Movies of the film noir genre, shot in the US, usually had two favorite locations when it came to large cities and a setting that would breathe the air of crime, provide sinister plots, gunmen and desperate main characters: the pictures were either set in New York City or Los Angeles.
As with Los Angeles, the location and the aura of the city after dark, hard-boiled detective fiction and cinema (that gratefully would render several of such novels on celluloid) were very successfully combined by the film industry of Hollywood, its former suburb, annexed in 1910.
The city and its history in turn seem to be strongly influenced by film noir and countless authors in their works provide it with a very dark character, as if it was alive, judged by the intimacy of crime, fiction, and a film industry that exploited those features as well as young, idealistic actors. And the use of power, violence and crime that more often than not took place almost each time Hollywood executives were part of a fictional plot or investigation.
Of course, there is also the real L.A., that not necessarily is identical with its image portrayed in film and fiction. And one of the questions Author Sean W. Maher, Senior Lecturer in the Creative Industries Faculty at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, keeps pushing against the limits, here is: would the real L.A. be the same or have the same standing and reputation had we not consumed so many films noir and hard-boiled fiction before? And would the idea and overall impression of film noir be the same, had so many genre movies been shot in a very different city?
“By contextualizing the historical and representational dimensions of Los Angeles as they appear in crime writing and cinematic noir, the aim is to understand how the actual city and its noir imaginary constitute layers in what I term the noirscapes of Los Angeles. A genius loci in crime writing and the ur-city of film noir and neo noir, Los Angeles has produced a multitude of such noirscapes.”
One result of this powerful imagination is called ‘psychogeography,’ that ensures “… that contemporary crime fiction and filmmaking regularly mine the city’s noir heritage in the service of articulating present-day life in the city and its speculative futures. In the same way that literary London is imbued with Charles Dickens … Los Angeles pulsates to the stories … of Raymond Chandler.”
Furthermore, lacking a perceptible traditional center and the reputation of an ‘old’ American metropolis, “… one of the historical contradictions of this analysis takes into fuller account is how the suburban flatlands of Los Angeles were able to become prototypical for the mean streets of noir and its urban milieu.”
Maher’s study attempts neither to exactly nail the real and current Los Angeles, nor the imaginary version of it. His intention is to identify the noirscapes that share points of reference, so to speak, from both realms.
This of course has to do with cultural geography and how we perceive and consume cities, urban spaces and its variations. Specifically the “space where a social and individual imaginary come together, hard-boiled detective fiction, film noir, and neo noir appraises fans, crime writers, filmmakers, and legions of foreign and local experiential tourists of a lived phenomenon in Los Angeles that is repeatedly described in terms of how the city, and Southern California more generally, exudes a ‘temporal-spatial aura of the hard-boiled myth’….”
Besides that, there is a strong interest in the interrelationship of urban experience, sociology, urban planning, film history and theory, and various other academic fields in the sections presented here. In combination, they and are set to work to evaluate how real cities influence their onscreen counterparts and vice versa.
With such theory and tools, Maher diagnoses several results. In two parts, he approaches the city as such and its movie counterpart by texts and films from the early 20th century and seven of Chandler’s novels and their plots in L.A. in chapters one and two, respectively.
Chapter three portrays the city’s relationship with Hollywood, based on production spaces and how the Los Angeles as an extra character was presented over the decades, highlighting the films noir of the 1940s and 1950s.
Car culture, southern California’s vast freeway system, modernity and mobility as employed in film noir informs chapter four, while the next part details the rearrangement of film noir and neo noir in movies of the 1960s and 1970s. With emphasis on Blade Runner (1982), Chinatown (1974) and The Long Goodbye (1973), nostalgia, and imaginings of a Los Angeles long ago that are summoned by cinematic craftsmanship and New Hollywood are the subjects here.
The final chapter “Through a Glass Darkly” is probably the most absorbing one, though it may not completely appeal to fans of classic film noir (as it covers L.A. Confidential (1997) and Devil in a Blue Dress (1994)). It deals with neo noir of the 80s and 90s, and how in a city that was forever identified as location for noirs and its many reincarnations a sense of ‘reality’ was difficult to establish, as was a working theory of what the city stood for in reality. Neo noir is “examined in terms of the cultural response to the city’s spatial reorientation towards the Pacific Rim, postindustrialization, and the media spectacle of consumer society.”
Los Angeles here is perceived as a city disguised under several layers of meanings, traditions and expectations. Which in a way masked the city forever, while the violence and the media coverage that followed the Rodney King beating and the 1992 LA Riots superseded what Hollywood so far had imagined in the studios. Los Angeles had more than lived up to both a caricature and a simulation of its cinematic image. The films To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), The End of Violence (1997) and Heat (1994) are in focus here and the chapter is an interesting conclusion.
Even if at times highly abstract and rooted in postmodernism studies and its vocabulary, fans of Raymond Chandler and Los Angeles noirs will love this title. (This review covers the first paperback edition of the book, it was originally published in 2021).
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2022
Sean W. Maher. Film Noir and Los Angeles: Urban History and the Dark Imaginary. (Routledge Advances in Film Studies). Routledge, 2022, 218 p.