How the Movies Made Los Angeles the Ultimate American City

Classic movies set in L.A.—some well-known, some less so—offer candid glimpses of a city getting ready for its close-up

Starting in the early 1900s and continuing over the course of cinema’s first 30 or 40 years, Los Angeles was the setting of virtually every American movie made, even when it was a stand-in for ancient Rome and African jungles, English moors and the antebellum South. But sometime around the middle of the twentieth century, the city evolved from a burg of haciendas and hayseeds into a self-conscious world metropole. Since then, some of Hollywood’s most remarkable movies (from Sunset Boulevard to Chinatown to L.A. Confidential to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) have been about L.A. itself and how it became the ultimate American city—the city at the end of America.

Released the same year as Sunset Boulevard but subtler and more unsettling, 1950’s In a Lonely Place (directed by Nicholas Ray, who would go on to immortalize James Dean a few years later in Rebel Without a Cause) unfolds across an L.A. that must have struck audiences as something between paradise lost and a ghost town. The small garden villa of Hollywood apartments across whose bewitching courtyard Gloria Grahame lures over-the-hill screenwriter and murder suspect Humphrey Bogart couldn’t signify any other American city—in fact, it’s a re-creation of Ray’s actual apartment near Fountain and Harper—and if you’re familiar with the shadowy Pacific Palisades where Bogart chases his ever-darkening romantic vision, you’ll recognize the hills and hairpin turns around Chautauqua.

A study in violence and paranoia, In a Lonely Place is one of American film’s great sleepers, accruing stature every minute since its modest release. It also seems worth mentioning that around the time the movie opened, Ray allegedly found Grahame, at that time his wife, in bed with his teenage son from a previous marriage, and though such a thing could happen in any city, in no other city would it surprise you less.

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Denzel Washington in ‘Devil in a Blue Dress’

Meanwhile, 15 miles away at the other end of town, far from the toxic frolics of Hollywood, 1995’s Devil in a Blue Dress incorporates L.A.’s classic private-eye narrative into the postwar African American experience. Denzel Washington is the Black Philip Marlowe named Easy Rawlins, and Jennifer Beals is the titular devil, both struggling mightily if futilely not to have the movie stolen from under them by Don Cheadle’s breakthrough as Rawlins’s unhinged, trigger-happy pal Mouse. If the story from Walter Mosley’s novel is serviceable enough, Devil in a Blue Dress’s greatest attraction is how it captures L.A.’s legendary Central Avenue nightlife: exultant and full of irrepressible jazz even in the face of a white mob, white political decadence, and oppressive white cops looking for a lone detective of color to stick with a murder or two. At the center of Devil in a Blue Dress is a secret having to do with that most American madness, racial identity. If it’s a secret to be found in every other American city as well, in no other city would it prove as revelatory or consequential.

Meanwhile, 15 years later in L.A.’s lonelier places, Hal Ashby’s Shampoo reduces the utopia of the late 1960s to 48 hours in the life of a motorcycling hairdresser played by Warren Beatty. Less than a couple of decades have transpired since Bogart careened his way up PCH with a vengeance, but it feels like it could have been a couple of centuries.

For the first time, on the eve of the 1968 election, SoCal is about to send one of its own to the White House as an angel of death for not only tens of thousands of young Americans in Southeast Asia but also L.A.’s own groovy naiveté. Shot down at the Ambassador Hotel only months earlier, Robert Kennedy’s shadow hangs over Shampoo along with Richard Nixon’s (the silhouette in the distance is Manson). When it was released in 1975, Shampoo felt like a galaxy away from 1968, when L.A. was a universe unto itself with celestial coordinates called Rodeo and Canon, and Laurel and Benedict. At the movie’s climactic psychedelic bash, everyone knows something is coming to an end in a haze of illicit drugs that L.A. billboards now advertise half a century later.

Vintage L.A. was always a state of mind as well as place, and Shampoo is about the night that left L.A. stranded from its darkly glamorous past.

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