By Christopher Burns – With its irresistible take on Hollywood, music and bittersweet romance, La La Land is more than likely about to sweep the board at the academy awards and thrust L.A. back into the spotlight in cinema once again. But it wasn’t always so pretty, and just as a reminder that L.A. isn’t all pastel colours and Emma Stone, here are ten movies which really get under the dirty nails of the City of Angels.
Beach house apartments, coffee shops, hotels, the sprawling undergrowth, freeways; there isn’t a part of L.A. that doesn’t look utterly sumptuous, or even recognisable, in Michael Mann’s crime tour de force. While Heat is not the only Mann film to act as a bittersweet love letter to Los Angeles (2004’s Collateral could have easily made this list with its gorgeously grey metropolitan glow) Heat stands above the rest with its almost hyper stylised, post-modern take on the famous city. Beautifully symmetric, brutalist and even nondescript when it needs to be, Mann’s metallic labyrinth is a flawless setting for De Niro and Pacino’s legendary cat and mouse chase to the death.
Like Michael Mann, Paul Thomas Anderson’s affinity for The Big Orange is hardly discreet and you could make a case for a number of his films to feature on this list, but it’s his vast study of tragedy in the San Fernando valley that is perhaps PTA’s most accurate portrayal of loneliness and despair in the famous city. Whether it’s dealing with the sins of the father, addiction, or religion, PTA keeps his sad subjects locked in darkened bedrooms, solitary manor houses, self-help concert halls, parked cars and even game show studios which he turns into remote hideaways. In one famous sequence, PTA orchestrates a mass sing along in which the ensemble are in synch to Aimee Mann’s Wise up yet totally secluded from one another and it just shouldn’t work, but you just know it does.
Rebel without a Cause
The ultimate and original disaffected youth tale pits James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo against the unfriendly dystopia of an L.A. that’s leaving its youngest behind. Police stations, the suburbs and even the lost dirt roads all impose themselves as threatening but it’s the famously beautiful Griffith conservatory, which was recently the locale of a literal dance among the stars for Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. The most infamous set piece takes place as James Dean’s, Jim Stark indulges in the classic knife fight whilst goaded on by his new classmates, which ends up having devastating consequences for everyone.
Dan Gilroy’s seedy fairy tale of a petty thief’s ascent into the world of video journalism is a fierce indictment on how far some would go to secure a headline. Evoking the lyrical alienation of the L.A. city-scape in the vain of Michael Mann, yet existing very much in its own primal wilderness. Gilroy’s film takes a trip into the dark recesses of capitalism at any cost while touching upon everything from homelessness, blackmail and abuse, and even has a sequence that feels eerily close to the infamous Manson murders. Jake Gyllenhaal’s emaciated and pitiless grim reaper stalks the jagged depths of Los Angeles like a starving coyote that thrives in the muddied and bloodied browns of Robert Elswit’s striking, yet soft cinematography.
Less than Zero
Perhaps this isn’t the perfect adaptation that Bret Easton Ellis’s seminal 1980’s L.A. novel deserved but over time, Less Than Zero – despite being hugely sanitised for screen – has begun to look more like the essential – Gen X movie it was meant to be. Featuring a young Robert Downey Jr and James Spader, Ellis’s sick morality tale is reborn for a mass audience and focuses on Downey Jr’s filthy rich and disaffected teen who sinks into a world of addiction amidst wild parties, preying drug dealers and snuff films. Drenched in the neon steely blues and greys we now associate with Nicholas Winding Refn in the likes of Drive and The Neon Demon, L.A. looks every inch the revoltingly symmetrical yuppie haven it’s meant to be in 1985.
Boyz in the Hood
John Singelton’s take on angst ridden teen movies of the past is a slap in the face and a hard-hitting view into surviving Crenshaw, Los Angeles. Cuba Gooding Jr and Ice Cube have to navigate a world of cold blooded murder, drugs and brutality from the LAPD under the guidance of Laurence Fishburne while trying to find a better life. The boxy houses, blood stained clothes and sheets, and the police helicopter lit front porches and fast food restaurants are just come of the eye catching visuals occasionally offset against the garish yet iconic fashion and souped up cars of the time.
It’s not the Los Angeles any of us recognise but Ridley Scott’s Science fiction classic gives us a City of Angels that is an industrialised mass of buildings upon buildings. His vision is a nightmarish platinum coated opus complete with sky rocketing flames and ad boards that would make Times Square take notice. Scott’s L.A. becomes an unrecognisable network of half remembered landmarks and acid rain soaked monuments in which two lost souls enact an existential pursuit to the death.
Billy Wilder’s tale of a broke screenwriter hooking up with a past-it silent film star is one of cinema’s most subtly unsettling tributes to the Hollywood golden age. Dusted in swathes of musty black and white shadowy cinematography, Wilder turns the isolated mansions of the hills into ancient relics of the once great. Wilder’s L.A. is a battleground where the fight to the death is via screenplays that fester underneath the expansive tombs of the wealthy. In one sequence that echoes what we have just seen recently in Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, the studio backlot of Paramount is given to us as a ghost town complete with abandoned sets and an unnerving silence. Hollywood has never looked so haunted.
David Lynch’s now often styled ‘Best Film of the 21st Century’ is perhaps the ultimate paean to the scarred underbelly of the City of Angels. Playing on the fragility of identity, the delicacy of our dreams and ambitions, and the ruthless temperament of the Hollywood machine, Mulholland Drive let us peek behind the curtain for longer than we probably want to see. Starting life as a failed TV pilot, Lynch’s cerebral land mine quickly became a quintessential commentary on the fallacy of making it in Hollywood and with its eerie slow tracking shots of the hills, luscious, indulgent apartments and the squalid back alleys of clubs and diners; Los Angeles has arguably never looked more menacing on screen.
Is there a more L.A. movie than Roman Polanski’s neo-noir classic? An untouched and timeless version of Los Angeles is anchored by the cynical paranoia of Robert Towne’s iconoclastic screenplay in which Jack Nicholson finds himself in the midst of the famous ‘water wars’ that gripped the city decades earlier. Polanski’s 1930’s inspired take on the city shimmers with an elegance that’s only rivalled by the seedy and disturbing revelations waiting to take hold of it. Within three months of its release, Richard Nixon was to resign from the presidency and the politicised scandal and stained glamour of the time was forever to be canonised in Chinatown.
What are your favourite movies that show the dark side of Los Angeles? Let us know in the comments below!