Finding the 'film noir' sights in L.A.
Tourists often come to Los Angeles, searching for the city of the 1930s, '40s and '50s.
Seeing L.A.'s film-noir pastLos Angeles Police Historical Society Museum
www.laphs.org Museum of Death
www.museumofdeath.net Musso & Frank Grill
6667 Hollywood Blvd.
7156 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood
Millennium Biltmore Hotel
Gallery Bar and
506 S. Grand Ave.,
www.millenniumhotels.com/millenniumlosangeles/index.html Charles Bukowski's bungalow
5124 DeLongpre Ave.,
Green Hills Memorial Park
27501 S. Western Ave.,
Rancho Palos Verdes
Seeing noir"Double Indemnity" (1944): Fred McMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, and a plot to bump off an inconvenient husband. From the James M. Cain novel.
"The Big Sleep" (1946): Humphrey Bogart deals with two flashy dames, one of whom is Lauren Bacall, and a blackmail plot. From the Raymond Chandler novel.
"Sunset Boulevard" (1950): William Holden as a screenwriter gone to seed who meets a horrible fate after hooking up with movie dowager Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson).
"Chinatown" (1974): Jack Nicholson as a private eye gets embroiled in politics, water rights and family secrets alongside Faye Dunaway and John Huston.
"L.A. Confidential" (1997): A paean to Hollywood's noir age, the plot revolves around drugs, homicide and prostitution — the usual suspects. From the James Ellroy novel.
LOS ANGELES — It was a dank, rain- sodden Raymond Chandler kind of morning, as if some omnipotent auteur had rung up the studio and ordered a classic film-noir sky. Only a sap would be out on a day like this, searching for the seedy, serrated soul of L.A. noir.
Yet tourists often come here, searching for the Los Angeles of the 1930s, '40s and '50s. They seek remnants of a period when the city was an incubator of tawdriness, a place where corruption, double-dealing and unchecked passion gave rise to a literary and cinematic genre that to this day captures the imagination.
Already this morning, fueled by too many black and bitter cups o' Joe, you've swung by the Southern Pacific Railroad Depot in Glendale. Scene of the crime in the seminal noir thriller "Double Indemnity," you picture a hunch-shouldered, stubble-jawed Fred McMurray skulking around the tanned Mission Revival structure, not stopping to admire the twisted columns or handcrafted ironwork.
Now, you head downtown and to the Hotel Barclay (once the Hotel Van Nuys), one of Chandler's haunts and the setting for the gruesome ice-pick-in-the-neck murder scene in his novel "The Little Sister." All that remains is the art-deco sign; the hotel has long been shuttered, its windows cracked and duct-taped.
Move along, bub. Nothing to see here.
Plenty to see at the nearby Millennium Biltmore, the famous, swanky downtown hotel that once hosted the Oscars and retains its ornate, retro opulence. This was, legend has it, the last place the Black Dahlia (aka Elizabeth Short) was seen in 1947 before her dismembered body was discovered in a weedy patch south of town.
In its day, the Black Dahlia case — still unsolved — created a media frenzy.
You high-tail it to Hollywood Boulevard and Musso & Frank Grill, where in a backroom celebrated writers of the era (everyone from Chandler to Nathaniel West to F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner) used to convene to rinse away brain cells after selling out and penning noir scripts.
Hollywood Boulevard can quickly wear on even the most resolute cultural gumshoe, so you travel west on Santa Monica Boulevard to the blood-red exterior of the Formosa Cafe. Back in the day, this watering hole was said to be a police-protected hangout for gangsters, molls, prize fighters and bookies.
Moviegoers may remember the Formosa as the setting in the neo-noir 1997 flick "L.A. Confidential," where a detective played by Guy Pierce says to a bleached blonde in a booth that "a hooker cut to look like Lana Turner is still a hooker; she just looks like Lana Turner," while worldly partner Kevin Spacey smirks because he knows it really is Lana Turner sitting there.
Los Angeles is so movie-saturated that you forget the crimes were real. A trip northeast of town to the Los Angeles Police Historical Society Museum — housed in a decommissioned police-precinct headquarters — slaps some sense into you.
A museum dedicated to the LAPD might at first come off as a mug's game for noir fans, given that the Rodney King and Rampart corruption scandals are not mentioned. Yet the museum provides plenty of grisly exhibits about cases that defined the city, from the Black Dahlia to the Manson Family.
But it's the traditional period pieces that best recall the noir era. Jail cells remain from the 1940s. Batons and blackjacks merit their own display case, as do gangster-period machine guns. Lurid headlines, often flanked by fingerprints and mug shots, line the walls.
Noir can be gruesome. Said Chandler in "The Long Goodbye": "Out there in the night of a thousand crimes, people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires. People were beaten, robbed, strangled, raped and murdered ... ."
Where to see the lurid underbelly? Tipsters point you to the Museum of Death on Hollywood Boulevard. There, beyond the serial-killer and suicide-cult memorabilia and the room dedicated to the embalming process, lies the California Death Room.
Not for the squeamish, it shows graphic photos of actress Sharon Tate, murdered by the Manson Family; even more hideous severed-torso police shots from the Black Dahlia investigation; and a wall dedicated to later serial-killer cases — the Hillside Strangler and the Night Stalker.
You have one last stop. You drive south on the freeway 20 miles to Rancho Palos Verdes and Green Hills Memorial Park. You're looking for Charles Bukowski's grave. It's been said that Bukowski's gritty, dissolute poetry and prose brought L.A. noir into modern times.
Certainly, he had the seediness part down. At least two dozen bars in L.A. boast that "Bukowski drank here" before his death in 1994. You're told that Bukowski fans, in tribute, often drink, smoke and fornicate upon his grave.
All you see at plot 875, with its headstone overlooking Palos Verdes mansions to the right and the port of San Pedro to the left, are two wilted flowers in a cup, rain-soaked and missing a few petals.
His epitaph reads: "Don't try."
A perfect noir image.