The press of noir

Jon Lewis, Hard-Boiled Hollywood: Crime and Punishment in Postwar Los Angeles. Berkeley: U of California Press, 2017.

In the United States, theatrical film attendance hit an historic high during the World War II years, but Hollywood experienced a precipitous decline in the postwar era. Jon Lewis investigates the aftermath while bracketing the situation with two notorious deaths: the “Black Dahlia” murder in January 1947 and the death of Marilyn Monroe in August 1962. Lewis achieves a very sophisticated and complex level of analysis by picking up and reweaving some familiar strands:

Perennial interest in the film noir genre provides the most familiar approach to this broad topic. Such work usually bends in the direction of cinema aesthetics and reading a pessimistic cultural mood in film art. But another common approach involves the political and labor situation of the Hollywood blacklist. More recently urban political geography provided a fresh take on surveying the scene, and the emerging new approach of production studies combines an industrial and economic frame with a cultural and artistic approach.

Lewis clearly draws on this base, but makes it his own with a close reading of the public record, especially as represented in the local L.A. press. He describes his project like this:

“a history of Hollywood—the geographic site and the notional construct—built upon stories of the fallen the stricken, the dismissed, discarded, and exiled during Hollywood’s awkward adolescence stretching from the decline of the classical era after World War II to the beginnings of a new Hollywood in the 1960s.”

Los Angeles is and long has been a company town (well, an industry town), with lots of the population working directly in the entertainment complex or dependent on it through secondary or tertiary services. Thus society and entertainment gossip news is actually interwoven with the financial and employment situation. A scandal that torpedoes a prospective film can mean a cascading series of economic effects. So, with this framing, Lewis’s close reading of a long decade of the local press (though apparently not much of Variety) gives a close description of many otherwise scattered and minor moments (the slow stages of a crime investigation leading to a trial, or not, etc.). At the same time, he can draw on the many (and often elaborately conflicting) works done by previous investigators of the Black Dahlia murder, the death of Marilyn Monroe, the presence of mobsters such as Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen, and so forth.

Today we’re familiar with some of this terrain by way of interesting neo-noir films that deal with the postwar L.A. scene: Devil in a Blue Dress (d. Carl Franklin, 1995), Mulholland Falls (d. Lee Tamahori, 1996), L.A. Confidential (d. Curtis Hanson, 1997), This World, Then the Fireworks (D. Michael Oblowitz, 1997), The Black Dahlia (d. Brian De Palma, 2006), Hollywoodland (d. Allen Coulter, 2006), Gangster Squad (d. Ruben Fleisher, 2013), as well as various outliers such as Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014) set c. 1970, and some of the more evocative streaming serials such as Bosch (2014-) using L.A. Noir style.

Hard-Boiled Hollywood captures the deep contradiction between Los Angeles as a city changed from a desert into a metropolis by optimistic arrivals who aspired to success one the one hand, and on the other the harsh reality that in post-war Los Angeles most do not climb the pyramid. Some rise for a while but also end up falling.

Where Lewis sets a new direction is in trying to understand the particular constellation of factors that led to this phenomenon by considering women at the center. The gradual collapse of the old studio system meant that aspiring female actors trying to break into acting in Hollywood had few opportunities. A key was “being seen” and “making connections” which turned on going out to clubs and bars at night to connect with men with some relation to the industry or who were around. As the press began to notice and publicize a string of murders of young women with corpses dumped often by a roadside, connections were drawn to gangsters, corrupt cops, drifters, wannabees, and prostitution. At the same time, gossip journalism (in Hollywood led by two women: Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper) was powerful and successful at hyping print circulation while shadow boxing with an array of celebrities, studio fixers, agents, publicists and others on the periphery.

Somewhat surprisingly for a film scholar, while mentioning many different films of the era in passing, Lewis discusses only three major films with any depth: Sunset Boulevard (d. Billy Wilder, 1950), In a Lonely Place (d. Nicholas Ray, 1950), and The Big Knife (Robert Aldrich, 1955). And they are given very spare attention. However the Ray film does get an excellent analysis in the volume on it by Dana Polan in the BFI Film Classics series: In A Lonely Place (London: British Film Institute, 1994). And the greater context of young women’s situation in the 30s to 60s transition is extensively and originally covered in a series of works by cultural historian Paula Rabinowitz, most notably the outstanding Black & White & Noir: America's Pulp Modernism. (NY: Columbia University Press, 2002).

Film noir, and neo-noir, is a rich topic already enriched by quality academic analysis. But the strength of Lewis’s book, for me, is just how provocatively suggestive it is, so I can’t resist thinking of it in terms of very original (and regrettably, too little known work such as the masterful pastiche of L.A. as seen in the movies, Los Angeles Plays Itself (d. Thom Anderson, 2003). Or a one of a kind gritty realist film of Native Americans in Los Angeles’ depths, The Exiles (d. Kent Mackenzie, 1961), and the visual essay of a contemporaneous little star, Debra Paget, For Example (d. Mark Rappaport, 2015) now streaming on Fandor.

[Full disclosure: Jon Lewis is an old friend; we’ve edited each others work, shared a lot, and discussed a lot of films.]

Random thoughts about L.A. today

I’m always impressed by the many billboard and newspaper ads for discount dental implants and plastic surgery when I’m in L.A. The local evening news always leads with crime and auto accidents and traffic jams (often documented with competing news helicopters) for the first ten minutes before shifting to entertainment business and gossip for the rest of the half hour. The now familiar (and cheap to produce) Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood TV shows began as Los Angeles local news outlet news and features segments. In 1981 ET sprung out as its own half hour show.

Currently I enjoy a reality tv version of L.A. Noir. I’ve started watching a streaming series on Netflix, Shot in the Dark. It follows several different and competing news stringer cameramen (a novice woman arrives later in the series) who work fires and accidents at night in greater Los Angeles for brief news items that will show in the morning local news shows. They are like paparazzi but for disasters, not celebrities.

Each show pits three different teams racing against each other for winning the nighttime sweepstakes of having your footage accepted, shown, and paid for by the various TV stations (including Hispanic, given the loal demographics). Pulling it all together is a recurrent virtual map of LA that allows the viewer to see an event location (a fire, a major accident, a police manhunt, etc.) and the locations of competing cameramen racing their cars to get to the scene. It’s all presented as if happening the same night, though I suspect hat is artificially packaged—or else they have an incredible number of camera people covering the competing camera men.

This is a perfect guys hardware series. The camera operators drive really nifty new street racer-type vehicles (think Fast and Furious), which are then wildly equipped with communications gear, onboard computers, etc.. Once on the scene they grab their digital camera rigs and rush to as close as they can get (police or fire may have cordoned off the scene) and shoot as first responders do their work. They then return to their vehicle and immediately send off the footage to broadcast news outlets that will hopefully buy it. And off to the next shoot.