Film Noir - the darker side of the City of Angels

The Blue Dahlia (1946) with screenplay by Raymond Chandler

The Blue Dahlia (1946) with screenplay by Raymond Chandler

There is something particularly L.A. about film noir. In the same way that Charles Dickens novels capture the aesthetic of Victorian London, film noir captures the mood of 1940’s Los Angeles. The city’s sunny and spacious demeanor is the perfect foil for these dark stories, where the paranoid protagonist falls into a hellish labyrinth of his own making, lured by a femme fatale and lit with the extremes of German expressionism. How did this stunning style of film come about and why is it so enmeshed with the City of Angels?

When Prohibition of alcohol ended in 1933, a more sinister suppression began in America, the censorship of the movies. The Hays Production Code required all movie scripts be submitted to a federal bureau that spelled out what was acceptable or unacceptable content. Representatives showed up on set to ensure that nothing improper was being filmed. This coincided with the Great Depression, when the movie industry saw its attendance numbers half, and radio competed as the cheaper, stay at home entertainment.

Meanwhile, the movie industry in Germany, one of the great powerhouses of film, was also in crises. The Weimar Republic saw a flowering of the movies as both an art form and social commentator during its time of extreme economic crises in the 1920’s. When Hitler came to power in 1933, the movie community, with a high percentage of jews and homosexuals, had very little time to escape the Berlin. Incredibly, eight hundred of them made it to Los Angeles. And so the Golden Age of Hollywood began.

The Great Depression spawned a group of writers in L.A., led by Raymond Chandler, who penned hard boiled, crime stories. These ‘pulp fiction’ stories were hugely popular, and spoke to a nation experiencing intense social anxieties. They depicted L.A. as a city less rigid than older cities, less cultured - a place in social flux. And so the groundwork was laid for a style of filmmaking that caused French critics to declare that at last, Hollywood was making art movies. They called them Film Noir


As movie production increased, the B-movie made up a large part of studio production. The crews that made the B- movies, including many of the Weimar emigres, were given lower budgets, cheaper source material and fading stars. With less access to the backlots of the studios, the directors chose to film in Downtown Los Angeles. Adapting the hardboiled detective crime stories of the 1930’s, these films were shot in black and white giving full play to their expressionist sensibilities and social critique. These highly sexually charged and often violent films, overcame many of the restrictions of the Hays Code by using suggestion, symbolism, shadow and innovative music. Hollywood matured and its audiences enthusiastically responded.

Downtown Los Angeles in the 1940’s.

Downtown Los Angeles in the 1940’s.

Los Angeles itself becomes an energy in the films. Downtown, with its gritty urban landscape, often juxtaposed to its westside persona, features in many of the classic noirs including, Double Indemnity (1944), D.O.A. (1949) and Out of the Past (1947). By 1958, noir as a genre, was done, but its influence on film, through realism, psychology and symbolism meant movies could never be the same again. Each new generation of filmmaker continues to spin their own version of film noir; Chinatown (1974), Bladerunner (1981), a neo noir, L.A Confidential (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001) and more recently Aaron Katz’s Gemini (2018).

If you are planning a visit to LA, discovering this style of film explains, in some way, the fascination with its darker underbelly - plus, you will never regret it!

Stuart WoodComment