HOLLYWOOD DOESN’T PAINT MORE DARKLY THAN IT DOES WITH L.A. NOIR
From APPLAUSE 19 April 2007 Steven Uhles Column
Dark streets, femme fatales and the quick crack of gunfire make film noir an easy genre to identify.
Nobody channel-surfs over to one of the eternal broadcasts of The Maltese Falcon and wonders what romantic comedy they have stumbled across. Still, some of the most popular noirs don’t take place in the grit and grime of a Middle American metropolis, but near the sun- soaked sands and endless freeway tangle of the left coast.
Blame it on Raymond Chandler, the creator of Philip Marlowe, the City of Angels’ favorite private dick. The sprawl of Los Angeles is the setting for a variety of noirish tales – despite its trench- coat-resistant climate. In fact, Los Angeles noir is a site- specific genre unto itself. Here are a few favorites.
SUNSET BLVD. (1950): Opening with the protagonist doing a face- first float in an aging star’s swimming pool, this darkly comic tale of love, death and obsession in Hollywood stars William Holden as a failing screenwriter looking for an easy score, and silent- film star Gloria Swanson as the aging actress who proves his undoing. A near-perfect jab at the studio system.
CHINATOWN (1974): One of, if not the, greatest screenplays ever written, this tale of an L.A. private eye who gets caught up in political intrigue and the darkest of family secrets stars Jack Nicholson as sad sack P.I. Jake Gittes and John Huston in a towering performance as a SoCal politico who might or might not have it in for him. Complex and compelling.
L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997): A masterpiece of cinematic adaptation, L.A. manages to squeeze the juice out of James Ellroy’s epic novel, refining it into a stunning film. Though much has been made of the inspired performances turned in by Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce and Kim Basinger, the film’s real success is in communicating a sense of time, place and peril. An oft-overlooked film well worth checking out.
THE BIG SLEEP (1946): No overview of L.A. noir would be complete without acknowledging the father of the genre, Raymond Chandler. Though many actors have played Los Angeles investigator Philip Marlowe, the role will forever be owned by the great Humphrey Bogart. Like his Sam Spade a few years earlier, his take on this tough, taciturn, hard-bitten hero defines what the great noir protagonist is all about.
BLADE RUNNER (1982): Set in the not too distant future, Blade Runner transforms sunny Southern California into an ecological nightmare, perpetually soaked in poison rain and overcrowded with lost souls looking for a way out. Sounds pretty noir already, doesn’t it? Harrison Ford plays a burned-out cop tasked with hunting down and assassinating a small cadre of escaped androids. The spiritual descendant of the Marlowe tales, this movie understands that noir is all about the atmosphere.