Los Angeles and the Problems of the Noir City
By Dr. Sharon Sekhon
As many film scholars observe, the city in film noir of the 1940s and 1950s is an integral component to the various plots of the film cycle, but also essential to the film's overall tone. Indeed, one film critic, Nicholas Christopher, defines noir as inextricably linked to the city; that noir is: [T]he dark underside of American urban life - the subterranean city - from which much crime, high and low culture, raw sexual energy and deviations, and other elemental, ambiguous forces that fuel the greater society often spring. Reflecting the infernal, complex lower depths of American urban life, which is composed in shifting parts of blood and cement, nightmares and iron.(2)
Though an enticing vision, Christopher's definition ultimately is too limiting when surveying the wide gamut of noir films, ignoring films that take place in rural and semi-rural settings. Most alarming, this trajectory sees the noir city as merely one, albeit dangerous, lump.(3) Christopher is not alone. Many film historians often problematically pose 'the noir city' as a monolithic, anonymous, labyrinthine urban space. But as films show us, rather than viewing all noir cities as dangerous sites of consumption, critics should note the differences between recognized spaces and anonymous ones. Often, as in noirs using Los Angeles, New York, or San Francisco, the cities' various reputations work in conjunction with the filmmakers' motivations.(4)
Los Angeles noir provides an excellent example in which to assess how film plays upon city reputation in terms of plot progression and tone. Three films, Mildred Pierce (1945), The Blue Gardenia (1953), and CrimeWave (1954), use Los Angeles explicitly as a narrative component. Yet, the visions put forth by these three films are all different, demonstrating change over time and playing upon the different popular views held of the city. In Mildred Pierce, the film uses Los Angeles' reputation as a "boom town" and modern city to trace the demise of its leading characters. The Blue Gardenia, on the other hand, plays upon Los Angeles' association with the film industry and Hollywood's sexual exploits. Finally, Crime Wave builds on earlier Los Angeles noir and shows the city's apparent saturation in crime as a natural consequence of its filmic and real past in its advertisments, but portrays a rather innocuous city in the film. The historic moment that produced these films and their respective production processes shapes how each film uses the city and offers another way in which to analyze the city in film noir.
Directed by Michael Curtiz and based on a 1941 novel by James M. Cain, the film delineates the dramatic demise of its main character, Mildred Pierce. Although the film opens with the murder of Monte Beragon and the LAPD's attempt to discover his murderer, the central story of the film focuses on Mildred's failure as a mother and its direct and indirect results. In an effort to provide "all that she herself has been denied" to her children Veda and Kay, Mildred appears to map her own downfall. After separating from her husband over an argument over an expensive dress bought for the elder daughter Veda and his unwillingness to spoil the children, Mildred goes to work waitressing during the day and baking pies at night. Wildly successful, Mildred eventually starts her own chain of restaurants. Along the way, she meets up and has an affair with Monte Beragon, a symbol of old, Pasadena money. Her youngest daughter actually catches and later succumbs to pneumonia, while Mildred is gallivanting with Monte. After this loss, Mildred puts all her effort in pleasing her remaining daughter Veda through material gifts. In order to meet these needs, Mildred works undauntedly at her business, inadvertently neglecting Veda's upbringing. Mildred quickly learns that Veda has developed wayward habits and attributes this behavior to Monte. Quickly, she breaks ties with Monte but it is too late: Veda has already married a local millionaire and duped his family into believing she is pregnant, out of ten thousand dollars and out of an annulment. Mildred, learning of Veda's trickery, dramatically breaks with her. Eventually the two reconcile, but this reunion requires that Mildred marry Monte to gain the vestiges of old money to please Veda's elitist sensibility. Finally, Mildred learns Monte has ruined her business, and Veda has aggressively succeeded in seducing Monte: both clear rejections of her as a mother and woman. The melodramatic ups and downs of Mildred's story are linked filmically to its Los Angeles setting but to understand its origins, we must turn to the film's basis, James Cain's novel of the same name.
Cain's original novel Mildred Pierce uses setting in an interestingly explicit manner.(5) Indeed, the novel begins with an ironic disclaimer that instead of focusing attention away from the issue of setting, places the reader's interest clearly onto it: The locale of this book is California, and the Californian will find much in it that is familiar to him; the characters, however, are imaginary, as are the situations, and in one instance, a whole neighborhood; they do not represent, and are not intended to represent, actual persons, events, or places.(6)
But, Cain cannot completely make the setting of the novel anonymous for he ties historic events into the plot progression. For example, he presents the character of Bert as a pawn of historical circumstance. After working as a stunt rider for the movies, Bert inherits a ranch which he later developed into new housing. He made "a great deal of money" but lost most of it in the 1929 stock market crash. Bert's past successes tied into his inability to seek out work in the present: He had become so used to crediting himself with vast acumen that he could not bring himself to admit that his success was all luck, due to the location of his land rather than to his personal qualities. So he still thought in terms of the vast deed he would do when things got a little better.(7) Although this portrait does not damn Southern California, it does point to how haphazard life could be in the region.(8)
While the novel manipulates Southern California's reputation as a boom city more deleteriously, the film does not entirely abandon a negative association of the region.(9) In particular, the film appears to present the city's growth and decline in terms almost analogous to the plights of the characters. Early in the film, the audience learns that Mildred's first husband Bert has lost his job due to the collapse of the real estate market. This type of decline, as well as the spurts in growth, characterized the city, in varying degrees, from the 1860s to the present. Mildred, in voice over, recounts this process: He (Bert) and Wally Fay were partners. For a long time they made good money. They built a lot of houses. Then suddenly people stopped buying. The boom was over. And then one day Bert and Wally split up. Wally was in. Bert was out. But I didn't know that. Bert didn't tell me when he came home that day.
The day that Mildred refers to is the day that she and Bert separate. Thus, the film quickly hints indirectly to the region's part in their familial downfall. The arbitrary, unstable nature of employment in Southern California and thefleeting glimpses of wealth and comfort play into the delicacy of the Pierce family stability. This early insertion of Los Angeles history onto the plight of the Pierce family exemplifies the important role of city identity into the narrative progression of the film. One wonders if, with a stable source of income, the Pierce family would remain intact.
The sense of reckless growth and profoundly plummeting decline appears again in the form of Mildred's chain of restaurants. This highly successful endeavor begins relatively easily. Although the audience knows that Mildred has put her heart and soul into her first restaurant, it also knows the success rate for restaurants is abysmally low. Yet, as a single mother of two in the 1940s, Mildred is able to open five restaurants in three years. Similarly, as a woman married into a Pasadena, old money reputation, Mildred is able to lose her entire fortune overnight. This example of her ups and downs suggests that though there is extremely easy money to be made in Los Angeles, it is just as easy to lose a fortune.
"Mildred's," the restaurant chain, provides a cogent illustration of Southern California culture on various levels. The chain has restaurants in swank areas from Beverly Hills to Laguna Beach. Automobiles, particularly convertibles, are featured prominently whenever the restaurant is shown - Mildred charts its success in relation to proximity to major thoroughfares; she gives Veda her birthday present at the restaurant, a convertible; and scenes introducing the restaurant scan its full parking lot. Mildred reproduces the initial restaurant in the blink of an eye, alluding to mass production and Los Angeles' reputation as a model, modern city. Finally, the action that takes place in "Mildred's," literally eating and consumption, describes an associative factor of Los Angeles: city known for consumptive industries - film, fashion, leisure, real estate, tourism.(10)
Another Southern Californian stereotype employed in Mildred Pierce proves to be the character of Monte Beragon. Monte represents, in one way, an older Los Angeles because of his ties to Pasadena and a Southern California aristocracy. Pasadena, developing almost in opposition to Downtown and West Los Angeles, did cultivate a different world. Originating in the late nineteenth century and growing into the 1930s, Pasadena was composed of already established Midwestern farmers, seeking to both duplicate the belief and value systems of the Midwest and create an Eden-like space for their later years. Residents created a self-referential citrus culture that existed in conjunction with the larger region economically and apart from its neighbors socially. Monte works as a limner character; at once part of this past and also in the future. The audience learns that Monte has, amongst other property, an orange grove to sell. Veda is clearly cognizant of Monte's social stature. Monte realizes that this link to an older social system remains his only power in the face of economic devastation and uses his ties to his full advantage.
That this Pasadena past works in conjunction with existing associations is available in the film's production notes. Writers on the film tended to see Los Angeles' neighboring cities as all part of one larger whole and had to be advised on the need to differentiate between the different cities for purposes of authenticity. A memo dated October 30, 1944 from Herman Lissauer, the head of the Warner Brothers Research Department, urged Ranald MacDougall, the chief screenwriter for the film, to distinguish between different police forces in the film: The Los Angeles Police would not go into Pasadena to make an arrest. Since Pasadena is a city in its own right, the Los Angeles Police would notify Pasadena and the Pasadena Police would make the arrest.(11) Although MacDougall clarified his usage of the Los Angeles Police in another memo, Lissauer's original missive points to a tendency to view the region as a unified whole. Thus, the association of an old-money Pasadena aristocracy works as a component to Los Angeles as a whole.
The Los Angeles setting of Mildred Pierce contributes to the narrative progress of the film in important ways. First, from establishing that the city is prone to booms and declines, it sets the stage for Bert's financial demise and the dissolution of the Pierce family. Later, the film plays upon Los Angeles' vision as a modern city with its emphasis on the automobile and chain restaurants. Mildred's quick success, one would assume, would not be so facile in an earlier world of producers and deferred gratification. Finally, the film uses Pasadena's reputation as a stuffy center of Los Angeles aristocracy to create an unachievable social level for an independent Mildred and Veda. Although all of these elements remain part of a meta narrative about the United States in the 1940s, Cain and MacDougall manage to use Los Angeles' historical image to illustrate these components.
The Blue Gardenia (1953) sets up a second series of images on Los Angeles in film noir. This film, with its emphasis upon sexuality and exoticism, works into its storyline regional connections to the film industry and postwar re-negotiation of masculinity. Architectural forms associated with Southern California such as tiki architecture demonstrate the union of these three elements and are prevalent throughout the entire picture. This combination creates a dangerous, sexualized space for its main female characters which figures importantly in the plot.
Directed by Fritz Lang and produced nine years after Mildred Pierce, The Blue Gardenia reflects the changes in the stereotypes on Southern California and the historical changes within the region. Based on an original story by Vera Caspary, (12) the plot centers on the lead female protagonist Norah Larkin. Norah, who shares an apartment with two female co-workers, works at West Coast Telephone as an operator. After waiting dutifully and diligently for her fiancé to return from Korea, Norah receives a goodbye letter from him on her birthday. In an emotional fit, Norah agrees to meet with lecherous artist Harry Prebble at the exotic Blue Gardenia restaurant for dinner in order to forget her woes. Harry proceeds to get Norah drunk and takes her back to his apartment. In a drunken daze, Norah confuses Harry with her fiancé and begins to kiss him passionately. Shortly, she awakes from her drunken reverie and realizes that Harry is not her fiancé and pushes him away. Harry does not want to take 'no' for an answer and attempts to force himself on her. Norah grabs a poker from the fireplace and blindly swings, hitting a mirror. She passes out. When she awakens, Harry is lying dead on the ground next to her with a deep gash on his forehead. Norah flees leaving a pair of suede pumps and a blue gardenia from the restaurant. The next day, after reporting on the murder, hotshot journalist Casey Mayo decides to entice Prebble's killer in, offering to pay for the best defense attorney in exchange for an exclusive on her story. Norah spends a few days turning over the possibility in her mind and finally decides to meet Mayo "as a friend" of the killer. Mayo, believing Norah is really a friend of the Blue Gardenia and not the true murderess, begins to fall for her. The police, on to Mayo, follow him to his meeting with Norah and arrest her as Prebble's killer. Mayo, unwilling to believe that Norah could ever kill anyone, discovers Prebble's true murderer, a jilted, pregnant lover, solves the case, and exonerates Norah.
The film establishes its setting immediately, indicating its importance to the film. The opening credits feature a recognizable Los Angeles city hall, the first scene opens to a newsstand advertising the Los Angeles Chronicle, and the first scene takes place at West Coast Telephone. The sexualized nature of the city begins almost as quickly. As the first scene leads the audience forward it begins directly with the objectification of one of its female characters, Crystal. She poses for a sketch artist, Harry Prebble, for an advertisement for West Coast Telephone. While Crystal holds still, Harry propositions and eyes her lasciviously. Casey Mayo walks over to the two and joins in Prebble's gaze, albeit less wolfishly. Later, Casey brags about his "black book." Although this acute sense of male, sexual objectification borders on repressive, the three lead female characters understand this process on different levels and appear to unwittingly set themselves up for recurring scenarios. The three wear revealing night clothes, despite having female roommates. Publicity releases for the film played up their clothing:
Production officials, alert to censorship restrictions, kept a sharp eye on the bedroom scene. With the Misses Baxter, Sothern and Donnell playing roommates, the wake-up morning scene was loaded with censorship potentials. Miss Sothern in pink pajamas, Miss Donnell in shorties which come to the gasp-height on her hips, and Miss Baxter in night wear of diaphonous gossamer, were fetching sights as they emerged from between the sheets.(13) This type of glamorous and erotic nightwear coupled with publicity releases underlining their existence clearly create an assessment of Los Angeles' single women even with the most mundane jobs.
Indeed, the film's references with Hollywood recur in subtle ways throughout the film. According to one source, sensational tabloid journalism, in the form of a magazine entitled Confidential, plagued the film community. Highly successful, Confidential focused upon the private lives and often-bizarre sexual practices of Hollywood stars.(14) Although many of the stories printed were patently false, The Blue Gardenia appears to profit from the associations created between Hollywood and open sexuality. At another point Casey Mayo, in an attempt to discover Norah's true identity asks if she's a "Los Angeles" girl. Norah responds: "I don't know where I am from. I live here but it's not my home." Although Norah's character is lost and confused, such a statement works with preconceived ideas about the region in terms of migrational patterns. This line both alludes to general population booms to the region and to the hundreds of individuals who came to Hollywood in search of fame and fortune.
The setting of the film is further sexualized in its relationship to exoticism, and the film's centerpiece, the Blue Gardenia restaurant, illustrates this association. Elaborately decorated in a Polynesian style with bamboo furniture and hothouse flowers, the restaurant furthers an exotic tendency in its waiters who are all Asian or Hawaiian and its entertainment: Nat King Cole sings the song "The Blue Gardenia." The architectural style of the Blue Gardenia, tiki, manages to meld the three dominant themes of the film's Los Angeles: exoticism, sexuality, and a Playboy like masculinity and bachelorhood.(15) Emerging in the 1950s, tiki architecture originated in California and quickly spread across the nation using tropical plants, pools and Polynesian statuary. Although used in a few homes and professional buildings, tiki architecture was used immensely in apartment buildings and eventually became a symbol for a new, masculine sexual freedom.(16) This sense of exoticism and otherness again gains an aura of eroticism when we learn that Norah's fiancé has left her for another woman, a nurse in the army. Although this woman is probably white and not an exotic other, the foreign space of Korea makes such an indiscretion possible.
Publicity for the film re-inscribed the realism of the plot; indirectly affirming the vision of Los Angeles is referenced and projected. In a publicity story entitled "The Basic is Basic," producer of The Blue Gardenia, Alex Gottlieb boasts of the film's pertinence to the "weaker sex" as follows:
How right she (Caspary) was, I learned every time that Fritz Lang, who directed "The Blue Gardenia", or myself let a member of the weaker sex read the screenplay. Inevitably the comment was, "Why, that could have happened to me! I remember I went out on a date once - " and then invariably she would clam up. We knew that we'd struck box office gold.(17)
Aside from Gottlieb's disturbing glee over the potential prevalence of date rape among his acquaintances, his remarks are also self-referential in terms of the film industry. For in referring to his women friends, Gottlieb points to a very specific, Hollywood community.
Publicity releases also point to an affiliation between The Blue Gardenia and a local, Los Angeles murder case known as "the Black Gardenia," probably following the lead of the 1947 local murder known as "The Black Dahlia" and named after the 1946 film THE BLUE DAHLIA. In introducing the film The Box Office Slantreported:
Los Angeles' "Black Gardenia" murder mystery, still unsolved, provides the basis for this story, but Miss Caspary has put it in reverse, with the male rather than the girl the murder victim. It all begins in a telephone exchange where three girls work together on the long-distance switchboard, transfers to the apartment they share, then on to the home of the slain artist.(18) Interestingly, various searches for the "Black Gardenia" murder came up with no results in national and local newspapers.(19) Further, Vera Caspary's autobiography The Secrets of Grownups makes no reference to the film.(20) Based on this information, it can be inferred that filmmakers used the reference to a local murder as a publicity draw, probably inspired by the notoriety caused by the 1947 Black Dahlia murder.
The use of a fictitious local murder provides a twofold example of how Los Angeles worked explicitly into the film's narrative. First, its inclusion plays upon an historically infamous case in which sex played an important part, at least in the rumor surrounding the case. The victim in the Black Dahlia case, Elizabeth Short, was immediately under sexual scrutiny following the identification of the body. Newspapers speculated on her status as a prostitute and, importantly, an actress. The union of these two traits - actress and prostitute links the film industry clearly to sex crime. That the film played upon this union is apparent, understanding the Dahlia crime and the publicity surrounding the Gardenia film. Although the Short family stridently opposed such characterizations of Elizabeth as a sexual deviant from the beginning of the coverage, associations of her as has-been actress turned prostitute still abound. Yet, it remains safe to assume that the film used this rendition of Los Angeles as a backdrop, to a certain level, especially in advertising the film.
The Blue Gardenia then presents a different, though related vision of Southern California that works in conjunction with the film's plot concerning sexual violence. By heavily using exotic element - from food to architecture - the film develops a highly sexualized space in which date rape would appear more prevalent to a 1950s audience. This exotic, eroticized space emerges believably in Southern California with its supposed history of sexual laxity in relationship to stars and because of historic immigration patterns rendering Los Angeles the Ellis Island of the 1950s. Publicity for the film also alluded to an infamous crime in which sexual violence played a major role in the death of a film actress. The film then relies upon Los Angeles in a variety of ways to make this environment plausible.
Crime Wave (1954), directed by Andre de Toth is a third film employing yet another depiction of Los Angeles. Again, following the noir trajectory, crime plays a prominent role in the film. However, Crime Wave appears to be building more from celluloid associations than from historical events in creating its Southern California. Here, Los Angeles is disengaged from its relationship to Hollywood and stands as a starkly dangerous environment, continuously vulnerable to the criminal element. Indeed, the storyline for the film reveals its different assessment of the region.
The film centers on Steve Lacey, a now married, ex-con trying to keep his life on the straight and narrow in Los Angeles. Three former cellmates break out of San Quentin and proceed to hold up various gas stations in their flight. When robbing a Los Angeles gas station, one of the escapees shoots a policeman. The policeman, before dying, manages to wound one of the convicts. They then search out Steve in order, at first, to have his wound treated, and then later, after he dies, find another accomplice in a bank heist. They coerce Steve into joining their group but Steve manages to leave word to a local police Lieutenant, Sims, of the planned robbery. The police intercept the robbery and pretend to arrest Lacey. The film's finale ends with the police releasing Steve and keeping his part in the round up secure, thus ensuring he won't be executed by loyal cons.
Based from a story written by John and Ward Hawkins entitled "Criminal's Mark," the process in which Crime Wave used Los Angeles is a matter worth exploring. Originally, when the story appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1950, the plot did not have an explicit setting. Rather, judging from the fact that the authors were from Portland, Oregon and the only references to place in the story referred to a "Great Western Trucking" line, we can infer that it was to take place in the Pacific Northwest.(21) After Warner Brothers purchased the story, a variety of screenwriters toyed with where to place it. An initial outline drawn out in 1951 saw the film taking place in no identifiable city.(22) One month later, the story had a new name, Don't Cry Baby, and was to take place in "New City" in the Midwest.(23) In July of 1952, for the first time, the story was revised to take place in Southern California, but explicitly in a suburb - not Los Angeles. Bernard Gordon sketched out the setting as follows:
This is a typical Southern California "suburb." The streets are laid out in careful squares, with street signs, lights and sewers - everything but houses.The sandy lots on either side are returning to nature after waiting twentyfutile years for the real estate subdivision to blossom into "another L.A."(24) The final film does not appear to be related to this rendition in any way of Los Angeles, but it is important to note how writers grappled with different versions of city character to create an effective setting. In September of 1952, one month later, another writer, Richard Wormser again altered the setting of Don't Cry Baby. Wormser shifted the main setting of the film back to a generic community, but had one scene in which crime occurs, taking place in Los Angeles.(25) For a period of a few months at the end of 1952, Don't Cry Baby was renamed The City is Dark. Finally, the script was re-written again by Crane Wilbur in October, one month later. In Wilbur's version the story finally takes place throughout the city of Los Angeles, citing specific landmarks and roads.(26) It was also in this month that the film's title changed to Crime Wave.(27)
In terms of plot, the setting of Crime Wave is not tied to any particular locale. Steve Lacey could be a recuperating felon anywhere. Although he works as an airplane technician and could be tied to the region because of its postwar boom in aerospace, Steve's occupation is not terribly important. The escaped convicts break out of San Quentin, but, in terms of the plot, could have just as easily escaped from another prison. It remains difficult to assess how the film ended up taking place in Los Angeles. Production notes do not explain why a particular writer felt one place would be more suited than another. An undated teletype found in the Warner Brothers archive, perhaps a publicity release, documents the choice as almost serendipitous:
SEEMS THE WARNERS ARE MAKING A FILM TITLED "THE CITY IS DARK" AND ITS DANK ATMOSPHERE OF GANGSTERDOM NEEDED SOME OUTSIDE SHOTS OF A CITY OMINOUSLY BOGGED DOWN BY AN IMPENETRABLE ATMOSPHERE IN WHICH THE SUN IS COMPLETELY BLOCKED OUT. "WHAT ABOUT DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES?" SCREAMED AN EXCITED LOCATION SCOUT. "IT WOULD BE IDEAL." THUS THE UNIT BOARD BUSES AND TRUCKS AND IS SPENDING DAYS AND NIGHTS SHOOTING AROUND LOS ANGELES CITY HALL, OLVERA STREET AND UNION STATION.(28)
Although this story has little credibility because of its unknown origins and its hyperbolic tone, it does point to, with the chronological script revisions, possible reasons why filmmakers chose the city. Undoubtedly strained by budgetary limits, filmmakers probably sought out ways in which to make this film innovative and more marketable.
Indeed, publicity for the film used Los Angeles in different ways to promote the city. First, the film boasted of an authentic vision of police work. Clearly both a police procedural and a noir, Crime Wave filmed at the actual dispatch headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department and had policeman Captain R.A. Lohrman to serve as technical adviser to give the film an air of authenticity.(29) Second, as the previous teletype alluded to, Crime Wave was lauded as the first film to use Los Angeles smog as a component to the film in order to gain a grittier feel. One seemingly planted newspaper story relates this event: Smog, that combination of fog, smoke and chemicals which dims the Los Angeles skyline and worries the Chamber of Commerce, fitted the mood of certain scenes in the picture and Director Andre De Toth….the grey-brown atmosphere added a note of impending trouble…(30)
Thus, the filming seemed to follow the serendipitous theme earlier described. It appears that on one level, filmmakers used Los Angeles as default but in others, the linking of the film to the city is much more pronounced. Filmmakers ingeniously used location shooting to both make and publicize the film. According to production notes, de Toth used a concealed camera in a disguised van to shoot "realistic" scenes of urban life. Production records note that the camera was hidden in a small, unobtrusive black truck whose four paneled sides opened to any width so the scene might be photographed without attracting undue attention. Players went about the streets and in and out of buildings while the camera on its rolling base followed their actions un-noticed.(31)
Yet filmmakers were not always successful in hiding their motives, and one wonders to what extent this location shooting was done for publicity purposes. A plethora of newspaper accounts document different location shoots for the film.(32) Crime Wave's use of Los Angeles is complicated by the official, studio-generated publicity. Posters for the film advertise it by calling attention to the criminal nature of Los Angeles. Phrases such as "Sin stalks the sidewalks! Crime crawls in shadow! Dim-lit temptation and kill-madness bust loose in the backwash of a terror-riddled Crime Wave" juxtaposed against recognizable L.A. buildings paint a pronounced portrait of the city in contrast to the plot's actual depiction. In the forefront of these posters, stands a couple. The woman of the pair is dressed in a strapless gown with large hoop earrings, her hands raised protectively. The man has his hands outstretched as if to grab her. The caption underneath them reads, "Scream, baby-I don't mind!"(33) Another poster exclaims over the "gang-girls" of the film, yet none exist in the movie. Indeed, posters for the film appear to be playing upon larger, filmic renditions of the city as a way to lure potential audiences into a totally unrelated movie - perhaps movies such as Mildred Pierce and The Blue Gardenia. The apparent self-reflexive nature of Los Angeles films appears to gain a foothold with Crime Wave. Although the publicity posters could refer to scandal sheets like Confidential, it is important to note that such films also build upon celluloid characterizations.
Crime Wave's use of Los Angeles then shows another vision of the city, building an entity that is less historicized and more monolithic. Although filmmakers used the city in various promotional ways - from integrating smog into the film to hiring the LAPD as technical advisors, the film's actual story remains unrelated to a Southern California setting. This union is complicated by how Warner Brothers marketed the film and linked its location to "sin city." Thus, the publicity for the film may provide one of the earliest, compelling examples of celluloid place-making - reflecting and re-inscribing stereotypical images of the city.
For film historians these three films offer important lessons on the relative nature of the city in noir film. While the films all deal with Los Angeles as an explicit setting, its relationship to their respective plots fluctuates with the historic moment in which each was created and the Los Angeles each wished to evoke. The degree of menace in each film varies in relation to which Los Angeles the filmmaker used. Further, the particular character of the city, be it imagined or real, often affects the film's story providing new ways in which to engage analysis. Thus, if we know that Los Angeles noir does not function as an unchanging, mass, we should extend this knowledge to all films using the city, as both scholars and spectators.
1. My thanks to Dana Polan, James R. Welch, and Anne Marie Kooistra of the University of Southern California for their careful reading of this paper.
2. Nicholas Christopher, Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City (New York: Free Press, 1997) 36.
3. Many films (such as A Touch of Evil; The Killing; Thieves Highway; Detour; The Prowler;Out of the Past; The Big Combo; Gun Crazy; The Postman Always Rings Twice; and In A Lonely Place) have variations of urbanity mixed with rural and semi-rural settings. And, while a film may use the country to illuminate the city's depravity as in Out of the Past, often the rural is as saturated with evil as the city as in A Touch of Evil. Thus, our understanding of urbanity in noir should be complicated to include an assessment of nature in noir.
4. Filmmaker manipulation of a setting's supposed reputation occurs on a variety of levels - from the classical Hollywood's demonization of the American South as the reservoir of the nation's racist attitudes (and subsequently whitewashing the rest of the country) to noir films which often have reversed what a viewer may expect of a city. For example, in The Killers (1946) the film toys with perceived expectations of a small town, Atlantic City, New Jersey, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In the film the small town is unsafe, Atlantic City holds saintly characters, and the ambivalent Pittsburgh is violent and full of disloyal acquaintances.
5. For analysis of novel to script revision for the film please see Albert LaValley's introduction to the published MacDougall script in LaValley, Albert J. (Ed.), Mildred Pierce. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1980).
6. James M. Cain from Mildred Pierce republished in Cain X3 (New York: Knopf, 1969) p. 103. The original novel was published September 22, 1941.
7. Cain, 109.
8. Cain's novel can also be read as using the setting to represent all of America, on a certain level. Indeed, Black Tuesday had victims worldwide. The manner in which Cain characterizes Glendale, as "an endless suburb, bearing the same relation to Los Angeles as Queens bears to New York," reinforces that this community could be Anywhere, USA. Reviewers of the film noted Cain's depictions of "ugly America." One reviewer asked of the film's characters, "[A]re these people us, in our own eyes….Are they, for example, who rallied to perform this nation's miracle of war production? Are they the American people who rose in their understanding and political strength to reaffirm Roosevelt and his world program in 1944?" Although the reviewer vehemently denies any correlation, it is clear that to many Cain's characters in Mildred Pierce could exist anywhere in the US. McManus, "James Cain's Ugly America" in PM from September 3, 1945.
9. Albert LaValley notes that in the novel Cain characterizes Mildred in terms of her class status and the fact she lives in Southern California: "Often she is the stereotype of the lower-class Southern California housewife with aspirations beyond her status. Cain mocks her Spanish-style bungalow and the astrologically acquired names of her children, Veda and Moire (Ray)…" in the film's screenplay, LaValley, Albert J. (Ed.), Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1980, p 17.
10. This association is ironic in that at the same moment that this film was produced, reflecting and re-inscribing the stereotype that Los Angeles was mainly a site of consumption, another of the region's leading industries proved to be agriculture. Between 1930 and 1938 Los Angeles county was the number one agricultural county in the U.S.
11. Interoffice Memo from Herman Lissauer to Ranald MacDougall on October 30, 1944, Warner Brothers Archive.
12. Although the script information from the Warner Brother Archive was not as substantial as anticipated, Janet Bergstrom's "The Mystery of the Blue Gardenia" in Shades of Noir provides a brief summation of the changes that occurred from the original story by Vera Caspary by screenwriter Charles Hoffman. Though Bergstrom notes the changes based on plot progression from the Caspary manuscript at the Wisconsin State Historical society, she does not note any changes in the characterization of setting. Janet Bergstrom, "The Mystery of the Blue Gardenia" in Shades of Noir edited by Joan Copjec (Verso: London, 1993) 110.
13. From publicity release entitled "Production Notes on 'The Blue Gardenia,'" from the Warner Brothers Archive.
14. Kenneth Anger, Hollywood Babylon, (New York: Dell, 1975) 376. Although Hollywood Babylon is not the most infallible source, its assertions on Confidential appear to be applicable to an assessment of the film's use of sexuality and the film community.
15. It is worth noting that Playboy was first published in 1953, the year The Blue Gardenia was released.
16. Information accessed from The Tiki News at www.indieweb.com/tiki/destinations.html on April 28, 1998.
17. Alex Gottlieb, "The Basic is Basic," publicity release on The Blue Gardenia from the Warner Brothers Archive.
18. The Blue Gardenia," in The Box Office Slant from March 14, 1953 provided by the Warner Brothers Archive.
19. A spot search was done based on year for the Los Angeles Times as no subject index exists for the paper in terms of crime. The Los Angeles Public Library's index on local crime held no record of the case. A search in the New York Times through its subject index was also futile, as well as a search in various crime encyclopedias.
20. Vera Caspary, The Secrets of Grownups (New York: McGraw/Hill, 1979).
21. John and Ward Hawkins, "Criminal's Mark" in the Saturday Evening Post (April 8, 1950) care of Warner Brothers Archive.
22. Outline done on 3/17/51 of "Criminal's Mark" care of Warner Brothers archive.
23. Draft from 4/6/51 entitled "Don't Cry Baby" from Warner Brothers archive.
24. Draft of Don't Cry Baby written by Bernard Gordon from 7/1/52 care of Warner Brothers archive.
25. Draft of Don't Cry Baby written by Richard Wormser from 9/30/52 from Warner Brothers archive.
26. Crane Wilbur revision of Don't Cry Baby by Crane Wilbur from 10/25/52 accessed through the Warner Brothers archive.
27. Interoffice memo from 10/20/53 from Warner Brothers archive.
28. Undated teletype by Nana Heffernan, no apparent title found in Warner Brothers archive.
29. From document entitled "Production Notes" for Crime Wave from Warner Brothers archive.
30. Author unknown, "Smog Discovered in Crime Film," from "News" from 5/5/53, accessed from Warner Brothers archive.
31. From document entitled "Production Notes" for Crime Wave from Warner Brothers archive.
32. Articles included are "Iris Plays Moll" from the Mirror on 12/4/52, no author notes; "Business As Usual" from Variety from 12/5/52, again no author noted; an untitled article by Sidney Skolsky from the Citizen from 12/8/52; and "Specially Disguised Camera Car Used in 'City Is Dark," in Valley Times from 12/9/52. Articles accessed from Warner Brothers archive.
33. Poster from publicity package for Crime Wave care of Warner Brothers archive.