Rampart and the Best of L.A. Noir

In the City of Angels, crime often pays big dividends when it comes to the movies.

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.

Consider Rampart, a new film set in the late 1990s starring Woody Harrelson as Dave Brown (not to be confused with the former Philadelphia Flyers enforcer), a veteran police patrolman with some odd habits, evidenced by his nickname: “Date Rape.” A former lawyer, he lives with two ex-wives (Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon), and likes to take justice into his own hands, putting a black cloud over the oft-criticized Rampart division of the L.A. police force. He roams bars looking for one night stands and befriends an attorney (Robin Wright) who may or may not be investigating his evil ways. Despite all of this—and the fact that even his daughter sees him as a prime creep—Brown is not totally unlikable: He’s smart, quick-witted and thinks well on his feet when forced to, which, in his case, is often.

Directed by Oren Moverman, the former Israeli soldier whose first film was the quietly moving The Messenger, Rampart was written by screenwriter and crime novelist James Ellroy. Rampart is a much busier film than The Messenger, filled with overlapping dialogue, frenzied handheld camerawork and in-your-face performances, especially from the pot-smoking, frenetic Harrelson.

Some may see Rampart as the West Coast version of Abel Ferrera’s 1992 effort Bad Lieutenant, which starred Harvey Keitel as the lead character, a drug, sex and gambling-fueled Big Apple cop enmeshed in a case involving the rape of a young nun. Instead of Madison Square Garden, grungy Bronx Streets and the Port Authority Bus Terminal, we have the L.A. Times Building and the Original Tommy’s Burgers. While Rampart is not as down and dirty as Ferrara’s filthy, powerful NC-17 rated opus, there is no shortage of abhorrent, uber-macho behavior on the part of Harrelson’s intoxicating—and intoxicated—Dave Brown, either.

With Ellroy co-plotting the script, it should come as no surprise that the focus is on corruption and the festering mold behind the gleaming LAPD badge. It is Ellroy—self- professed “Demon Dog” of all 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. 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. The turf was nothing new to Ayer, who also worked on the gritty L.A.-set drama Harsh Times and wrote the script for Training Day. Directed by Antoine Fuqua, the 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. crime. Here 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.

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 DeNiro) 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 masterpiece posits Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes, a 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 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. Not on DVD, but a recent restoration by UCLA makes this a strong possibility for future release.

In a Lonely Place (1950): Screenwriter Humphrey Bogart is accused of killing a woman last 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.

The Scar (Hollow Triumph) (1948): Paul Henreid plays two roles in this top-notch noir, 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 series on this film.