There’s a black-and-white photograph taken in 1953 that shows a crowd of enraptured onlookers staring through the bullet-riddled windows of a Los Angeles diner, one woman cocking a painted fingernail at something unseen on the other side of the glass.
The evocative image, brought to popular attention in the book Dark City: The Real Los Angeles Noir, perfectly distills the macabre allure of the much-heralded cinematic and literary style that added a seductive, psychologically complex dimension to the procedurals and gangster films that preceded it: Noir.
How did the City of Angels become ground zero for the form?
The term “film noir” is typically credited to French critic Nino Frank, who apparently coined it in a 1946 essay published in the magazine L’Écran français to describe four American crime films: John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Otto Preminger’s Laura, and Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet.
“These ‘noir’ films no longer have anything in common with the usual kind of police reel,” Frank wrote. “They are essentially psychological narratives with the action—however violent or fast-paced—less significant than faces, gestures, words—than the truth of the characters.”
The films in question grew out of the hardboiled detective genre birthed by novelists like Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler. Notably, two of the movies Frank wrote about—Double Indemnity and Murder, My Sweet, based on novels by Cain and Chandler, respectively—were set in Los Angeles, a city whose glamorous reputation became laced with stories of crime, scandal, and corruption.
The hardboiled fiction of Cain, Chandler, and other Los Angeles-based authors, such as Dorothy B. Hughes and Ross MacDonald, partially arose from the local tabloid journalism of the 1920s and ’30s, which highlighted the city’s enticing dualities.
During that time, Los Angeles was spun as a place of dreams, a wide-open landscape both literally and figuratively, where your greatest desires could become reality. Between 1920 and 1929 the city’s population doubled, flooded by romantics hoping to make their mark—as well as the con artists and self-styled religious gurus who descended to take advantage of their naïveté. Shining like a beacon over it all was Hollywood, the ultimate dream-maker, whose toxic underbelly began erupting to the surface in sensational headlines.
In 1921, arguably the first major Hollywood scandal arose when comedian Fatty Arbuckle was accused (and ultimately acquitted) of raping starlet Virginia Rappe, who died of a ruptured bladder just days after attending a party in Arbuckle’s hotel suite. That decade was bookended by the murder of Ned Doheny—son of LA oil tycoon Edward Doheny—who was shot and killed in his Beverly Hills mansion, allegedly by his close friend and secretary.
Scandals continued to explode in the ’30s and ’40s. Charlie Chaplin’s underage wives and their spectacular divorces were breathlessly reported. In 1932, producer Paul Bern, the husband of Jean Harlow, was found dead in the couple’s Beverly Hills home from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, leading to rampant speculation about the “real” cause of his death. In 1940, the arrest of Hollywood “madam” Lee Francis exposed a robust vice trade along Sunset Boulevard. Corrupt city officials such as disgraced LAPD sheriff James “Two Gun” Davis and mayor Frank Shaw were also brought down during this time.
These incidents and others were covered by reporters at papers including the Los Angeles Herald-Express, The Hollywood Citizen News, and the Los Angeles Times. The city editor at the Herald-Express, Agness “Aggie” Underwood, wrote in a hardboiled style that was typical of tabloid journalism at the time and which undoubtedly influenced contemporary LA crime novelists, who dreamed up wisecracking, hard-living Southland investigators, such as Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer.
Many of these novels served as the basis for a spate of character-driven crime films churned out by Hollywood beginning in the early 1940s. A good number of them were helmed by German filmmakers, such as Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, and Robert Siodmak, who landed in Hollywood after fleeing the Nazis in the lead-up to WWII.
Film noir as a style combined elements of the hardboiled fiction of the day with German Expressionistic techniques imported by those directors. While the film that is widely considered to be the first Hollywood noir—John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon—was set in San Francisco, many of the earliest and greatest film noirs took place in Los Angeles. Those that have earned high marks are listed below.
In classical noir, the majority of hardboiled heroes are white males and the majority of women are portrayed as damaged or duplicitous. But there are many LA noir novels written by women and people of color that have yet to be adapted for the screen, including the works of Megan Abbott (Die a Little, The Song is You, Bury Me Deep); Joe Ide (IQ, Wrecked); Nina Revoyr (Southland, The Age of Dreaming); Gar Anthony Haywood (the Aaron Gunner series); and Paula L. Woods (the Charlotte Justice series). All are worth seeking out.
James M. Cain’s 1943 novella, which the author based on an actual headline-grabbing murder that took place in Queens, New York in 1927, has long been overshadowed by director Billy Wilder’s 1944 film adaptation, which features a delectable turn by Barbara Stanwyck as murderous housewife Phyllis Dietrichson. Double Indemnity is generally considered the gold standard of film noir, helping to establish the template for future entries in the category. At the time of release, the film was a box office hit and was nominated for seven Oscars including Best Picture, Director, Actress and Screenplay.
Filming locations: Hollywood and Western Building, the El Royale, 1825 North Kingsley Avenue (Walter Neff’s apartment)
The Big Sleep
Humphrey Bogart gave the definitive performance of Raymond Chandler’s famed private detective Philip Marlowe in Howard Hawks’ 1946 adaptation of the author’s Depression-set novel. In the film, the complex plot is really just a backdrop for the explosive star chemistry between real-life husband and wife Bogart and Lauren Bacall, who bat around sexual innuendos like they’re going out of style.
Filming locations: Filmed entirely on the Warner Bros. Studios backlot
In a Lonely Place
Bogart’s second great LA noir performance came in director Nicholas Ray’s 1950 adaptation of the Dorothy B. Hughes novel of the same name. This is arguably the most emotionally devastating of the classic noirs of the ’40s and ’50s, with Bogarts struggling, tortured screenwriter Dixon Steele—suspected in the murder of a young hat-check girl—and Gloria Grahame’s fledging actress Laurel Gray falling into a doomed romance that is summed up by the immortal lines, “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”
Filming locations: Villa Primavera apartments, Beverly Hills City Hall
The rare classic film noir not to be adapted from pre-existing material, Sunset Boulevard opens with the lifeless body of William Holden’s Joe Gillis floating face-down in a swimming pool at a fading Mediterranean-style mansion. The central mystery of who killed him—the sequence of events is narrated by the dead man himself—is less intriguing than Wilder’s bruising satire of Hollywood, whose cruelties have turned silent movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) into a delusional shut-in whose gothic affectations render her nearly monstrous. The film received a total of 11 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Actress for Swanson’s iconic performance.
Filming locations: Paramount Studios, Bel Air Country Club, 1851 Ivar Avenue (Joe Gillis’ apartment)
Kiss Me Deadly
One of the bleakest entries in a bleak genre came with Robert Aldrich’s low-budget 1955 adaptation of Mickey Spillane’s novel, which switched the stomping grounds of Spillane’s deeply amoral private eye Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) from New York to Los Angeles. Shot through with a heavy dose of Cold War paranoia, the nihilistic classic also serves as a fascinating time capsule of 1950s LA, with locations ranging from Malibu to Bunker Hill. Only a few years after the movie was shot, many of the Bunker Hill locations were demolished in the course of an extensive redevelopment project.
Filming locations: Hollywood Athletic Club, Point Dume State Beach
The Long Goodbye
American film noir went through a relatively fallow period from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, when the first wave of “neo-noirs” began cropping up in theaters. Robert Altman’s 1973 adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel—scripted by original Big Sleep co-screenwriter Leigh Brackett—was one of the first and best of these. Updating the 1950s setting to 1970s Los Angeles, the film lightly upends noir conventions, with Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe rendered a shambling, disheveled smart-aleck, a distinct difference from earlier screen versions of the character. The film’s notable use of LA locations includes Marlowe’s apartment, which is located in Hollywood’s striking High Tower Court complex.
Filming locations: High Tower Court, Malibu Cove Colony, Las Encinas Hospital, Westwood Village
Widely considered the greatest of the neo-noirs and the crowning achievement of director Roman Polanski, Chinatown used the backdrop of the California water wars to paint a portrait of pervasive moral decay in Los Angeles’s halls of power. The legendary script by Robert Towne brilliantly connects both political and personal corruption, suggesting crooked men, epitomized by John Huston’s scaly Noah Cross, are often just as sick as their towns. The film was a commercial and critical smash and was nominated for a whopping 11 Oscars, winning one for Best Original Screenplay.
Noir conventions were melded with near-future sci-fi in what many consider to be Ridley Scott’s greatest film. Starring Harrison Ford as a 21st century version of a hardboiled gumshoe and Sean Young as an android offshoot of the femme fatale archetype, Blade Runner’s Expressionistic chiaroscuro lighting harkens back to the past even as Scott showcases a grim, dystopic future Los Angeles, where the rain seemingly never stops falling. Though Blade Runner is loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Scott put his own unique spin on both the original book and the form of film noir itself.
Jim Thompson’s 1963 novel was adapted by noted crime writer Donald E. Westlake for director Stephen Frears, who once described the book as “pulp fiction meets Greek tragedy.” The film certainly lives up to that characterization. Updated to contemporary Los Angeles, The Grifters is nonetheless steeped in noir’s heavily stylized traditions. The twisty plot culminates in a devastating denouement between Anjelica Huston’s ruthless con artist Lilly Dillon and her son Roy (John Cusack) that, in true ’90s fashion, makes the film’s simmering Oedipal themes explicit. The film is notable for featuring the Bryson Apartment Hotel, which Chandler used as a setting in his 1943 novel The Lady in the Lake.
Filming locations: Bryson Apartment Hotel, Saugus Cafe, Sierra Pelona Motel
Devil in a Blue Dress
One of the few works of noir by a black author to be adapted for the screen, Devil in a Blue Dress stars Denzel Washington as defense plant worker-turned-private detective Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, the hero of author Walter Mosley’s ongoing book series. Set in 1948 Los Angeles, the film marries traditional noir tropes—red herrings, plot twists, femme fatales— with themes of race and class as Rawlins and his partner Mouse (Don Cheadle) search for a missing woman over a wide cross-section of Los Angeles, from the Griffith Observatory to West Adams.
The genre got a real shot in the arm with Curtis Hanson’s Oscar-winning 1997 adaptation of James Ellroy’s dense and brutally violent novel, which sees three LAPD officers become ensnared in a web of corruption while attempting to solve a series of murders. Though L.A. Confidential is actually the third book in Ellroy’s so-called L.A. Quartet series, it was the first adaptation of his works to make it to the screen. Under Hanson’s confident direction, it became a critical darling, made stars of its two leading men (Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce) and stripped away the illusion of Old Hollywood glamour for a new generation.
David Lynch’s puzzle box of a film subverted noir tropes in a way only he could. Here, the director gives Hollywood the same treatment he gave small-town suburbia in Blue Velvet, peering beneath the façade to expose a world of nightmares. Mulholland Drive employs the conventions of noir while simultaneously upending them, the plot cascading into a state of frantic dream logic. In the process, Naomi Watt’s initially happy-go-lucky starlet becomes a vehicle to explore the loneliness and desperation that lies at the dark heart of noir.
Nicolas Winding Refn updated the film noir for the 21st century with this dreamy, brooding portrait of a stunt car and getaway driver (Ryan Gosling) whose relationship with a neighbor (Carey Mulligan) puts him on the wrong side of a gang of violent criminals. Gosling’s character is hushed and somber where Chandler and Cain’s PIs were wisecracking and brazen, putting what could be called an emo spin on the prototypical noir protagonist. Based on James Sallis’s novel of the same name, the film also takes a refreshingly unorthodox approach to visualizing Los Angeles, lending some of its less-picturesque corners a sort of otherworldly beauty.
Filming locations: Park Plaza apartments, Echo Park Market, Picture Car Warehouse, LA River, Vincenzo’s Pizza, Point Mugu, Santa Clarita Elks Lodge