard for the elusive Mike, a tennis instructor who moonlights as a dealer/gigolo, and seeks to uncover his identity after he’s murdered. Winger, with her youthful face and hypnotic presence, delivers an often transcending performance: her scenes with Mike – watch what she does with her eyes – and, later, a tête-à-tête with record producer Paul Winfield (truly exceptional!) display some of her best work.* Mike’s Murder’s incorporation of atypical L.A. locales is immensely effective, as the camera weaves through residential communities, industrial settings, and the dark side of the Hollywood Hills. Bridges and cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos ditch polished sheen and visualize L.A. as a hazy hotbed of drug dealing, desperation, and longing. A city wherein mysterious threats, shifty personas, paranoia, and broken dreams abound so as to render even the glitziest of mansions as forbidding and murky.
*Pauline Kael adored Winger’s work here, deeming it “a performance that suggests what Antonioni seemed to be trying to get from Jeanne Moreau in La Notte.”
To Live and Die in L.A. (dir. William Friedkin, 1985)
You can keep your Beverly Hills Cop, your 48 Hrs., and your Lethal Weapon; William Friedkin’s tense, virile, and fatalistic To Live and Die In L.A. qualifies, for my money, as the quintessential 80s American cop movie. Following its explosive (and admittedly xenophobic) opener, To Live delineates unhinged Secret Service Agent Richard Chance’s (William Petersen, whose non-actorly performance is an underrated gem) quest to apprehend notorious counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe) by any means necessary. Viewed nowadays, some may smirk, even laugh, at director Friedkin and cinematographer Robby Müller’s frequently vivid color palette, stock cop utterances (“I’m getting too old for this shit.”), and the blue-chip Wang Chung score – the New Wave band’s sole foray into film scoring – but Friedkin’s jolting direction injects a fine-tuned sense of urgency that keeps one hooked; it’s also worth mentioning that his seemingly exhaustive research is apparent in the scenes involving law procedure and counterfeiting. Furthermore, the inclusion of Friedkin’s crime film M.O. – “blurring the line between cop and criminal” – and gritty street ethos aid in reinvigorating some of the shopworn tropes. Above all, the movie elevates Los Angeles from mere backdrop to supporting character, even active participant, as Friedkin occasionally employs topographical attributes as obstacles for dramatic effect; the most effective example of this is in the famous car chase. The movie also features a scene wherein Willem Dafoe, fully nude, burns a bushel of money in his fireplace…and that is awesome! Also: I wouldn’t be surprised if the creators of “Grand Theft Auto” cited this as an influence.
[SPOILERS AHEAD]: Word has it Michael Mann attempted to sue Friedkin for plagiarizing the hit show, “Miami Vice”, but Friedkin’s vision of a sun-baked hell rings less an appropriation than a response: Friedkin’s innate fatalism subdues the aura of cool/“awesome cop” vibe, morals dissipate into the ether, and everyone gets what they deserve.