The Hidden Character of Los Angeles

Topics: Los Angeles

Noir characters are depicted as lost, confused, running in circles without guidance. Neo- noir tends to evoke the main character surrounded by urban landscapes, tall buildings, mysterious alleyways, dark streets lit by street lights. The city impacts the noir hero by creating a confused and complex setting which sometimes reflect the protagonist’s emotional state. In these settings the noir hero appears to thrive at first however in time finds himself crumbling. Walter Neff from Double Indemnity is an example of a character who’s emotional state is worsened by the city and characters who surround him.

Neff suffers from his poor attempts to seek the city as an escape from his problems. In Double Indemnity we see Walter crumble under the urban setting. On another note, in Chinatown Jake Gittes is an example of a character who appears to thrive under the challenges of his surroundings. Rather than run away from his problems, Jake looks towards the city to sort out conflict as it helps Jake escape his worries.

The city assists Jake in proving the city wrong time and time again. However, just when things appear to go right for Jake we see him crumble under the city. The spatial structure of Los Angeles plays a vital role in the social structure of the characters depicted in films seen throughout class. Los Angeles plays itself by supplying a landscape full of mystery, evil, and secrets in which the noir hero uses to try and elude his fate. But the city’s corrupt structure parallels the noir hero’s corrupt inner state ultimately leading to their collapse.

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In Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Wilder uses the diverse cityscape and architecture of Los Angeles to convey urban corruption and existential fatalism. Wilder aims to inspect the history and geography of the “dark city.” Los Angeles represents a sleazy and sinister canvas upon which Wilder conveys his story upon. This landscape plays a vital role in the corruption of Walter Neff. At first, Walter is shown driving lawlessly through the city running red lights down a dark, wet, foggy street. The setting conveys a state of fear. The gloomy landscape illustrates Neff’s emotional condition and presents us with his dismal state of mind. We also see that Wilder uses Los Angeles to depict unconventional locations as sites for collusion. For example, the two killers map out their plans to avoid getting caught in a grocery shop during mid day. This is significant because unlike common narratives, the grocery store is an atypical site for characters to plot murder. They contradict their desire to remain unknown by visiting a public setting. This symbolizes that the assassination of Mr. Dietrichson’s was a procedural exchange and desire for money rather than the desire to kill. Neither killer is truly competent; one day they may shop for groceries the next day they may deliberately carry out murder. The noir hero attempts to manipulate the city to escape their fate.

Furthermore, Los Angeles’s shiny appearance exhibits the suburban city’s lack of trustworthiness and further elicits existential fatalism. Noir hero Walter Neff is duped into a murder/insurance fraud scheme conceived by Phyllis Dietrichson. Phyllis embodies a fraudulent character. Her exorbitant home illustrates her fake personality, residing in “one of those Spanish numbers everyone was so crazy about a couple of years ago.” Phyllis’s lack of character is represented by this expensive trend. Throughout the the early 1900’s, suburban development whitewashed Los Angeles’s Mexican History with the production of “Spanish colonial” architecture found in Double Indemnity. Only the wealthy resided in these types of places. The homes ignore the structures of the colonial era by appealing to its rich European origins. Phyllis’s obvious defiance and lack of genuine wholesomeness are fortified by the fact that she resides in one of these contentious homes, the kind of place where people own exotic perfumes and drink “pink wine to go with it, the kind that bubbles” rather than bourbon. In this instance, the noir hero is drawn into the shiny exterior. However, Phyllis’s home depicts a life of confinement and frustration. The three people who live there absolutely hate each other. They waste immeasurably boring evenings together. Phyllis’s husband ignores her needs and sexual desires. Neff supposes that this be the perfect opportunity to break free from his misfortune. This particular instance is an example of the spatial structure having influence over the social construct of the city. Therefore, the noir hero falls into his fate led on by the social construct of the city. Neff aims to escape his fate but ultimately fails.

Similarly, in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, Los Angeles plays itself by presenting a complex spatial structure that allows the antagonist to thrive against the city. Rather than white picket fences and middle class people enjoying their lives, Polanski illustrates dried up riverbed and corpses. Incest and murder replaces of kind homes and children. Orange groves and everlasting sunshine hide a place of immorality, a place oozing with corruption and shady mysteries. Los Angeles depicts these kind groves, beautiful pastoral landscape, wavy backroads, clear atmosphere and nice sunset. Polanksi’s Los Angeles is a wonderland. But the beautiful city hides evil secrets. The wicked plans of the rich and powerful are out of the depth of the noir hero.

The city is being played similar to that of the noir hero’s emotional state. Jake travels through the beautiful city and uncovers the ugly underside. The dried riverbed, and the dead body in the reservoir serve as the first indications of corruption. When we first enter the orange grove Jake is beat up and suspected of working for the water department. The water department has the groves irking with suspicion while the pastoral landscape justifies the growing premonitions. Similarly the retirement home is used to mask the evil scheme that Noah is hiding. We see that the retirement home looks like a regular, peaceful old folks home. However, Cross manipulates the home to serve his deception. The retirement home serves as a scape goat. None of owners are actually aware that they own the land. The spatial structure of Los Angeles enables the antagonist to manipulate the spatial construct of the city and conceal the corrupt social make up underneath. Gittes effort to uncover the oozing corruption beneath exhibits his attempt to escape his inevitable fate.

Moreover, the title Chinatown forces us to assume a film full of Asian cuisine and Chinese convenience stores. Polanski intentionally takes his sweet time to reach Chinatown spending the entire film trying to avoiding it. Jake Gittes uses “Chinatown” to lightly discuss his old life there. Chinatown’s bizarre societal construct has the police confused. It is a place of unfamiliar culture making it hard to work in. The film depicts Chinatown as busy, full of cars and lights. People travel the sidewalks. Chinese restaurants and “cocktail” stores line the streets of Chinatown. It is a place where crime goes unseen. Chinatown plays a fearful character. Gittes dresses his issue with Chinatown he tells Evelyn “I thought I was keeping someone from getting hurt, but I actually ended up making sure he was hurt.” This is significant because Gittes recognizes Chinatown as a place where failure and exploitation exist. Chinatown is filled with corruption. It’s crookedness evokes Gittes to try to run away from it. Chinatown is a symbol for the obscurity of modern life and the pointlessness of good intentions. The final line “forget about it Jake, it’s Chinatown” signifies a situation which cannot be helped because it is beyond one’s ability to understand what happened. Gittes intends to steer clear of his fate throughout the film but ultimately runs into it. Chinatown is avoided the whole film because Gittes fate lies within it. The corrupt cityscape plays a devious character by fabricating a corrupt social structure. The noir hero faces the same defeat he had once suffered in Chinatown in his first job.

Overall, these two films depict the cityscape as a complicated character. Los Angeles serves the purpose in supplying a canvas for corruption. The noir hero runs in circles shooting to solve what occurs throughout the city. Los Angeles as a labyrinth parallels the noir hero’s corrupt emotional state. It’s diverse visual appearance conveys the perception of inner-city corruption and acceptance of the inevitable. The noir hero is unable escape their fate. They have difficult time accepting their fate as they look to the city to elude it. City structures are used as an outlet for the noir hero. His corrupt mental state will see an out and try to take it. Certain characters use the city to their advantage in order to debase social structure. As the noir hero falls, others thrive and use the cityscape to their advantage. All in all, Los Angeles plays itself by supplying a landscape full of mystery, evil, and secrets in which the noir hero uses to try and elude his fate. But the city’s corrupt structure parallels the noir hero’s corrupt inner state ultimately leading to their collapse.

Works Cited:

  1. Evans, Robert, Roman Polanski, John A. Alonzo, Robert Towne, Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Hillerman, Perry Lopez, Burt Young, Bruce Glover, Joe Mantell, Roy Jenson, Diane Ladd, Richard Bakalyan, and John Huston. Chinatown. Hollywood, CA: Paramount, 2006.
  2. Maxfield, James, The fatal woman : sources of male anxiety in American film noir, 1941-1991, Madison : Fairleigh Dickinson University Press ; London : Associated University Presses, 1996.
  3. Silver, Alain, Son of Noir: Neo-Film Noir and the Neo-B Picture, James Ursini, Limelight Editions, 1999.
  4. Wilder, Billy, Raymond Chandler, Joseph Sistrom, and James M. Cain. Double Indemnity. Los Angeles: Paramount Pictures, Inc, 1944.5

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The Hidden Character of Los Angeles. (2022, Apr 23). Retrieved from

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