My L.A. in Four Locations: Noir Landmarks

September 12, 2018

My L.A. in Four Locations is a running feature in which Angelenos share the story of their city through four specific places. This week, Jeffrey Burbank takes us on a brief tour of noir landmarks.

Having lived in or near Los Angeles for most of my life, I’ve come to embrace the city’s many visual modes, from the romanticized vistas of missions and ranchos to the pastel-colored swimming-pool visions of David Hockney. But as an inveterate movie buff, I’m especially enamored of certain crossroads that hark back to this entertainment capital’s gritty, film-noir legacy. Below is a quartet of truly cinematic spaces, which are part of my own moviegoing subconscious.

800 N. Alameda St., Los Angeles, 90012 — Since 1939, Union Station has been the gateway for many a rail traveler’s entry into Los Angeles, and it was also a noir gateway in its 1950 namesake film starring William Holden. But for me its most memorial B-movie appearance is in The Narrow Margin (1952), a claustrophobic train-bound melodrama about a detective and a mobster’s widow, which begins and ends here. The station’s grandiose ticket concourse and waiting room actually play second fiddle to some of its more louche pedestrian tunnels and passageways, which are used to great effect in the film. Still an important transportation hub, Union Station is a fitting first stop on my hard-boiled itinerary.

6625 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood— The Hollywood Athletic Club, which was founded by Rudolph Valentino, Cecil B. DeMille, and Charlie Chaplin in 1924, is a time capsule of Tinseltown’s golden age. Its architects, Meyer & Holler, were responsible for Sid Grauman’s Egyptian and Chinese theaters. For me, this grand Italianate structure always conjures up images from Kiss Me Deadly, a 1955 atomic noir starring Ralph Meeker as detective Mike Hammer, who shows up at the club to find a dangerous iron box stowed in a locker. Like the box in the film, the Athletic Club radiates a mysterious glow of its own.

Windward Ave. and Ocean Front Walk, Venice, Los Angeles, 90291— Venice Beach seems to be an unlikely destination for my purposes, and indeed much has changed since Orson Welles filmed the celebrated single-take opening sequence of Touch of Evil (1958) here. But at the right time of night, along Windward Avenue — accompanied by a Henry Mancini soundtrack — one can retrace the camera’s movements among the storefront colonnades, paying homage to one of filmdom’s most audacious noirs, which features Charlton Heston as a Mexican cop and Marlene Dietrich as a border town madam. A large mural nearby commemorates the intersection’s pedigree.

(Photograph by Audrey Tawa.)

700 W. Paseo Del Mar, San Pedro, CA 90731— Farthest afield for me, but still in L.A., is a venerable “biker bar” on a cul-de-sac in San Pedro. Walker’s Cafe served as the backdrop for a key sequence in the greatest of neo-noirs, Chinatown (1974). This is where Jack Nicholson’s detective Jake Gittes pursues DWP’s chief engineer Hollis Mulwray on a nocturnal mission to “follow the water.” It is just beyond here that private detective Jake Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson), pursuing DWP’s chief engineer Hollis Mulwray (played by Darrell Zwerling), observes the nefarious discharge of water that is one of the plot elements in this fictionalized saga of L.A.’s sinful past. And for me, it completes a chronological and geographical tour of L.A.’s noir landscape — from Downtown to the Beach, from 1950 to 1974.

(Photograph by carlfbagge.)


Jeffrey Burbank is a Los Angeles-based writer.