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5 Truly Great ‘LA noir’ Movies

It’s been noted before that the irony of film noir was that it came from one of the sunniest places on earth – California. But while the original noir directors went to great lengths to mask the sunlit beauty of their surroundings, from the late ’60s another set of filmmakers took the staple elements of the genre – brooding heroes, gun-crazy villains, desperate dames – and brought them out into the light, making noir simultaneously more glossy, more vivid and, paradoxically, a whole lot colder.

The truly great ‘LA noir’ movies – ‘Point Blank’, ‘The Driver’, ‘Straight Time’, ‘To Live and Die in LA’, ‘Heat’ – share common characteristics beyond the basic clichés of the crime genre. Check-out:

STRAIGHT TIME

Dustin Hoffman is featured as Max Dembo, a career criminal who’s just been released on parole. Max Dembo comes out of gaol, and like Eddie Taylor in “You Only Live Once”, he makes a determined effort to go straight, even like Taylor finding himself a high quality but low maintenance love interest. And like Taylor he realises the world is a conspiracy against him, and that there will be no redemption, especially with the creep of a parole officer who is assigned his case. Though there is little humour in this film, this odious character gets a particularly fitting comeuppance. This movie creeps up on you, gets a kind of emotional hold on you and digs in through the end.

Point Blank

Lee Marvin plays Walker the veteran gangster who is left for dead by his criminal associates in the eerily deserted precincts of Alcatraz prison, where they had been planning to steal mob cash being secretly transported there by helicopter. “Point Blank” begins in steel grays, with costumes and sets carefully dyed and painted according to a color scheme that matches Walker’s interior journey. Marvin was never better, the ruthless personification of late ’60s bulldog cool, all snarling quips and sharp suits. Adapted from Donald Westlake’s The Hunter, the film is not your usual late Hollywood film noir but an almost experimental discourse on crime, punishment and revenge.

The Driver

The Driver begins with a job that involves evading multiple police cars and sets the plot in motion. The second scene fascinatingly involves one car chasing its tail to send a message: about the Driver’s virtuosity and his unwillingness to be toyed with, at least on anyone else’s terms. The climax returns to a literal chase dynamic as the Driver—with the Player at shotgun—dead-set on resolving his plan-gone-wrong. Ryan O’Neal is fantastic as the mild-mannered getaway driver and his counterpart Bruce Dern is equally enjoyable as the morally ambivalent and devilishly persistent cop. Walter Hill has remained a steadily stylish presence in the idiom of neo-noir cinema and his Los Angeles is dark, gritty, and replete with swanky bars and dimly-lit parking garages.

TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.

In Los Angeles, the secret agent Richard Chance (William L. Petersen) loses his partner and friend Jim Hart (Michael Greene) in an investigation of counterfeit, two days before the retirement of Jim. The agent John Vukovich (John Pankow) is assigned to work with Chance, who is obsessed to capture Eric ‘Rick’ Masters (Willem Dafoe), the criminal responsible for the death of Jim. Chance risks his partner and his own career, trying to arrest Rick.  You can hold it up as the quintessential expression of the era’s music video aesthetics and sleek, slick style, it’s also a distinctively singular, perfectly pitched action thriller from William Friedkin, a director in full command of his tools, including the high-octane style of neon surfaces, rapid editing and driving music.

Heat

A genre movie with epic ambitions, a multi-layered crime yarn filled with fascinating characters against a noirish Los Angeles cityscape and director Michael Mann’s sprawling saga starts with a bravura heist: Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and his crew topple an armored car, leaving three dead guards behind. De Niro and Pacino fully inhabit characters that are two sides of a coin, Neil, an introverted loner and a professional thief in charge of a crew, and Vincent (Al Pacino) a disillusioned cop who finds a connection with Neil, who he likes and reflecting his own professional, no- nonsense approach, a glimmer of hope in an otherwise dreary career in which he must expose himself to all kinds of horror and sickness which he goes into great detail describing in order to stop his partner from complaining about relationship problems. Released the same year as Scorsese’s “Casino”, Michael Mann’s “Heat” positions itself as one of the first “neo liberal” gangster movies, all the others still caught in the old framework of mafia patriarchy, and total adherence to a distinctive creed, blood lines and tribalism. “Heat”, in comparison, completely breaks away from these old-fashioned ways. The film is a great noir because it’s all about purpose and the search for it.

These are movies informed by the city in which they were made, a city constructed of gleaming surfaces – six-lane highways, vast industrial wastelands and endless suburban sprawl – and a place where crime is grubby and small-time, carried out by empty, hopeless loners in hock to dapper despots with unpredictable personalities.

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