Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles

By Vincent Brook | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
Bright and Guilty Place

“The rough beast that is film noir … slouched toward Los Angeles to be born,” Alain Silver and James Ursini declare in L.A. Noir: The City as Character.1 Los Angeles provided “the quintessential dramatic ground of film noir,” “the essential elements in the invocation of the noir mood,” not because it was darker, meaner, or more hellish than other urban areas but because of its chameleon nature: its ability to combine, as Raymond Chandler himself encapsulated, “mean streets” with “a special brand of sunshine,” natural fecundity with a “wet emptiness,” a “beatific Our Lady Queen of Angels” with the city as femme fatale—indeed, “the most alluring femme fatale imaginable.”2 The dialectic of opposites—light/dark, good/evil, reality/nightmare—which distinguishes film noir from the gardenvariety gangster or crime film, found its apotheosis in this “bright and guilty place.”3

Historical developments in the film industry, Los Angeles, and the world at large primed the pump for L.A. noir as well. In Hollywood a brief loosening of movie censorship in the early 1930s, before the founding of the Production Code Administration in 1934, sanctioned a cycle of gangster and “fallen-woman” films that foreshadowed the classical noir cycle of the 1940s and 1950s. In Los Angeles as a whole, “something happened in the 1930s,” Kevin Starr suggests. “A sense of brooding evil just beneath the movie-tone surface of Southern California life … rushed in upon the American consciousness … a feeling of moral depravity and unending doom … a mood of excess and disaster, strange and sinister, like flowers rotting from too much sunshine, pervaded the city.”4

If the “rush” began in the 1930s, the pall had begun to spread some years before. The oil-boom-fueled Great Los Angeles Bubble of the 1920s, whose bursting in 1927 preceded the Wall Street Crash, blew the boosters’ cover and epitomized the “excess and disaster” of the Roaring Twenties. Two high-profile murder cases of the early 1930s, connected to the oil swindle, capped the city’s decade-long descent into moral turpitude, violence, and death. And Hollywood was embroiled in both the financial and homicidal crimes. Besides its ties to

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Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iv
  • Contents viii
  • Acknowledgments x
  • Prologue 1
  • Introduction 5
  • Part One - Original Si(G)N 23
  • Chapter 1 - The Ramona Myth 25
  • Chapter 2 - Ramona Revisited 43
  • Part Two - Si(G)N City 65
  • Chapter 3 - "City with Two Heads" 67
  • Chapter 4 - What Price Hollywood? 83
  • Part Three - L.a. Noir 103
  • Chapter 5 - Bright and Guilty Place 105
  • Chapter 6 - Neo-Noir 126
  • Part Four - Multicultural L.a 151
  • Chapter 7 - Latinos 153
  • Chapter 8 - Blacks 170
  • Chapter 9 - Lasians 189
  • Chapter 10 - Langlos and Lagbts 209
  • Conclusion 233
  • Notes 243
  • Index 281
  • About the Author 303
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