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This town is rated noir

A dark aesthetic that found a firm foothold in the movies -- fed by hard-boiled crime fiction and scandal-sheet journalism -- is a flourishing Los Angeles export.

December 03, 2006|Richard Rayner | Special to The Times

NOIR is the indigenous Los Angeles form: It was created here, it grew up here and from here it spread, not only as a genre but as a way of looking at life, character and fate. As a framing lens, it's now so powerful that it seems not only to be a strategy for telling a story but a way to understand -- automatically, unconsciously -- how a story works. What could be more noir than the glove that didn't fit in the O.J. trial? Or the cameras flashing in Princess Di's face as her limo sped through that Paris underpass? Raymond Chandler's narrow mean streets now encompass Tokyo, Berlin, Sao Paulo, London -- any city that has crime or deceit or cracks in the facade or some event in which fate's jaws snap shut with cruel or ironic finality. Cars, celebrity, the movies, the freedom implied by quick wealth and instant upward mobility: These are one sort of symbol that L.A. has given the world.

Noir is the flip side to the city's sunstruck myth, darker, more ambiguous. As William Faulkner, who did serious L.A. time, once said, "They don't worship money here; they worship death."

Noir's history usually gets shorthanded something like this: The American hard-boiled idiom, born in the late 1920s, merged with the shadowy motifs of German Expressionism, brought here by emigre filmmakers escaping the desperate terminus of pre-World War II Europe, and a style was born. Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" (1941) gave an early taste, with its dizzying angles and stark chiaroscuros and a narrative structured like a hall of mirrors, like a labyrinth.

Noir really took hold a couple of years later when Raymond Chandler was called to a Paramount office to meet Billy Wilder, a German refugee screenwriter who was just starting to direct. Together, they created the script for "Double Indemnity," from James M. Cain's ropy novella. Barbara Stanwyck wore an anklet and a tight angora sweater, and her eyes flashed like cruel diamonds in the back of the car while Fred MacMurray throttled her husband to death. An amazing scene, charged with a dark sensuality that still shocks. The amiable MacMurray, as insurance salesman Walter Neff, was a prototype of the noir hero: Doomed, trapped by a vicious woman, he buzzed, not too unhappily, in a web of his and her making. He narrated his story as if he were already dead; watching the movie, we know that he soon will be. Maybe the point is that this is what he wants.

"Double Indemnity," released in 1944, caught early rumblings of the anxiety and disillusion that struck the United States at the end of the war. Servicemen came home to find what? Not peaceful, prosperous, sunlit lands but uncertainty, a country waking up to the new nuclear reality and women who'd been independent while their guys had been overseas and might or might not have been faithful. "American films became markedly more sardonic," filmmaker Paul Schrader writes in his essay "Notes on Film Noir." Uneasy and exhilarating, noir took hold. Mostly crime films, but not only: "Criss Cross," "The Killers," "Out of the Past," "In a Lonely Place," "The Woman in the Window" -- the list of excellence goes on and on. "Never before," Schrader writes, "had films dared to take such a harsh, uncomplimentary look at American life."

So far, so good. But there's more to the story. Hard-boiled crime fiction didn't spring fully formed from the hammering typewriters of Chandler, Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Horace McCoy, Edward Anderson, Paul Cain, John Carroll Daly and the rest of Joseph Shaw's Black Mask gang. It emerged too from the gaudy L.A. journalism of an earlier era. Through the 1920s, a host of scandal sheets vied with The Times, William Randolph Hearst's gleefully sensationalist Examiner and other morning and evening papers to report on a boosted city that was bursting apart at the seams. Tabloid culture was born. Los Angeles was awash with newsprint and stories -- unbelievable, amazing stories. People wanted the glitz, the glamour of this new and exciting place, but they wanted the dark side too. Oranges on the trees and evil in the atmosphere. Darkness even, or especially, at noon. A sense of ennui, of disillusion, alienation and panic, even while times were supposedly buoyant. Noir, in other words, before the term "noir" came into being.

There was Walburga Oesterreich, who kept her lover slave in the attic, forcing him to have sex with her, until she let him out to murder her husband. There was Clara Phillips, a former vaudeville dancer who beat her rival to death and ripped out her guts with a claw hammer. During her trial, Phillips was tagged "Tiger Woman" and attracted many admirers. Helped by one, she escaped and found her way to Honduras, only to be tracked down by Morris Lavine, a smart, ruthless and flamboyant reporter for the Examiner.

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