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TOURING L.A., Confidentially

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Forget about the haunted cop, the secretive hooker, the enigmatic tycoon and the not-so-solved murder case in the new 1950s suspense yarn, “L.A. Confidential.”

On this day, a real-life mystery is unfolding outside one of the movie’s most colorful locales, the Formosa Cafe in Hollywood. The owner is pounding on the front door.

Watching with amusement is Curtis Hanson, the director and co-screenwriter of “L.A. Confidential.” Hanson had just informed William Jung, the owner, that the door was locked.

“You’re kidding!” said the owner, who had been overseeing the construction of a patio for the Santa Monica Boulevard eatery.

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A locked front door during the lunch hour is not good for business.

“You got gambling going on in there?” jokes Hanson, referring to the joint’s one-time reputation as a bookmaking hangout of Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen.

Jung smiles.

Eventually, a waitress responds to the pounding and opens the door.

“Confusion over the construction,” someone inside explains as curious diners watch.

Hanson is revisiting because he’s taking a reporter and a photographer on a tour of the movie’s sites, an excursion that will have its own moments of intrigue, even if no shots are fired, no dames get in the way and no blood is shed. There will be a man whose office is in a bank vault, a mysterious half-century-old mural, a confrontation at a parking arm, a spinning sign that spells out a location’s name backward. . . .

The half-century-old Formosa didn’t have a role in James Ellroy’s pulp novel of the same name, from which the movie was adapted. But Hanson, 52, an L.A. resident whose family once lived near the eatery, was fond of its neon look and its crimson interior as well as its history.

“This was a great star hangout in the old days,” he says. “You could find [director] George Marshall at the bar in there every day.”

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As it happens, Hanson, the reporter and the photographer are doing their drinking in his car, a lumbering 1977 Thunderbird. Hanson has brought along a six-pack--of bottled water. These are the new days in Hollywood.

A self-professed “L.A. snoop” and a one-time film critic, Hanson peppers his conversation with references to noir landmarks, such as the old Cock ‘n’ Bull Restaurant, where, it was said, one could find hookers surgically altered to resemble movie stars (Kim Basinger plays an ersatz Veronica Lake in the movie).

And there are his memories of growing up in L.A. For one murder scene, Hanson chose a 1920s-era house on Morton Avenue in Echo Park partly because it’s next to a vacant lot. “That’s one of my memories of L.A. as a kid,” he says. “All the vacant lots.”

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The tour also offers a glimpse at the L.A. of his imagination, showing off such nonexistent glamour spots as the El Cortez, where a pot arrest is arranged by scandal magazine editor Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito) and celebrity cop Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) for maximum publicity value.

“A lot of people ask me, ‘Where is that El Cortez?’ ” says Hanson, smiling. “It sounds like it should be a theater in this town.”

The actual building, an Art Deco-style former bank on Hollywood Boulevard, maintains a blank face to the public. No sign in front IDs it. Only by snooping around in the back can one discover that it’s occupied by Johns & Gorman Films. And that Samuel Schapiro, the president of the TV commercial production company, works in the former vault.

Unlike the El Cortez, the Frolic Room--a narrow bar favored by the cops in the movie--is real, though seemingly more somber than its name. It too, has an interesting story. One wall is covered by a mural of the stars of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s by Al Hirschfeld, the celebrated New York caricaturist. It’s the type of artwork one might find at Sardi’s in New York or one of the old Brown Derby restaurants in L.A. But why the Frolic?

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“The Pantages Theater is next door and Mr. Pantages used to own this place,” says day manager Carol Blanding. “It was a private club and after the theater, the actors would come in here to drink.”

Hirschfeld, it turns out, apparently drew it for the movie mogul.

One of the subjects of the mural is Lana Turner, who is mistaken for a look-alike of herself in “L.A. Confidential"--while sitting in the Formosa.

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Next stop is the 61-year-old Cross Roads of the World, one of the nation’s first shopping malls. Shaped like a cruise ship that beached itself off Sunset Boulevard, it’s now a retail complex. In the movie, it’s the headquarters of sleazy journalist Hudgens, editor of Hush-Hush magazine.

As at the Formosa, entering is not so simple.

Pulling up to an intercom next to a parking arm, Hanson identifies himself and the movie and asks if he can park for a few moments.

“Actually, you can’t,” a voice tells him. “This is a private lot and we’re filled up.” The voice invites Hanson to park on the street.

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Bud White, the movie’s violent cop, would have driven right through the parking arm. After all, there are maybe 20 empty spaces visible. But Hanson says “OK,” and mildly docks the T-Bird around the corner.

Was Cross Roads management unhappy over its association with the scandalmongering Hudgens? Perhaps that’s just “sinuendo,” as Hudgens himself would say.

Then, again, not everyone wanted to be associated with the movie. A scene in which mobster Cohen lands at LAX had to be cut because none of the airlines would allow him in their friendly skies. “Their attitude was, ‘Oh, no, we don’t want our plane used by gangsters,’ ” Hanson said.

Inside the Cross Roads complex, Hanson points out the mall’s tower, which is topped by a spinning globe. If you try to read the name on the sphere as it turns, it comes out “World the of Roads Cross.”

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“I asked about that,” Hanson says. “The globe was apparently repaired years ago, and when it was put back up, it was reset the wrong way.”

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In the Los Feliz hills, it’s difficult to tell whether you’re spinning into the past or the future when you come upon the home of Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn), the tycoon in “L.A. Confidential.”

The Dundee Drive residence is known to architectural critics as the Lovell Health House--Lovell was a health faddist who hired the eminent Richard Neutra to design it. With its cement walls, expansive windows and cantilevered balcony, it looks avant garde in 1997.

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“Look, no fence in front,” marvels Hanson.

The lack of security may be the only indication that the house was built years ago--many years ago (1929).

“The lady who lives there says tourists just come up and knock on the door and say, ‘Can we look around?’ ” Hanson says.

Standing far above the hum of city traffic, he gazes at the sprawling homes, with their swimming pools, in the canyon below.

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Suddenly, the silence is broken by a screaming sound.

It’s not a particularly mysterious screaming sound, though--at least not to a denizen of 1990s Los Angeles.

Hanson shakes his head and says, “One leaf-blower and the entire tranquillity is broken.”

Steve Harvey writes The Times’ Only in L.A. column.

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