Here is an edited version of a talk I gave on 7 November for Salon London‘s ‘The Century’ event:
So which city is 1940s Los Angeles, ‘sunshine or noir’ as Mike Davis put it? The great beach metropolis, light-soaked and perpetually optimistic? Or the dank, furtive city of Cain and Chandler that in the movies looks more like Engels’s Manchester than anything else (it’s always raining for a start, a trick Ridley Scott borrowed for Blade Runner). Well it’s both, of course, but at different times sunshine wins out over noir, at least in cultural terms. In the 1940s it’s certainly noir (…)
It is the Freudian city par excellence, a city defined by its unconscious. Whether or not you buy into Freud doesn’t matter: it’s literally a city full of Viennese emigrees who absolutely did. The compelling and influential culture of noir was an explicitly Freudian culture, produced by artists and writers and film-makers for whom psychoanalysis was alive. Knowing that, and knowing just how much of LA’s distinctive culture in the 1940s was produced by middle-European Jewish intellectuals explains a great deal: it’s noir rather than sunshine and couldn’t have been any other way.
Noir is sometimes produced intentionally and self-consciously, in the case of the novels of Raymond Chandler or the films of Billy Wilder. Or it may be unintentional, but no less affecting. My introduction to LA noir came through one of these unintentional products, a building, the Kings Rd house by Rudolf Schindler, a Viennese, who collaborated with the better known Richard Neutra Built in 1922, it is, you could say, emblematic of a set of typically Californian desires: to be modern, to suck up influences from anywhere, and most of all, to be outdoors. It consists of two interlocking, L-shaped pavilions. The structure is cast concrete, the walls and roof wood. It’s more than a little Japanese.
What struck me about it when I first saw it ten years ago was was the architecture, than its sexuality. Built for two couples, the Schindlers and the Chaces, it built on the memory of camping trips the two couples had taken together, and although nowhere it is suggested they shared sexual partners, the house nevertheless alludes to their sexual frankness (Schindler’s sexual appetites were well known. A notorious womaniser, no Southern Californian woman was safe). So the house is largely open to the elements. The living room is really an open patio with a fireplace, and the bedrooms are two sleeping platforms on the roof. You get the idea – everything is open to everything else, everything can be seen and heard. There is no privacy.
So why mention the house in the context of the 1940s? Well – it’s at this point that the sexual dream of the house well and truly soured. It never worked anyway: the Chaces moved out after only a few months, and then the Schindlers split, Pauline Schindler moving out of town. And then, having separated, she came back to live in the house in the 40s. The now divorced couple lived in separate parts of the house, communicating only through their respective lawyers. It was an appalling sexual standoff that lasted the whole decade and beyond, until Schindler’s death from lung cancer in 1953.
To me this story says it all about LA in the 40s. A utopian dream soured, light turned to darkness, sex gone bad. Of course it’s one house and one story in a vast city, but it is the kind of story that became increasingly popular with writers and film-makers. In Hollywood it became arguably the dominant trope.
Noir LA was also the subtext to a notorious, or celebrated (depending on your point of view) piece of cultural theory by the exiled Germans Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’. It’s relevant because it was published bang in the middle of the decade (1944) and its authors were resident just a few miles from Schindler’s house. Cultural studies people love this essay. I’m never quite sure why, because it is possibly the angriest piece of writing you are every likely to come across, outside of a Daily Mail editorial (to which it bears a passing resemblance). All aspects of popular culture are dismissed: mass-produced trash, popular culture is also they write, borderline propaganda that makes independent thought impossible. Their LA is by inference as controlling as Nazi Germany.
It all seems a little unfair given their comfortable duplex in Brentwood (to be fair they were under effective house arrest). And their critique, dismayingly, shows no evidence of their actually having consumed any of the things that make them so angry. So they write if the whole of Hollywood, despite the fact that at precisely the same moment it was producing film after film in a highly critical vein. Why let facts get in the way of a good story? Most depressingly they dismiss jazz, all of it. And worst of all, Donald Duck.
But the piece is nevertheless interesting for its psychosexual dimension, a running theme through 1940s culture. Sex, they write is everywhere in popular culture, citing the way it suffuses the movies. It’s perhaps the only topic in the movies. But while it’s everywhere, it’s also compromised: it only ever appears as promise, never actuality, for to let it be, as it were, would be to satisfy desire, and satisfaction of course curtails consumption. The culture industry, they write, must never satisfy desire; it must inflame it, but always leave its customers wanting more. Precisely how culture might deal with sexual desire more authentically isn’t made clear. They weren’t looking at pornography, which is a pity: that might have challenged their views of popular culture. But what is interesting is how they understand the field of sexuality in 1940s LA as fundamentally perverse. The desire is there, but it can never be satisfied; it’s always compromised and corrupted; always bad.
Well there’s certainly some truth in that. By the1940s, this perverse view of sex has starts to become a major topic in cinema. There remains an open question about its ethics: for Adorno, perverse sex was represented to moral ends. In other words, bad behaviour gets punished, typically female bad behaviour. But I think this is too simplistic. In the films I’m going to describe, the protagonists are perverse in terms of what they do. They have sex for pleasure, often with multiple partners. They care little for family. Their sexual activities often get them into trouble. And sex and death are inescapably connected. That said the characters in these films are among the most attractive in cinematic history, and through that attractiveness, and our identification with them, we have – in the best films – a sense of the complexity of human existence.
‘Noir’ is a slippery term, one that didn’t appear in usage until sometime after its key films were made, and it was used in the first instance (1946) by A French critic, Nino Frank who to some extent projected his desires onto what he saw. There wasn’t a consumer category of ‘noir’ in 1940s LA: you didn’t, for example, set out deliberately to see a ‘noir’ in the same way as you would choose to see a romance.
Nevertheless a distinct style of film-making emerged at the time. Amomg the many definitions of noir, the most useful I’ve found is Paul Schrader’s from 1972. He says (I paraphrase) the following: (1) it’s always night; (2) horizontal lines are out; oblige angles are in; (3) the actors and their settings are of equal importance; (4) ‘compositional tension is preferred to physical action’ (i.e. no explosions); (5) ‘there is an almost Freudian attachment to water’; (6) there is an attraction to hopeless romantic scenarios, temps perdus etc; (7) chronologies are messed up. Almost all of these are relevant to the perverse LA that emerges in the 1940s. This is, in popular culture at least, a city that is made to resist the story of progress.
Double Indemnity, directed by the Austrian émigré Billy Wilder. The script was originally a James Cain novel, adapted by a grumpy Raymond Chandler (Chandler thought Cain was rubbish). It’s a great noir film, perhaps the greatest – and also a great LA film. It tells the story of an insurance salesman Walter Neff (played by Fred MacMurray) who finds himself entangled with an amoral, psychopathic housewife, Phyllis Dietrichson (played by Barbara Stanwyck), who is bent on murdering her alcoholic husband for the payout. Neff, a cynical tough guy, calls on Dietrichson in response to her request for a quote. When it transpires she’s out for the money, Neff backs off – only to become ensnared when she calls on him later and seduces him into complicity. Out of a feral attraction to her, and (one senses) his own boredom, he takes on the task with relish, embellishing the murder to ensure it takes place on a train – that unusual site of death results, he points out, carries a double indemnity, meaning a double payout. They carry out the task, and subsequently, through an increasingly anxious narrative it becomes clear Dietrichson has no feelings for Neff; in the penultimate scene she shoots him, only to be shot herself in by her lover. The final scene has Neff expire in the arms of his boss, Barton Keyes (played by Edward G Robinson) as he dictates his version of the story to tape.
There is a striking visual quality to the whole film, that is true of noir in general, but well advanced here. It’s always dark, for starters: a city of more or less perpetual sunshine appears in the movie in more or less perpetual darkness. Daylight, where it appears at all, refracts though venetian blinds, or rain. It rains far more in the movies than in reality: LA is technically a desert city, under constant threat of drought, then as now.
As well as dark, it’s always inside. The sunnier accounts of LA, for example Reyner Banham’s amazing book on the subject I mentioned earlier, portray a city constantly out of doors, never far from contact with nature: Banham’s TV film Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles depicts a city of the beach, of the freeways and of expansive views from the Holywood Hills: the sense of light and space and nature is infectious and seductive. Double Indemnity’s action invariably takes place at close quarters. Interiors are dark, stuffy and claustrophobic. You never get a view out. The city dissolves into a set of dark fragments.
This perversion of atmospheres, this making the familiar uncanny occurs repeatedly, turning ordinary spaces into extraordinary ones. Nothing – in the great cliché – is as it seems. Perhaps the most imaginative example of this defamiliarisation occurs in the supermarket. Its role in Double Indemnity is to provide, post-murder, the safe space for Neff and Dietrichson to meet. Their encounters are excruciating: avoiding each other’s gaze, they hiss through pursed lips, distractedly pawing cans of baked beans, trying (but failing) to avoid engagement with the other customers. The safe space of the supermarket becomes an ever more anxiety laden one, the space where they come to talk about things that cannot in reality be talked about; the abundance of groceries, meant by the store to represent a benign freedom of choice, comes to be just overwhelming. A middle aged woman’s request to Neff for a package of baby food is not, as it ought to be, an opportunity for kindness; it is the last straw.
That perversion of the city leads us to the question of sex, for this is a film that is motivated by pursuing and having sex, but ultimately to its perversion. Neff first meets Dietrichson at her home, where he first catches sight of her as she emerges from a bath (exploiting the sense of her recent nakedness for all it is worth). That is a straightforward sense of sex. More perverse is what happens next, as she descends a spiral staircase, revealing her ankle bracelet as she does; the camera (and by implication Neff’s gaze) fixates on this piece of jewellery, which by the time she has reached ground level, has become, without doubt a Freudian fetish object – which is to say a stand-in for sexual experience, an object that is associated with a particular sexual experience and can produce feelings of arousal because of that association, to the point at which it displaces the real sexual experience altogether.
I think Billy Wilder knew his Freud well enough. He was a Viennese after all. I wonder if he knew Freud’s essay ‘Jensen’s Gradiva’, an account of a bizarre Danish novella in which the protagonist, a male archeologist becomes obsessed with the exposed ankle of a Roman girl, illustrated on a Pompeian mosaic. The girl’s ankle becomes an obsession, a fetish – to the horrifying extent that the archaeologist finds the girl come to life. Nothing so bizarre happens to Neff, but in a way, his fetish has more terrible consequences. It is his memory of Deitrichson’s ankle bracelet that softens his resolve; his palpable arousal leads him to murder.
Well, the Neff/Dietrichson relationship winds its perverse course through the rest of the film. Each moment that contains the potential for resolution finds subversion instead; as the pair remove obstacles to their being together, they find themselves paradoxically further alienated from each other; what should be moments of intimacy are moments of shocking estrangement. We slowly come to realise that the only true moment of intimacy, the seduction scene in Neff’s stuffy apartment, is in fact the pretext for the murder conspiracy – and Dietrichson turns out to be a sexual double agent, responsible ultimately for Neff’s murder. So it goes – towards the end of the film, it becomes clear that the only true relationship is in fact a homosexual one, between Neff and his boss, the tenacious, neurotic Keyes ‘I love you too’ ne says to Keys more than once, a piece of banter exchanged at moments of routine stress. But the final scene turns it – almost – into a reality: Keys cradles a sweating Neff as he sinks into death; they look like, and effectively are, lovers.
Wilder went on to refine these themes in Sunset Boulevard (1950) a tale of perverse love affair between a failing young scriptwriter and a forgotten screen actress (William Holden/Gloria Swanson), set in a semi-derelict mansion on the upper reaches of Sunset Boulvard: like Double Indemnity it portrays a city of interiors, or perpetual night and sexual perversity in which desire and death are never very far from each other, and no-one ever really gets what they want. These films also describe a precarious and anxious city, full of transients pitching for opportunities, and rarely getting them. The forties are arguably the decade this perverse culture crystallises as part of the city’s culture, and I would argue, makes the city all the better. Great cities sustain complexity and contradiction, and it’s striking to anyone who knows LA how contradiction is a part of the city’s everyday culture: it’s both/and, not either /or and all the better for it. LA’s 40s are a terrible decade, you might say, but also a beautiful one.