Los Angeles as Seen in Movies: My Five Picks

Los Angeles as seen in movies Chinatown 1974 
I know what you must be thinking. On what criteria can I possibly choose just five of so many films that are shot or take place in Los Angeles? Therefore, for the films on this list, you have to dig a little deeper. First of all, L.A. has to be a “character” in each of these movies; they couldn’t have been made anywhere else but there. Secondly, I am not the type for romantic comedies or love letters to L.A. Noir is my favourite genre, so even if not all these entries fall in the category of classic noir, they must at least convey a bleak portrayal of Los Angeles, either on the surface or emdebed in the subtext. Whether social reality or crime pictures, they allow a critical depiction of Los Angeles. Thirdly, these films speak through images just as much as they do through dialogue; the cinematography is another character if you may – it’s not just the way the bright, desert light of Los Angeles is filmed in one movie in particular (see first title below), but also about the capture of the City of Angels at dark. And, finally, although it’s not a mandatory factor, it doesn’t hurt if the costumes add to the overall style of these films.
Chinatown 1974 
Chinatown (1974) / Director: Roman Polanski / Cinematographer: John Alonzo / Production designer: Richard Sylbert / Costume designer: Anthea Sylbert

“I wanted the style of the period conveyed by a scrupulously accurate reconstruction of decor, costumes, and idiom – not by a deliberate imitation, in 1973, of thirties film techniques.” That’s the sense you get when watching Chinatown: you feel you are in the world of 1930s Los Angeles. Polanski wanted a film that was alive in its time, not a nostalgic period piece. It is a very modern film in its look. Given Polanski’s obsession for period accuracy, there is no wonder that the costumes created by Anthea Sylbert are memorable for their thirties LA authenticity. Faye Dunaway, as Evelyn Mulwray, makes a great role, and the costumes she wears help her tremendously to commit to her character. Faye’s clothes also blend in with the narrative and the warm tones of the film and with that incredible Los Angeles light – John Alonzo’s creative, beautiful cinematography made it look like a classic black and white movie magically transposed to colour. His minimalistic approach had Dunaway shot in close-up just two and a half feet from her face, the exact opposite of traditional Hollywood movie star glamour style.

“In Chinatown, what I was trying to create was this Philip Marlowe atmosphere, which I’d never seen in the movies the way I got it in the books of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler,” said Polanski. As James Greenberg writes in Roman Polanski: A Retrospective, what Polanski brought “to this quintessentially American material was a European sensibility and an unerring feeling for the darkness of the human soul”. A realistic vision (what American director would have had his leading man wear a bandage over his nose for almost the entire duration of the film?). “If you spend any time in Los Angeles, you can catch glimpses of the paradise compromised by greed, just as Towne (Robert Towne, the screenwriter) did when he first conceived Chinatown,” says Greenberg. Robert Towne had originally conceived of Chinatown as part of a trilogy chronicling the sprawl and exploitation of the LA he remembered from growing up there. Wrapped around the four basic elements of life, Chinatown dealt with a water scam; The Two Jakes, eventually directed by Nicholoson in 1990, continued with fire and earth, in the form of oil; and the never made Gittes vs Gittes was going to be about the air and the advent of no-fault divorce in California.

One other thing Roman Polanski fought for was the tragic ending, which was essential for following the logic of the plot – an ending that takes place in Chinatown, but that also links the story to the metaphorical Chinatown, a place where things go hopelessly wrong, despite one’s best intentions.
Nightcrawler (2014) / Director: Dan Gilroy / Cinematographer: Robert Elswit / Production designer: Kevin Kavanaugh / Costume designer: Amy Westcott

Nightcrawler is a beautiful, if deeply cynical, portrait of Los Angeles as media capital of the world in constant motion. Jake Gyllenhaal, as Lou Bloom, a freelance cameramen who roams the night looking for crime scenes, the “if it bleeds, it leads” type, to sell to the morning news (the film is a morbid satire of the TV news business), delivers a tremendous depiction of the relentless fame-seeking sociopaths that Los Angeles is famous for attracting and making. Bloom is (and looks – he lost 30 pounds to get into character) hungry for what sells, cunning and corrupting, amoral and ruthless, “the perfect product of our times”, said Gyllenhaal for The Guardian. It is a sharp, creepy, stinging, comic yet cruel character study. “I did not want a character with an arc,” director Dan Gilroy, at his debut feature, told Flavorwire, and that’s something, I believe, that makes for some of the most interesting characters. “I wanted to break as many narrative rules as a could, so there’s no arc, there’s no redemption, there’s no backstory.” It is a stellar work Gilroy elicits from Gyllenhaal.

This is less about the California sunshine, and more about the dark corners and undertones of L.A. at night (although Robert Elswit, the cinematographer, commands both worlds beautifully, as he has also shown in other movies, Magnolia being one of them). It is a great example of how a film evokes a feeling without constantly reminding you that it is not reality that you are watching- Elswit’s nighttime photography communicates the danger and thrill of the protagonist’s work.
In A Lonely Place 
In A Lonely Place (1950) / Director: Nicholas Ray / Cinematographer: Burnett Guffey / Costume designer: Jean Louis (gowns)

In A Lonely Place is a bleak view on Hollywood and what’s happening to people in the movie business backstage. Dixon Steele, Bogart, plays a down-on-his-luck screenwriter with a hot temper. In fact, his multifaceted personality plays out as the movie’s background. You never know what might set Dix on fire. Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame, in one of her best performances) is his beautiful new neighbour, who bears a bruised past, but who seems to have a great influence on Dixon. “She’s not coy or cute or corny. She’s a good guy, I’m glad she’s on my side,” says Bogart, as he admires Gloria Grahame. Cool and composed, she strides down the courtyard in a straight-lined skirt and turtleneck – simple, stylish, yet revealing a buttoned-up, controlled character. I have always admired the subtle, yet optimum effect of Gloria’s costumes in this film. In fact, every piece of clothing she wears (designed by Jean Louis) is buttoned up, from rollernecks, to even an evening gown and her fur-cuffed robe. But she isn’t in control after all, and whatever hopes and dreams Steele and Laurel might have had, they are crushed too soon and too radically.

An unusual film noir (my favourite), mainly because it focuses on the psychological part of Steele’s character and its impact upon the environment he lives in and on his life as well. Burnett Guffey’s cinematography adds to Nicholas Ray’s vision of what hides behind a Hollywoodian face and his success.
Los Angeles as seen in movies Mulholland Drive 
Mulholland Drive (2001) / Director: David Lynch / Cinematography: Peter Deming / Production design: Jack Fisk / Costume designer: Amy Stofsky

The first time I saw Mulholland Drive, it puzzled me. The second time, much more recently, it made me realise that it doesn’t have to be an explanation. Some of the best movies are those which defy explanation and invite introspection, prioritizing questions over answers. What better world to do that than the world of dreams? And what better place to do that than the most notorious for its dream-effects and disillusioned limelight, Hollywood? “Hollywood is where dreams are made.” Because one thing that Mulholland Drive is, under its dream-like surface, is a brilliant commentary on Hollywood’s machinations.
LA Confidential 
L.A. Confidential (1997) / Director: Curtis Hanson / Cinematographer: Dante Spinotti / Production design: Jeannine Oppewall / Costume design: Ruth Myers

“L.A. Confidential” is a great film noir, especially so as it is a 1990s movie. It is about the lack of scruples in the urban jungle of Los Angeles, about the equally corruptible individual cop and police department, a crime film in the style of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett (the same two Polanski took as inspiration for Chinatown). And it has more than that, too, one element being what makes the aforementioned In A Lonely Place stand apart – it deals with the psychology of the characters. It also has a Hollywood fixation, that figures not only in Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey as the sergeant with a knack for arresting celebrities that made him a celebrity himself – “It’s some of the best self-loathing I’ve ever seen on screen,” James Ellroy himself, the author of the novel and co-screenwriter, described Spacey’s portrayal), but also in the prostitution ring run by Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn), a pimp who moulds his hookers to look like movie stars. Kim Basinger is Veronica Lake-a-like Lynn Bracken, who lets her blond hair hang down over one side of her face in the peekaboo style of the 1940s screen siren – can anyone question her appeal?

The film has a rich atmosphere and much credit goes to cinematographer Dante Spinotti, who evokes 1950s LA, by night and by day, and further emphasises Ruth Myers’ costumes and Jeannine Oppewall’s production design. But speaking about the costumes, about Basinger’s wardrobe, to be more precise, I have to comment on the fact that, as opposed to Dunaway’s clothes in Chinatown (when we watch her, we see her living in those times), Lynn Bracken’s clothes, although beautiful and glamorous, seem almost too alive in this time, if there is any sense in that; it’s a little too stylised version of the ’50s (when we watch her, we imagine her how she would have lived in those times).

And, just wait, I have to mention Polanski’s film once again. It’s the ending. Because Ellroy isn’t interested in an ending that brings order to chaos either (and I am not talking about the many threads of the film, which are eventually skillfully put together at the end). As a wise movie cop once said, “Forget it, Jake; it’s Chinatown.”
photos: 1,2: Paramount Pictures, Penthouse, Long Road Productions / 3-Bold Films, Sierra/Affinity / 4- Santana Puctures, Columbia Pictures / 5-Les Films Alain Sarde, Asymmetrical Productions, Babbo Inc. / 6-Regency Enterprises, Wolper Organization, The Warner Brothers

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