Desperate City

From noir classics to police procedurals, why L.A. crime is like no other

In 1934, L.A. ran into its dark side on the highway from Mexico. Frank Chambers was returning from a bender in Tijuana on the back of a hay truck that deposited him, rather rudely, according to the opening line of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, at a diner outside the city. There Frank met Cora, who seduced him, and together they murdered Cora’s husband to take over the diner and, shall we say, further their relationship; the novel’s most famous, frenzied scene finds the two getting it on a few feet from the fresh corpse. Los Angeles hasn’t been the same since.

What’s clear these past few weeks, with the premiere of HBO’s Mildred Pierce (also based on a Cain novel) as well as the third-season conclusion of the series Southland, is that crime and punishment haven’t been the same, either. In L.A., both are expressions of an anarchy that’s part of the city’s identity. The evil that men and women do—in a place that presumes to name itself after angels—is as distinctive from other evil, at least as portrayed by the popular culture, as L.A. is from other places, and from the beginning, crime and punishment in L.A. have been brothers in mayhem, separated by a psychosis or two, if that. Like in the Old West, where lawman and badman freely crossed back and forth over the line between them, the unholy progeny of Frank and Cora’s illicit union are as likely to have grown up cops as killers: “Today,” a veteran officer in Southland tells a rookie stricken by his first killing, “you took a bad guy off the street for good, and that’s God’s work,” but he could as easily mean the Devil’s. In the first landmark cop drama, Dragnet, the LAPD’s Joe Friday had the emotional deadness of a hoodlum, and ’50s TV private eyes Peter Gunn and Richard Diamond were hipster-hedonists for whom justice was an angle to score chicks. L.A. cop and killer alike are ecstatic, answering to some power beyond social invention or authorization. Crime and punishment are more deeply personal the farther west they move, in contrast to the “just business” ethos of The Godfather and The Sopranos; this is because the East Coast crime story is about murder as a transaction decided by a board of directors, while the L.A. crime story is about drifters like Frank Chambers who barely can transact the day, stumbling into trouble on the way to their dreams, and often discovering that their dreams and trouble are the same. This is because the East Coast crime story, born of Prohibition and the Depression, is about money, while the L.A. crime story, born of Frank and Cora, is about sex.

The sensuality of L.A. unravels cop and killer, rendering crime and punishment primal in a way that mere greed can never be. In the first great L.A. crime picture, 1944’s Double Indemnity (based on yet another Cain novel), one whiff of the honeysuckle wafting around Barbara Stanwyck makes a bloody mockery of whatever ethos insurance investigator Fred MacMurray actually has. In Criss Cross, also from the ’40s, Burt Lancaster’s armored truck heist is less for the loot than to distract a mobster from the fact that Lancaster is sleeping with the mobster’s wife. In Detour, sex puts Tom Neal—crossing the country to be with his girl—at the end of fellow nomad Ann Savage’s metaphoric leash, until the leash becomes a telephone cord around Savage’s neck. At the center of John Huston’s scheme to grab the city’s water in Chinatown is the secret that he’s sleeping with his daughter, with his granddaughter next in line; in The Big Sleep it’s as difficult for Humphrey Bogart to keep straight who’s sleeping with whom as it is who’s murdering whom, maybe because he’s too busy thinking about sleeping with Lauren Bacall while her younger sister, a one-nymphet porn industry, is trying to sleep with him when some female cab driver or bookstore clerk isn’t. The fury behind Kiss Me Deadly’s sadistic detective Mike Hammer, played by Ralph Meeker, is palpably carnal—he’ll hit someone just because his fist can stand the company—and in The Prowler Van Heflin’s cop turns a routine response to a lonely wife’s report of a peeping tom into a torrid affair verging on rape; after Heflin kills her husband, we wonder whether the cop was the prowler in the first place, assuming there ever was a prowler. In Blade Runner, the L.A. cop of the future, actually a hit man dispatching androids, becomes romantically involved with one. Sex is prelude to a possible execution.


Over the last half century, tele-vision has become crime and pun-ishment’s medium of choice. While studio movies are preoccupied with spectacle, the policier involves motive and pursuit, which is to say human interaction at both its most methodical and unpredictable; there’s a reason these shows are called “procedurals.” When the wilder ’60s and ’70s calmed down into the Reaganesque ’80s, and post-Manson L.A. traded utopia for pandemonium, cop shows had a resurgence only to find themselves back east, usually in New York (NYPD Blue), sometimes Chicago (Crime Story) or Miami (Miami Vice), and later Baltimore (The Wire), where there was a pervasive if frustrated sense that, unlike L.A., cities were supposed to function. On these shows crime was old-fashioned and straightforward, and the police were soulful, unable to hide their nobility no matter how hard they tried, including the most notorious loose cannon, NYPD Blue’s Dennis Franz. Certainly none of these cops let women get in the way of their jobs. By the ’90s, the crime story had returned west by way of movies like Pulp Fiction, in part for a glamour that the east couldn’t offer; in L.A. there never was much point to evil if you couldn’t be stylish about it. Set in the years after World War II on the wanton cityscape where neither the sensibility nor psychology has changed from earlier films, 1997’s L.A. Confidential chronicles a police force more renegade and congenitally barbarous than ever, no less an urban gang than all the city’s other urban gangs, just whiter and still stubbornly libido obsessed. The collision course of Russell Crowe’s and Guy Pearce’s ambitions is nothing compared with their smashup over hooker Kim Basinger, for whom they’ll toss aside their careers in an instant. Half a century later not that much has really changed in 2001’s Training Day, with Denzel Washington’s depraved narco on a coke, cash, and flesh spree. There’s no moral compass. The only thing about any of these cops that points north is below their belts.

In the last ten years there’s been a spate of new L.A. crime dramas. Over the course of its seven seasons, The Shield, the most definitive L.A. cop show since Dragnet, was Training Day with the nihilism dressed up as righteousness. Leading a motley crew of quasi-official vigilantes, the barely berserk Michael Chiklis not only embodied the genre’s wayward spirit but the century’s rude awakening, with The Shield premiering less than six months after 9/11 and adrenalized by a public sense that the time for civilized behavior had passed. If Fox ever wants a spin-off for Chiklis, they can call it Guantanamo. Though it’s not as good, Southland picks up where The Shield left off, and unlike the recent localized models of NCIS and Law & Order—where long-running formulas merely have been transplanted—Southland feels like it couldn’t take place anywhere else. Influenced by the verisimilitude of The Wire, if not in the same league (what is?), it’s an updated L.A. Confidential whose cops still are at the end of their tether and where the niceties of due process still are obstacles to not only justice but, more important, the visceral rush that makes it all worthwhile. When the traumatized rookie is told by his ranking sergeant that he’s done God’s work, he answers, “Go to hell, sir,” as if either man could be anywhere else. In their off-hours, Southland’s cops can be found at some unnamed watering hole down on 6th Street, not far from the Rampart Division station. They’re knocking a few back while in the corner, an aging, still raging Mike Hammer, whose fists could always stand the company, tells stories of the lost father he’s never known, thrown off the hay truck on the highway back from Mexico. 

Illustration by John Ritter