April 2010

On the Edge of Nothing

The dark of noir comes alive when contrasted against beauty and light—and the Los Angeles dream factory provides just that
by MEGAN ABBOTT / illustration by RICHIE FAHEY

While noir in both fiction and film has strong ties to San Francisco (Dashiell Hammett terrain) and New York (Mickey Spillane, Chester Himes), its deepest genealogy is Angeleno. Los Angeles’ very architecture plays the consummate supporting role. Is there a more perfect noir setting than a Spanish-style courtyard lined with small apartments, bisected by nighttime and shadows, a light wind shuddering through the oleander?

A troubled man, a world-weary woman, brushing past each other in front of the stone fountain, spotting each other through window blinds, from balcony to balcony, circling each other. It’s a lattice, a web, a prison that draws them together and traps them both. It’s the “dim blue courtyard” of In a Lonely Place, the 1947 novel by Dorothy B. Hughes and the 1950 film adaptation directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame.

And it’s a setting that recurs throughout noir fiction and film, from the ragged bungalow court of Horace McCoy’s 1938 gimlet-eyed Hollywood novel I Should Have Stayed Home to the mossy patio in David Lynch’s lush Mulholland Drive. Like the Bradbury Building or the Formosa Cafe, these haunted, haunting courtyard apartments effortlessly evoke Los Angles noir in all its dark splendor.

No other city bears so evocatively the genre’s central oppositions. There are two worlds: the world of daytime, of family, propriety, commerce, progress; and the world of night, of crime, decadence, blight, doom. L.A.’s own social commentator Mike Davis famously writes about L.A.’s foundational opposition as sunshine versus noir, capitalist utopia versus urban nightmare, luminous possibility versus “seduction and defeat.” Noir, of course, is only noir if it has something to set itself against. An underbelly requires an elite. The greater the sunshine, the darker the night.

It’s a contrast that can be felt in many places but rarely to such sweeping extremes. Consider Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister, driving through Studio City, Sherman Oaks, Encino—past the “gaudy neons and the false fronts behind them, the sleazy hamburger joints that look like palaces under the colors, the circular drive-ins as gay as circuses with chipper hard—eyed car hops, the brilliant counters and the sweaty, greasy kitchens that would have poisoned a toad.”

He found himself in plusher climes, where behind Encino “an occasional light winked from the hills through thick trees. The homes of screen stars.” Finally, he rises so high the air cools, the highway narrows and empties out, and at the top, “a breeze, unbroken, from the ocean, danced casually across the night.”

The sweeping, romantic doom of In a Lonely Place, its West Hollywood setting—a world of piano bars and movie-biz haunts—quickly gives way to the hash joints, supermarkets and roadside diners of James M. Cain’s tabloid tales of love and murder, with their pulpy, B-noir world of highways, pop-up motels, shaggy beachfronts, flashy carnival piers, the looming desert...the depthless ocean.

Typically, our guide through this noir world is the tough guy—the lone white male who functions as our eyes, ears, heart. Whether detective, cop or criminal, he’s rootless, a loner who faces danger at every turn. His ancestor is the pioneer, the frontiersman, the western hero. So what city could be more perfect to serve as noir’s backdrop than the frontier’s end—the “last city,” Los Angeles.

Once again, we have the fundamental dichotomy that drives noir, because the city that marks the promised land also marks the end of progress, the end of possibility. It’s the outer limit of America, which suits the notion of noir as an “end time,” a place of entrapment. You’ve gone as far as you can. Consider the book and film of Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? a grueling Depression-era dance marathon tale that closes with a mercy killing on the end of a Pacific Ocean pier—the ultimate terminus.

Los Angeles then stands as both the newest of all cities—one supposedly without history, tradition—and the dropping off of the American frontier. Manifest Destiny has reached its endpoint. Instead of finding the promised land, the strivers who populate noir are faced with a never-ending network of modern freeways wrapping around one another in hopeless repetition.

We find scene after scene of lonely highways or, as in James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, the desolation of rest-stop culture. This becomes a kind of rotting purgatory for its characters: a failed Hollywood starlet and her hobo lover, both trapped in a place through which others merely pass. It is no mistake that noir emerged with modernity at a time when the ground seemed constantly to be shifting under one’s feet. The tough guy, after all, is born at a time when the storied conceptions of manhood (breadwinner, go-getter) were put to the test by Depression-era realities and, in the 1940s, by women entering the workplace in larger numbers, by increasing ethnic diversity, by industrialization.

The notion of transience, of a world marked by impermanence and inauthenticity, of the rise of disposable culture and a lack of meaning, dovetails with conceptions of the city as the ultimate transitory place. Nothing in L.A. is real (even the quality of light seems unreal) or substantial—it’s all facades, billboards, pastefronts. History can be found only on Hollywood sets. The perception of artifice and deceit obviously provides the ripe atmosphere for the chicanery and lurid crime that drives noir, but it’s much more about a fear of both impotence (“Forget it Jake. It’s Chinatown”) and a dangerous insubstantiality. The tough guy inhabits a world without authenticity and potentially without meaning or personal identity, with nothing he can hold on to. And where nothing he does matters.

But as David Fine suggests in his literary history of the city, L.A.’s reputation as a “city on wheels” also speaks to other impulses in noir—the desire for speed, velocity, freedom, escape. From The Day of the Locust to The Black Dahlia, we find characters who move from rural America and small towns across the land, dreaming the Big Dream of Southern California, only to find it a dead end. But of course the dream that draws them here time and again is not just a dream of sunshine, wealth, happiness—it’s a dream of stardom.

Hollywood—the word itself carries all the contradictions that drive noir. Countless novels and films—from Sunset Boulevard to True Confessions to Play It As It Lays—offer up endless tales of failed starlets and would-be luminaries as recurrent symbols of treachery and shattered dreams. Not a physical location, not even an industry, Hollywood stands as a gleaming symbol of limitless promise that gives way to countless tales of decadence and ruin. Many noir novelists, past and present, toiled as screenwriters, and their novels bristle with hostility for that mythmaking industry and its siren song of stardom. At the same time, there is in noir a fascination with this luminous dream factory and the beautiful victims it entices and destroys—the very victims that drive so many plots.

Moreover, built into the Hollywood myth is the concept of self-reinvention (Marion Morrison becomes John Wayne). After all, Los Angeles is the place of new beginnings—and in noir, they always end badly. Noir overflows with tales of burying past selves and fashioning new ones, of buried secrets, hidden pasts and the price one will pay to conceal one’s own true self. Amid this world of illusion, it’s frequently only the tough guy—the Philip Marlowe, the Lew Archer, the Easy Rawlins—who is authentic. The last real man—we cling to him and hope he survives.

Ultimately, noir is a genre, a feel, a mood that thrives on ambiguity, on contrast, on fragility, on desperate yearning—at one’s own peril. The sense that anything beautiful, anything that matters, could be taken away at any time. The delicious terror of standing right on the edge, looking over.

Is there a world more seductive than one that teeters on the very edge—gorgeous and treacherous, impossible and yet nearly yours?

MEGAN ABBOTT, whose latest novel, Bury Me Deep, is up for a 2009 LAT Book Prize—which will be awarded this month—lives in New York, where she searches for the perfect dive bar.