From 'Chinatown' To 'Drive': The Story Of L.A. Crime Films

Photo of Reece Choules
17 May 2017

The second largest city in the US and home to Hollywood, Los Angeles is a diverse metropolis that many around the world can picture without ever having visited. Reece Choules investigates cinematic crime thrillers set in the City of Angels, exploring the relationship between the city’s identity and the film masterpieces it has inspired.

Los Angeles has long been the setting for some of American cinema’s most iconic films. With its ethnically and agriculturally diverse landscape, the home of Hollywood has provided inspiration to generations of filmmakers. Since its 1940s Golden Age, which produced film-noir classics such as Double Indemnity (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and James Cagney’s White Heat (1949), the Los Angeles set crime thriller has enthralled American cinemagoers. From the classic film-noir of the 40s to the slick existential pieces of today, Los Angeles has provided a unique backdrop to the brooding romantics, the car chases, the gun fights and daring heists that have immortalised so many of our favourite films. What is it though about these L.A. stories that set them apart? What is it that makes Los Angeles such a unique setting for so many cinematic masterpieces?

After the 1940s heyday the film-noir crime thrillers made popular by the likes of John Huston and Billy Wilder were eclipsed by the big budget sand and sword epics, spaghetti westerns and spy thrillers of the 50s and 60s Technicolor age. It was not until the 70s that the crime thriller really captured imaginations once again, though it was New York City that provided much of the inspiration for these crime classics, such as The French Connection (1971), The Godfather (1972) and Dog Day Afternoon (1973). There was however an exception, heavily inspired by the writings of Raymond Chandler, that encapsulated the film-noir of the 40s and was steeped in the history of America’s second largest city.

Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) is considered by many to be the one of the greatest films of all time. Written by Robert Towne, who won an Oscar for Best Screenplay, it was inspired by the St. Francis Dam disaster of 1928, and explores the corruption and profiteering at the beginning of an unprecedented era of growth. Boasting a stellar cast, including Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, what is most notable perhaps is Los Angeles itself. Polanski has said that he wanted the story to be told through the eyes of his protagonist, much like the work of Raymond Chandler, whose writing so epitomises the noir genre. It’s through the eyes of cynical ex-cop turned private investigator J.J Gettes that we see L.A. as a stark, drought ravaged land, with startling burnt yellows juxtaposed by white picket fences. It is this landscape, captured superbly by cinematographer John A. Alonzo, that counteracts the oppressiveness of the neo-noir style, providing an almost symbolic abyss where greed, sexual perversion, and self-righteousness point the way to the climactic final scene in the city’s amoral Chinatown.

After Chinatown and throughout the 1980s big action blockbusters such as Top Gun, and teen dramas like The Breakfast Club were the films of choice for millions of American cinemagoers. Even directors such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola renowned for their crime classics of the 70s turned their attention to different subject matter throughout the 80s. It was not until the 90s that the crime film had something of a renaissance, with GoodFellas, Carlito’s Way and Casino sitting alongside L.A. set classics such as Boyz in the Hood, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Among these great works were two L.A. set films which proved to be the high points of this renaissance.

Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), notable at the time for a cast including Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, is arguably the most influential film of the last 25 years. Utilising everything from the freeways to the airports, the seedy downtown motels and the stunning ocean views, Michael Mann’s masterpiece captures an almost nightmarish L.A. where good and bad, police and criminal, exist almost as one. Melancholy without being overbearing, thoughtful without patronising, Heat avoids clichés and is enriched by superb characterisation. Holding it altogether though, as a sort of silent amoral witness, is the city itself. The opposite of Chinatown, which mesmerised us with its colour and desert landscape, Heat traps us in the confines of a neon lit city, industrial, cold and unforgiving. Often remembered for its defining scene where Pacino’s Lieutenant Vincet Hanna meets De Niro’s professional criminal Neil McCauley, today its influence can be seen in films as diverse as The Dark Knight and The Place Beyond The Pines.

Following on from the success of Heat was a film that launched the careers of Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, and has influenced award winning television series such as Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire. Regarded as a classic by critics, L.A. Confidential (1997) was perhaps the last great crime film of the 90s renaissance. Set in 1950s L.A. and based upon James Ellroy’s book of the same name, L.A. Confidential is a study of sleaze, celebrity, police corruption and racism. With an ensemble cast and a Jerry Goldsmith score, which evokes memories of his work on Chinatown, it could be argued that L.A. Confidential is a kind of glamorous sister, dealing with similar themes. Set in a period where the dream of what Los Angeles could have been is bulldozed by greed, the film is authentic without relying on nostalgia, or descending into pastiche. The backdrop of Hollywood as a sort of American dreamscape highlights further the soiled glamour and counteracts the harsh realities of characters lost in the suburban edges of the playground to the stars.

Throughout much of the 21st century American cinemagoers have become more accustomed to superheroes and 3-D vehicles. This has not stopped filmmakers though, who, inspired by the LA classics of the past, have gone outside the confines of the larger studios to create new masterpieces that utilise the unique Los Angeles setting. The most recent example of this being Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011).

First seen at the Cannes Film Festival and released amidst almost unanimous critical praise, Drive re-imagines the stark vision of Polanski’s Chinatown and the cold modern harshness of Mann’s Ballardian Heat, as well as cult classics such as To Live And Die In LA (1985), creating a cocktail of downtown grime and Hollywood sheen. A character study with existential themes, Drive is a testament to the continued inspiration that Los Angeles provides filmmakers, artists, writers and musicians. An urban sprawl that combines desert landscapes with futuristic high-rises, Los Angeles crime thrillers capture a Wild West spirit in a sun-drenched metropolis, where America’s frontier past clashes with the thriving modernity of its present. It’s this unique clash between man and nature that has been a muse for generations of directors, informing their palette with visions unlike any other. Refn’s latest addition to this collection of classic L.A stories will almost certainly not be the last.

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