This town is rated noir

Special to The Times

NOIR is the indigenous Los Angeles form: It was created here, it grew up here and from here it spread, not only as a genre but as a way of looking at life, character and fate. As a framing lens, it’s now so powerful that it seems not only to be a strategy for telling a story but a way to understand — automatically, unconsciously — how a story works. What could be more noir than the glove that didn’t fit in the O.J. trial? Or the cameras flashing in Princess Di’s face as her limo sped through that Paris underpass? Raymond Chandler’s narrow mean streets now encompass Tokyo, Berlin, São Paulo, London — any city that has crime or deceit or cracks in the facade or some event in which fate’s jaws snap shut with cruel or ironic finality. Cars, celebrity, the movies, the freedom implied by quick wealth and instant upward mobility: These are one sort of symbol that L.A. has given the world.

Noir is the flip side to the city’s sunstruck myth, darker, more ambiguous. As William Faulkner, who did serious L.A. time, once said, “They don’t worship money here; they worship death.”

Noir’s history usually gets shorthanded something like this: The American hard-boiled idiom, born in the late 1920s, merged with the shadowy motifs of German Expressionism, brought here by émigré filmmakers escaping the desperate terminus of pre-World War II Europe, and a style was born. Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” (1941) gave an early taste, with its dizzying angles and stark chiaroscuros and a narrative structured like a hall of mirrors, like a labyrinth.

Noir really took hold a couple of years later when Raymond Chandler was called to a Paramount office to meet Billy Wilder, a German refugee screenwriter who was just starting to direct. Together, they created the script for “Double Indemnity,” from James M. Cain’s ropy novella. Barbara Stanwyck wore an anklet and a tight angora sweater, and her eyes flashed like cruel diamonds in the back of the car while Fred MacMurray throttled her husband to death. An amazing scene, charged with a dark sensuality that still shocks. The amiable MacMurray, as insurance salesman Walter Neff, was a prototype of the noir hero: Doomed, trapped by a vicious woman, he buzzed, not too unhappily, in a web of his and her making. He narrated his story as if he were already dead; watching the movie, we know that he soon will be. Maybe the point is that this is what he wants.

“Double Indemnity,” released in 1944, caught early rumblings of the anxiety and disillusion that struck the United States at the end of the war. Servicemen came home to find what? Not peaceful, prosperous, sunlit lands but uncertainty, a country waking up to the new nuclear reality and women who’d been independent while their guys had been overseas and might or might not have been faithful. “American films became markedly more sardonic,” filmmaker Paul Schrader writes in his essay “Notes on Film Noir.” Uneasy and exhilarating, noir took hold. Mostly crime films, but not only: “Criss Cross,” “The Killers,” “Out of the Past,” “In a Lonely Place,” “The Woman in the Window” — the list of excellence goes on and on. “Never before,” Schrader writes, “had films dared to take such a harsh, uncomplimentary look at American life.”

So far, so good. But there’s more to the story. Hard-boiled crime fiction didn’t spring fully formed from the hammering typewriters of Chandler, Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Horace McCoy, Edward Anderson, Paul Cain, John Carroll Daly and the rest of Joseph Shaw’s Black Mask gang. It emerged too from the gaudy L.A. journalism of an earlier era. Through the 1920s, a host of scandal sheets vied with The Times, William Randolph Hearst’s gleefully sensationalist Examiner and other morning and evening papers to report on a boosted city that was bursting apart at the seams. Tabloid culture was born. Los Angeles was awash with newsprint and stories — unbelievable, amazing stories. People wanted the glitz, the glamour of this new and exciting place, but they wanted the dark side too. Oranges on the trees and evil in the atmosphere. Darkness even, or especially, at noon. A sense of ennui, of disillusion, alienation and panic, even while times were supposedly buoyant. Noir, in other words, before the term “noir” came into being.

There was Walburga Oesterreich, who kept her lover slave in the attic, forcing him to have sex with her, until she let him out to murder her husband. There was Clara Phillips, a former vaudeville dancer who beat her rival to death and ripped out her guts with a claw hammer. During her trial, Phillips was tagged “Tiger Woman” and attracted many admirers. Helped by one, she escaped and found her way to Honduras, only to be tracked down by Morris Lavine, a smart, ruthless and flamboyant reporter for the Examiner.

Lavine, who would later go to jail for extortion and then reinvent himself as a successful attorney (only in L.A.!), understood a thing or two about vanity. He asked Phillips if she was really the Tiger Woman or merely Clara, failed hoofer? Phillips came back to Los Angeles with Lavine; she chose San Quentin, and further fame, with frantic crowds screaming, “Tiger Woman!”

Oil, discovered in 1892 near the La Brea Tar Pits by Edward L. Doheny, drove the great L.A. boom. By the early 1920s, Doheny was one of the richest men in America. In 1922, he sent his son Ned and Ned’s chauffeur, Hugh Plunkett, to Washington, where they handed $100,000 in a black leather satchel to Interior Secretary Albert Fall. In exchange Doheny got the lease on a naval oil reserve, worth some $100 million. It all came out as part of the Teapot Dome scandal that brought down Warren Harding’s administration.

In 1929 the unstable Plunkett was due to testify before one of the ongoing investigations, but on the night of Feb. 16, he and Ned Doheny were found dead on the floor of a bedroom in one of the Doheny mansions. Both had been shot in the head. Buron Fitts, recently elected district attorney, promised a full investigation. None came. To look over back issues of the L.A. papers during that period is to receive a blunt lesson. The case explodes, receives a brief blizzard of press, and then … nothing. The doors shut, the waters close over, the official line is peddled: Plunkett went mad, shot Doheny and then himself. It’s a stunning example of power at work.

This incredible stuff fed the crime fiction of the 1930s and ‘40s like a seed bed. Chandler himself used the Doheny case as a paradigm for the city’s incipient corruption in his novel “The High Window.”

Noir derives from Los Angeles’ foundation myths, but it is no longer just about L.A. — if indeed it ever was. The paranoid horror of Edgar Allan Poe predates some of the genre’s themes. Likewise the enervated ennui of Baudelaire and the urban landscapes of Dickens. In film, classic American noir flourished for little more than a decade before Welles (again) applied a gorgeous full stop with “Touch of Evil” in 1958. Seemingly, the movement was done.

But noir has continued to flourish as a prism, a way of looking at contemporary life. It appealed to the French New Wave critics and filmmakers who gave the style its name in the 1950s, and it has lived on to spawn neo-noir (“Point Blank,” “The Conversation”), neo-neo-noir (“The Usual Suspects,” “L.A. Confidential”), manga noir, Zen noir, anime noir, Cockney noir, Helsinki noir, Sicilian noir, future noir — all vivid variations on a theme. Indeed, noir has woven itself inextricably into the international cultural vocabulary. Why? Because its messages, although bleak, are universal and alluring. Strings are always being pulled, and doom is as feared and relished in Almodóvar’s Barcelona as it was in Chandler’s Bay City.

Noir is about mood, tone, philosophy, the moral blurring that we see all around us; it informs a global sense of the cynicism of public life. “Truthiness” — what a noir invention! Ditto the German goalkeeper who deserts his family for a stripper, or the American writer (it was Joan Didion, naturally) seeing the framed blessing in her mother-in-law’s house as a detail appropriate to a murder scene. Noir is style, but more broadly, it’s a reflection of society’s news being seen a certain way. Yes, it’s an aesthetic of corruption — although perceived through noir’s lens, even the worst information can seem seductive, as well.

Like Neff in “Double Indemnity,” we know we’re going to die. Maybe we even want to, if only we could do it in style. Just think of Tom Cruise’s silver-haired hit man in Michael Mann’s “Collateral” or Robert Mitchum in “Out of the Past,” whispering to the woman he knows will kill him in the end: “Baby, I don’t care.”

That’s noir — romantic and delusional. Much like L.A.'s call to the world.

Richard Rayner has written several books, most recently the novel “The Devil’s Wind.”



Defining moments

Noir is part of the fabric of Los Angeles, a perspective we’ve exported to the world. Here are 10 hard-boiled turning points — blending history, literature and movies that get at the underside of the Southern California dream.



In front of 40,000 spectators, William Mulholland turns on the water stolen from the Owens River Valley, telling Los Angeles: “There it is! Take it!”


“Handsome” Dave Clark, a former assistant district attorney now running for judge, guns down crime boss Charlie Crawford. At the subsequent murder trial, Clark becomes a celebrity — and is acquitted. A forgotten landmark in the annals of L.A. crime, and a weird foreshadowing of the O.J. Simpson case.


Nathanael West publishes “The Day of the Locust.” Savage visions of the city burning and pathological crowds at a movie premiere. “Life is nothing but a cheap Mardi-Gras,” he writes, “devised by the Devil.” Soon West is dead, killed in a car crash on his way back from Mexico to Hollywood.


The Black Dahlia murder. The body of actress Elizabeth Short is found cut in half on a vacant lot near Leimert Park. The city’s imagination is seized: It’s a hard-boiled world, but also an ambiguous world in shadow. Truths never to be found, motives too labyrinthine to discern. In the 1980s, the crime will inspire the career of Southern California-born neo-noir genius James Ellroy.


“In a Lonely Place.” Humphrey Bogart plays Dix Steele, a tormented screenwriter who may also be a killer. Director Nicholas Ray constructs perhaps the most haunting of all classic noirs. A very sad love story and a beautiful look at L.A. courtyard life. If only the bewitching Gloria Grahame could be your neighbor.


Robert F. Kennedy is shot in a kitchen passageway of the Ambassador Hotel and dies the next day at Good Samaritan Hospital. Barely a year later, Charles Manson’s dune buggy battalion goes on the rampage. “I am the devil,” he declares, “and I have come to do the devil’s work.”


“Chinatown.” Screenwriter Robert Towne takes the water theft story and plunks it down in the 1930s, reinventing noir for the Nixon era and linking the style forever with the corrupt growth of the city. Roman Polanski (who also directed) slits Jack Nicholson’s nose with a switchblade — “Pussycat.”


“Blade Runner.” Philip K. Dick’s obsession with virtual reality becomes part of the noir lexicon in Ridley Scott’s portrait of a teeming, decaying future L.A.


“Heat.” Al Pacino and Robert De Niro face off in the contemporary urban jungle. As cop and master thief, they seem (surprise, surprise) strangely alike. Nobody gets the feel of Los Angeles on film like Michael Mann.


Union leader Miguel Contreras turns up dead on Florence Avenue at a botanica that is later revealed to be a massage parlor, touching off the customary mystery and hints of a cover-up. By now, noir is a global possession, but as one blogger puts it, “L.A.: still the noiriest.”

— Richard Rayner