To celebrate the release of L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City, the riveting non-fiction book that inspired Fox TV’s new hit series Mob City, author John Buntin discusses the long-standing relationship between the City of Angels and noir fiction.
Los Angeles is a mythomaniacal city. It attracts portentous interpretations like Boston attracts college students. Once advertised as ‘an Eden for the Anglo-Saxon homemaker’, LA today serves the opposite function: it has become our city of sin. The novelist Nathaniel West sent LA up in flames in his 1939 novel, Day of the Locust. Robert Towne’s Chinatown (1974) made the establishment of the Los Angeles Aqueduct – a public works project! – into LA’s original sin. To list the subsequent films that have depicted Los Angeles as a city of nightmarish sex and violence (Pulp Fiction , Mulholland Drive ) would be to create a very long list indeed.
This depiction of Los Angeles irritates some Angelenos, including writers such as James Ellroy, whose LA Quartet (The Black Dahlia , The Big Nowhere , L.A. Confidential , and White Jazz ) did so much to breathe life into the genre. Ellroy has denied that Los Angeles is uniquely ‘noir’. Instead, he has argued that LA’s starring role in mid-century noir masterpieces such as Double Indemnity (1944) or (less well known) Crime Wave (1954) reflect the simple fact that Hollywood happened to be here.
There is something to said for this point. The Big Sleep (1946), which the British film critic and historian David Thomson has hailed as (among other things) the noir masterpiece, was filmed almost entirely on the back lot. Movies such as Cape Fear (1962) or Winter’s Bone (2010), as well as Akashic Books’ noir city series, demonstrate that noir stories can be told in all kinds of different settings. But the revisionists go too far in sundering the connections between noir’s themes and aesthetic and the City of Angels. LA’s role in the noir traditional isn’t incidental. The city fed the noir imagination in very direct ways.
The first has to do with Los Angeles’ unique criminal underworld. Few people associate LA with ‘the Mob’, but in fact no city’s history has been more directly shaped by its struggle with organised crime. From the 1920s to the 1940s, police, politicians, plutocrats and gangsters played a high-stakes game for control of the city. Men such as Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen were real-life celebrities in Hollywood’s film noir heyday.
As Otto Friedrich’s masterful City of Nets shows, it was a world in which mobsters and movie moguls worked and played hand in hand. Watching a group of studio execs walking back from lunch on the Paramount back lot, Raymond Chandler himself noted the resemblance between young studio executives and the young hoodlums.
‘They looked so exactly like a bunch of topflight Chicago gangsters moving in to read the death sentence on the beaten competitor,’ he wrote to a friend. ‘It brought home to me in a flash the strange psychological and spiritual kinship between the operation of big money business and the rackets. Same faces, same expressions, same manners.’
By the 1940s, Los Angeles had become noir in another important way. It had become a city of smog. By late 1943, smog had settled permanently over downtown. The noir atmosphere that the director Billy Wilder evoked so brilliantly with Double Indemnity was not artificial. The dark city itself was real. Indeed, it would be nearly three years before denizens of downtown saw the sun again. Los Angeles had become a noir city.
The greatest influence of all, however, was the Second World War. Today, we whitewash the memory of that event. Its veterans are ‘the Greatest Generation’, patriotic grandparents whose willingness to do their duty is so at odds with their squabbling Baby Boomer offspring. People knew better at the time. Citizens feared the effects of the traumas inflicted on America’s PIs. The psychopathic killer of In a Lonely Place (1950) was the true nightmare fear of the greatest generation.
As such, it is fitting that the noir hero (antihero?) of Hollywood’s next noir creation, TNT’s Mob City, is a vet with a haunting past, as well as a femme who might prove fatale.
(Originally published on Wordandfilm.com, 5/12/13)
L.A. Noir is out now in ebook and will be released in paperback in February. Mob City airs on Friday 17 January on Fox UK. Watch the trailer below.