To some, Los Angeles is a Dreamland, feted in song, film and all matter of art, where warm weather, style and show biz glitz perfectly mix. To others it is a cesspooL where graft, shifty wheeling and dealing, racial unrest and all sorts of violence lurk around the corner. The movies have had no problem depicting both sides of the L.A. coin, and if ever the twain shall meet, all the better.
The latest example of this descent into the SoCal demimonde is the new thriller Nightcrawler. The directorial debut of screenwriter Dan Gilroy, who co-penned a surreal look at ’20s L.A. in 2006’s The Fall, the acerbic and at-times darkly funny tale stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom, a near-sociopathic loner in search of direction. He stumbles into his “career path” when he sees freelance photographers arrive at the scene of a car crash, snapping grisly photos and video footage they can sell to news outlets. One pawnshop camcorder and a police scanner later, Bloom has joined the ranks of the “nightcrawlers” who pounce on the latest accident or act of violence and peddle their shots to the highest bidder. Hired by a local TV station’s night manager (Rene Russo, Gilroy’s wife) and joined by a news intern (Riz Ahmed), Lou’s drive to be the best at his less-than-honorable profession soon has him restaging scenes for “dramatic effect.” Thus he begins sowing the seeds of his own destruction, but to say more would be a disservice.
When it comes to capturing the seamy side of Southern California, few authors can match James Ellroy—self- professed “Demon Dog” of crime novelists– who has penned such Los Angeles-based crooked cop sagas as the “L.A. Quartet” of The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz.
Brian De Palma turned The Black Dahlia, about the real-life unsolved 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, into a misguided 2006 film, but 1997’s Oscar-winning adaptation of L.A. Confidential fared much, much better. Directed by Curtis Hanson, the film takes a thrilling, expansive look at the LAPD in the 1950s and the ties that three cops (Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe and Kevin Spacey) have to the brutal murders at an all-night diner.
Ellroy would also have his hands in other L.A.-set blue uniform shoot-em-ups. 2003’s Dark Blue, helmed by Ron Shelton and based on an Ellroy story, is set against the backdrop of the Rodney King beating incident and the post-verdict riots. Kurt Russell is Eldon Perry, a detective who lives by his own rules and tries to teach them to rookie partner Bobby Keough (Scott Speedman). While Perry gets the OK to carry on his brutal, unethical tactics from a superior (Brendan Gleason) who looks away, another cop (Ving Rhames) hopes to take the dirty detectives down as the city’s racial disharmony rages on.
Dark Blue screenwriter David Ayer also adapted Ellroy’s story The Night Watchman into 2008’s Street Kings. That film’s scenario centers on heavy-drinking widowed LAPD detective Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves), whose kickass methods in taking down a Korean mob wow his superior (Forest Whitaker). But when Ludlow’s partner (Terry Crews) (whom he suspects is snitching on him for his questionable methods) is killed, Ludlow is fingered for the murder, and soon becomes obsessed with finding the real culprits. Ayer, who also directed, elicited a surprisingly fine, animated performance by the usually laid-back Reeves here, and he kept the action and Ellroy’s plot complications moving fluidly at a rapid clip.
This beat was nothing new to Ayer, who also wrote the script for Training Day. Directed by Antoine Fuqua, the 2001 film centers on the events that occur on the day that maverick Los Angeles narcotics officer Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) is joined by a new partner, Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke). As Hoyt gets a brutal introduction by his mentor on the way to handle the drug trade in South Central, he discovers that the highly respected Harris is deep into graft, dealing with the Russian Mob, stealing drug money, forcing pacts with dealers, planting evidence and more. Washington’s alarming turn as the diabolical cop was enough of an about-face from his typical heroic roles to bring home the Best Actor Oscar.
The aforementioned films are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to L.A. noir modern and classic. The following are some of our favorites; Do you have any other suggestions?
Drive (2011) – Ryan Gosling is the mysterious stunt driver who volunteers his skills to help out the neighbor (Carey Mulligan) who he’s smitten with. Little does Gosling know that a slick mob boss (Albert Brooks) may have ties to the operation.
Rampart (2011) – Woody Harrelson gives a searing performance in this 21st-century noir, co-written by James Ellroy, as a cop working the streets of the title Los Angeles district, a notoriously corrupt place where his instincts for self-preservation seem to serve him well–until he is videotaped beating a suspect. As the law closes in, his racist and sexist tendencies come to the fore and threaten to destroy not just his career, but his entire life.
Collateral (2004) – Tom Cruise is Vincent, the coldblooded contract killer who hires streetwise cabbie Max (Jamie Foxx) to drive him to his human targets during one night in Los Angeles. Using digital technology to thrilling effect, director Michael Mann captures the beauty and danger that is L.A. at night.
Heat (1995) – Earlier Michael Mann-mounted crime saga centers on the violent cat-and-mouse game between career criminal Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and his expert team of crooks (Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Danny Trejo) and dogged homicide cop Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino).
The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988) – Queen Elizabeth II of England is heading to Los Angeles and a criminal mastermind plans to have an L.A. Angel assassinate her. Sounds like a job for the ever-incompetent Lt. Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen). Surely, we jest.
To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) – William Friedkin’s stylish study in L.A. sleaze stars William L. Petersen as the secret service agent hot on the trail of the slick counterfeiter (Willem Dafoe) who killed his partner. The memorable Wang Chung synth music! The incredible six lane freeway car chase! The MTV-styled editing! Willem Dafoe’s teeth!
Chinatown (1974) – Roman Polanski’s retro masterpieces posits Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes, a 1940s private dick investigating an adultery case that leads him into an affair with his client (Faye Dunaway) and the darkest recesses of Los Angeles’ elite.
The Long Goodbye (1973) – Elliott Gould is the wisecracking gumshoe Phillip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s earthy atmospheric detective film, filtered through L.A.’s smog and the glare off the waves of the Pacific Ocean.
There are so many more, but we would be remiss if we didn’t add these vintage film noirs to the mix:
Crime Wave (1954) – Glendale, City Hall and other sites are showcased in this tough-as-nails show, with Sterling Hayden as a no-nonsense detective trying to use an ex-con (Gene Nelson) to catch a group of escaped jailbirds (Charles Bronson among them).
Cry Danger (1951) – Dick Powell gets out of prison in hopes of catching the creeps who framed him, as well as recovering stashed loot, in this bold and surprisingly funny noir with loads of L.A. locales.
In a Lonely Place (1950) – Screenwriter Humphrey Bogart is accused of killing a woman lasts seen alive at his apartment. Romantically interested blonde neighbor Gloria Grahame backs up his alibi, but starts to wonder if the volatile-tempered scenarist could really be responsible.
Union Station (1950) – L.A.’s titular train stop gets the center of attention in this quick-paced thriller in which a secretary (Nancy Olson) spots two suspicious men and discovers they are out to kidnap her wealthy boss’s daughter. Cops William Holden and Barry Fitzgerald try to halt the hoods before they get far.
Hollow Triumph (1948) – Paul Henreid plays two roles in this top-notch noir (also known as The Scar), doubling as a slick thief and a lookalike psychiatrist whose identity the crook adopts to pull off an elaborate scheme. You’ll see the old L.A. Zoo and Angel’s Flight in Bunker Hill among its locations.
He Walked by Night (1948) – A cop killer is on the prowl and it’s up to two detectives to track him down. An edgy, documentary-styled thriller with prime location shots from downtown Los Angeles and starring Richard Basehart, Scott Brady and Jack Webb, who supposedly based his Dragnet radio and TV series on this film.