5 Los Angeles Noirs and their Private Eyes by Abra Deering

While I chill inside (not outside) trying to forget the Antarctic weather happening outside my door (#PolarVortex) I’ve been digging into some film noirs. I originally wrote about some of my film noir favorites for The Wrap a few years ago and I thought I’d see if they still hold up.

If you love mysteries (and I do) and thrillers and history (yes and yes) then you might like some of the 1940’s old school film noirs featuring a (usually) down on his luck P.I. I’m a huge fan of Rockford, Hammer, Nero Wolfe and others in the private detective genre. While some of the novels can be hard to read and appear quite dated and rather misogynistic (John D. MacDonald anyone? Though I still sometimes read him) the films are a treasure. I’d watch them just to take in the Hollywood Regency furniture, antiques, and baubles alone. In Murder My Sweet (based on Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely) the women wear flowers in their hair and their dresses. Who wouldn’t want to meet in a place called the Coconut Beach Club with views of Santa Monica Bay? This film has all the hallmarks of classic detective noir: a rendezvous in the canyons, the city lit up in neon, a grimy detective office, the parity between rich and working class, and the standoff in the beach house.

murder, my sweet film noir.jpg

As a historical mystery/thriller writer I often love to think about the clothes, the style hat, the furniture, the food, the architecture — it just puts you in that time period. In Chandlers The Big Sleep, Bogie and Bacall are embroiled in a mystery and who doesn’t love a good beret? If historical fiction writing has taught me nothing it’s that I wish we could bring back the era of the hat! Flower hats, the basket hat, the Merry Widow, and of course, berets. Who doesn’t want to look like Bacall?

When I grow up I want to work in this bookstore. I once had a tee-shirt made that said A. G. Geiger’s Rare Books & De Luxe Editions. Yes, I am that geeky for bookstores. (Yes, “De Luxe” is two words.)

She: '“You begin to interest me, vaguely.”

Here are my favorite 5 Los Angeles Film Noirs, most of them featuring a detective:

#5) The Big Sleep
Based on Raymond Chandler’s novel, this is one of the best Bogart and Bacall films. The film is well-known for the fact that the meandering plot makes no sense. The bookstore scenes alone are enough to love this film (not to mention its witty banter). It has serious 1940’s flair: who doesn’t love a girl in glasses making double-entendres with Bogart over rare books? Or Bacall in a gambling house run by a shady character named Mars? Directed by Howard Hawks, it’s not for nothing that William Faulkner co-wrote the screenplay of this hardboiled Los Angeles PI – Philip Marlowe. Below is a classic “dame” Bacall moment, singing an impromptu lounge song in that sultry voice, about a down-and-out woman (“she’s a real sad tomato, she’s a busted valentine, knows her momma done told her, that a man is darned unkind”):

#4) Murder, My Sweet
Another Chandler classic (based on the novel entitled “Farewell, My Lovely”). This time Marlowe really experiences vintage 1940’s LA: nightclubs, tony homes behind gates, bungalows, and the inevitable beach house. Marlowe is even unconscious and coming-to in one scene. Dick Powell plays an understated Marlowe. Ed Dmytryk’s direction and nighttime LA exterior shots, all lit up in neon, are not to be missed. This is a classic first-person hard-boiled detective noir that is a taught thriller with good acting and features that great menace of LA at night, all is shrouded in shadow, classic film noir milieu. One of the best.


#3) Criss Cross
Hits all the classic Los Angeles noir landmarks such as Angel’s Flight and Bunker Hill. Love Lancaster as the sap who gets double-crossed. Features eerie shots and classic noir location Union Station. This should be on your list because it’s more than just a noir, it’s a heist noir. Who doesn’t love Yvonne de Carlo in this pant suit asking the way to Zuma Beach? (It’s in Malibu).

#2) The Crooked Way
Stylistically, doesn’t have as much panache as other noirs but the plot is fascinating: a veteran has amnesia and must travel from San Francisco to L.A. to find out who he is. In the vein of other amnesic thrillers like D.O.A. Uses classic noir locations like “Union Station” (“Criss Cross”) and the Hall of Justice (“Mildred Pierce”).

#1) Kiss Me Deadly


One of my all-time favorite Los Angeles noirs can’t be missed, Kiss Me Deadly. Ironically it features Mike Hammer, a New York PI in the Spillane novels, but an Angeleno here. Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is the 1950’s equivalent of a yuppie: his apartment is outfitted with all the latest gadgets including an “answering machine.” Hammer is unlike the prototypical noir detective, he’s an anti-hero (and less hero and more brawler). The opening sequence is one of the best in noir history with Hammer driving his convertible down a dark country road at night when his headlights pick up an upset woman, barefoot, in nothing but a trench coat running down the road towards him (a young Cloris Leachman). Apparently, she just escaped from the loony bin and the dialogue between the two is classic with her choked sobs contrasted over the soothing sounds of Nat King Cole crooning. Hammer’s car is pushed off a cliff and he takes the case to avenge her death. This is also a rare noir / sci-fi mashup with the “great whatsit” a suitcase that contains something resembling an atomic bomb (purportedly the McGuffin that inspired the suitcase in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction). The book has a totally different ending that seemed shocking and satisfying; that is, until you see the film. This noir reflects a hint of cold war paranoia, and is the end of the 1940’s noirs. It’s directed by Robert Aldrich is a cinephile’s delight, a late noir masterpiece.