The Real LA: Angelenos and devils

Behind Tinseltown's glitz lies the real Los Angeles, the bleak urban nightmare that is film noir's most enduring star
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The Independent Culture

It is exactly 60 years since the French critic Nino Frank coined the phrase "film noir" to describe the flood of bleak, crime-ridden Hollywood movies that reached Paris soon after the end of the Second World War.

Originally based on the detective novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, the distinctive film noir style has been reinterpreted for each successive decade. Brick, Rian Johnson's directorial debut (now on general release in the UK) was awarded the special jury prize for originality of vision at the Sundance Film Festival. In fact, there is very little that is original in Johnson's film, which borrows heavily and gleefully from film noir of the Thirties and Forties.

As with The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon, Brick features a hard-boiled, alienated gumshoe figure setting out to uncover the truth behind a disappearance and murder. There are mysterious clues and slang, violent skirmishes, brief encounters with a femme fatale and a dizzying series of convoluted plot twists, all set in an unforgiving and moodily lit urban landscape of parking lots and wide boulevards.

Johnson's visionary touch is to set the whole thing in a modern-day, southern Californian high school, ushering in a new 21st-century take on the style - teen noir. Before it, in the 1970s, came neo-noir in the shape of Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye and Roman Polanski's Chinatown; in the 1980s, Ridley Scott pioneered tech-noir in Blade Runner; and from the 1990s onwards there was pulp noir, in films such as Reservoir Dogs and Sin City.

A hostile, urban setting is the linchpin of noir style, and all the above films are set in Los Angeles. While the giant, wonky white letters high on the Hollywood hills act as a secular Mecca for wannabe starlets who flock to the city of dreams where human Barbie dolls skate down palm-lined boulevards, silicone-enhanced shopaholics stalk Rodeo Drive and legions of unfeasibly good-looking waiters and waitresses await their break, film-makers have long been more interested in the seamier side of life in the "city of flowers and sunshine".

Indeed, according to Alain Silver and James Ursini, the co-authors of a new book, LA Noir, "film noir slouched towards Los Angeles to be born", and the city remains its "quintessential dramatic ground", playing as crucial a role in the films as their trench-coated, gun-toting protagonists.

LA, and more specifically its north-western corner Hollywood, has been synonymous with movie-making since the 1900s, when motion picture companies moved from New York and New Jersey to take advantage of the sunnier, more reliable Californian climate. As the golden city that seemed to have the ability to transform fantasy into reality, LA was ripe to provide a potent symbolic backdrop for the puncturing of the American dream.

And it was arguably Raymond Chandler who set the ball rolling, chronicling life on the "mean streets" of his adopted city during the disillusionment of the 1930s and the Depression in his crime novels and film scripts. The 1940 film Double Indemnity, based on James M Cain's novella and adapted by Chandler, is one of the earliest examples of film noir, setting up the disparity between the surface glamour of LA and its sleazy underbelly that characterises hundreds of subsequent films.

Walter Neff, an insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray) lives in a dingy, cramped flat, modelled on the poky apartment that the director Billy Wilder rented at the infamous Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard when he first arrived in LA from Germany in the 1930s.

Neff's spiral down into greed, sex and murder comes at the hands of the platinum-haired femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), whom he meets at her grand, whitewashed Spanish colonial-style mansion in the high-class Los Feliz neighbourhood. For Neff, the home both embodies the American dream and is the site of his downfall.

Since the Chandler era, and particularly in the past 20 years, film-makers have explored the destructive duality of glamour and danger that lies at the heart of LA. Blade Runner is an extreme example, with its dystopian vision of the future city, mired in darkness and corruption, in which Chinatown becomes a neon-lit, fetid, steaming swamp of excess. In Michael Mann's films Heat and Collateral, LA becomes a nocturnal city of shadowy contract killers cruising harshly-lit, rain-soaked streets.

In Heat, Robert De Niro's character McCauley likens the "city of lights" to "iridescent algae", pithily summing up LA's attractive but ultimately poisonous atmosphere.

Quentin Tarantino's tales of drug-fuelled violence unfold in the working-class suburbs of the San Fernando Valley, an area dotted with emblems of physical excess - doughnut stands, liquor shacks, brothels and nasty burger joints, which recall the "sweaty, greasy kitchens that would have poisoned a toad" of Chandler's The Little Sister.

David Lynch's famously obtuse Mullholland Drive remains one of the most terrifying indictments of Tinseltown, systematically taking in icons of glamour such as the Hollywood sign and Sunset Boulevard and transforming them into sinister landmarks of the aspiring actress Diane's destruction.

With Brick's sinister high-school shenanigans, a whole new, younger vista of the city opens up for directors with a penchant for noir, ensuring that, for movie-goers at least, LA remains a whole lot more interesting than the sun-soaked, spoiled and homogenised lifestyle of neighbouring Orange County.

'LA Noir: The City as Character' by Alain Silver and James Ursini (Santa Monica Press, £15.99)

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