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Ruthless City: Steve Erickson on L.A.’s Celluloid Terrain

This town is never so beguiling and deadly as when it’s in front of the camera

Drawing the desperate and the adrift, Los Angeles has long been the dumping ground of dreams both real and cinematic. As close to anarchic as an urban landscape can be, it’s not only the natural setting for dramas of grand larceny, illicit lust, and cold-blooded murder, but it has played the heavy as well. Here’s a moviegoer’s guide to L.A.’s most enduring archetypes:

Tarnished Knights
“Down these mean streets,” wrote Raymond Chandler famously, “a man must go who is…neither tarnished nor afraid,” but L.A. private eye Philip Marlowe is more tarnished than he knows, by disillusion if not cynicism. Marlowe has been played by many actors, including Dick Powell, James Garner, and Robert Mitchum. The definitive portraits—at opposite ends of the stylistic spectrum—are from Humphrey Bogart in 1946’s The Big Sleep, sweating through his clothes in a greenhouse yet still the coolest man onscreen, and Elliott Gould in 1973’s The Long Goodbye, wandering among the naked nymphs of a sun-blasted era that was more noir than anyone knew at the time.

Suckers and Femmes Fatales
Filled with self-hatred, sexually possessed by a silent-movie goddess taking revenge on the talk that destroyed her career, William Holden is a screenwriter in 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, bearing witness to the absurdity of not simply his own situation but any possibility that L.A. can offer a true or redeeming passion. Hitchhiker Tom Neal in Detour—a toxic piece of poverty-row cinema from 1945—is Holden’s distant cousin, on his way cross-country to see his girl; he winds up at the end of the leash coiled around the hand of the most fatale of femmes, before she winds up in L.A. at the end of the (telephone) line coiled around her neck. It may be that when Esquire pinup Bernice Lyon chose the name Ann Savage for her Hollywood career, she was bound to become film’s darkest woman.

Unholy Unions
Only L.A.’s debauched paradise could produce alliances so depraved that the forbidden lovers of 1944’s Double Indemnity—golden dominatrix Barbara Stanwyck lashing Fred MacMurray to her homicidal intentions—would be the most innocent, their transgressions garden-variety adultery and murder (that “smells like honeysuckle”). Released in 1974, the same summer that devoured the presidency of Richard Nixon, Chinatown evoked a corruption of the American spirit so indisputable that the movie’s unspeakable evil—the sexual affair between daughter Faye Dunaway and father John Huston—had a special metaphorical authority. Conversely in 1990’s The Grifters, con woman (and John’s daughter) Anjelica Huston cons her son, con man John Cusack, the only way she knows, by an erotic seduction for which con girlfriend Annette Bening is no match.

The Goods
In 1949’s Criss Cross, L.A. descends—by Bunker Hill’s airborne trolley, Angels Flight—from the bright light of day into the noir imagination, where Burt Lancaster tries to hijack both an armored truck and mobster wife Yvonne De Carlo. By 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly, what’s at stake is nuclear oblivion glowing from a suitcase opened four decades later by Pulp Fiction’s hit men; navigating L.A. at its most anonymous, they find either the Void or the face of God, winding up dead (John Travolta) or quoting scripture (Samuel L. Jackson). The most valuable score of all in 1982’s Blade Runner is nothing less than the essence of humanity: the memories, profoundly felt (whether “real” or not) of a life savored (whether “lived” or not) by Rutger Hauer’s dying android in a future where L.A. descends yet again from the promise of possibility into a maelstrom of decay. These four movies finished off for good the romanticism that previously infused even the darkest of homegrown noirs.

Shoot-Outs and Fast Getaways
Picking up where Criss Cross’s heist leaves off, the best-laid plans of criminal mastermind Robert De Niro run up against cop Al Pacino during one of cinema’s great firefights, the Battle of Downtown in Heat, a three-hour 1995 crime epic that might have been written by William Thackeray had he been a pulp novelist and had Vanity Fair been a tableau of contemporary L.A. rather than a 19th-century European capital. Stranded by their getaway driver, De Niro and company could use someone like Ryan Gosling, whose behind-the-wheel maneuverings from the industrial lofts to the Staples Center in 2011’s Drive guide us through a city—viewed at both ground level and from the night skies—defined by entropy rather than gravity, constantly coming apart and never cohering.

The City as Conspirator
At some point, not cop or criminal or crackpot is a match for the city itself. Somewhere in the shadows between the beach and the palisades, before the desperation that drives Holden to his doom sets in, In a Lonely Place (released the same year as Sunset Boulevard) finds hair-trigger screenwriter Humphrey Bogart at the mercy of the very inner violence that Hollywood pays him to conjure. Somewhere between city hall corruption and post-World War II Central Avenue, black detective Denzel Washington in Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) learns that enemy territory lies beyond the avenue, as the race-crazed cops can attest to in 1997’s L.A. Confidential, a tabloid almanac of the city as we openly dread and secretly fantasize it once was. Somewhere between the elusiveness of identity and the rapture of voyeurism, Bill Pullman, the no-wave sax player of Lost Highway (also ’97), commits murder—maybe—in an L.A. that’s become the most depraved home movie ever, starring Patricia Arquette as the resurrection of Ann Savage, glowing like the end of the world in a suitcase. All metropolises are vice ridden, but in none other are justice and mayhem so interchangeable; in no other city does the pulse quicken so identically for rage and desire alike, or can the demons so easily be mistaken for angels.