Six Essential Los Angeles Movies You Probably Didn’t See
Early on in Once Upon a Time In…Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino delivers a scene that’s quintessentially Los Angeles. Brad Pitt’s character Cliff Booth pulls up to an intersection where he recognizes a young hippie (played by the gaunt daughter of Andie MacDowell) that he’s already come across while driving around the town. That intersection is absolutely LA. It’s everywhere, yet nowhere. It looks like nothing in particular yet has the earmarks that are distinctly from the City of Angels: the bus stop bench, the dirty sidewalks, the gas stations on each corner. As someone who lived in Los Angeles for nearly eight years, I’m fairly certain I know exactly where that intersection is, yet it could still be anywhere.
LA is a wonderful yet cruel place with few truly discernable structures or landmarks (aside from the Hollywood sign). But there’s no other city like it, and you rarely see anyplace used to double as it. Filmmakers go to Toronto or Vancouver or Atlanta or Cleveland to “stand in” for other large cities like New York or San Francisco. But no place can out-LA LA.
Tarantino clearly delivered Once Upon a Time…as a love letter to his hometown and shrine, but this is hardly the first movie to embrace this unclassifiable metropolis as a backdrop. Many a classic has wrapped their heroes and antiheroes through its labyrinthian landscape, including L.A. Confidential, Beverly Hills Cop, Boyz N the Hood, Sunset Boulevard, The Big Lebowski and Speed. But for every Chinatown, there’s a great forgotten movie that’s still unmistakably Los Angeles. It is the Company Town, after all. Here are six essential LA stories that you never saw.
Into the Night
This is the movie Tarantino would have made if he’d started making movies in the mid-80’s instead of the early 90’s. This is the fantastically madcap noir story of the most mundane man in the world who simply can’t sleep. Ed Okin (drolly played by the only actor who could have played him, Jeff Goldblum in his first lead role) has taken the advice of a work colleague to get the hell out of town and makes it as far as LAX before a stunning, screaming blonde (Michelle Pfeiffer) jumps on the hood of his car and implores him to save her life.
What ensues is a crazy night of misdirection and violence filled with more cameos by famous directors than any other movie in the history of cinema (hey, there’s Roger Vadim…hey, there’s Don Seigel…hey, isn’t that Jim Henson?). The movie begins with a montage of classically empty LA street scenes and proceeds to roll out the freeway traffic jam, the Theme Building in LAX, Malibu, and Beverly Hills. Two scenes that especially stick out are a scene in the iconic Norm’s Restaurant (which includes a great jump scare) and a scene near Rodeo Drive featuring the best work David Bowie has ever done.
Down and Out in Beverly Hills
Venice Beach is one of those spots that couldn’t happen anywhere other than Los Angeles. It’s the ultimate intersection of people wanting to be seen and others wanting to disappear, surrounded by sand and psychedelic murals. Down and Out in Beverly Hills was Paul Mazursky’s commentary (based on a French play) on the disconnected society of LA and America in the 80’s.
It’s filled with neon hues and excess and centers on Dave Whiteman (Richard Dreyfuss) and his family (including Bette Midler as his wackadoo wife) who take on a despondent homeless man (Nick Nolte, gruff, worldly and full of crap) who happened to choose their swimming pool as his path to suicide. While there’s plenty of posh LA, including the amazing Little Richard appearing a couple of times as Dave’s record producer neighbor, the best scene is the contrast of locales at Venice Beach. Dave’s introductions to other homeless people who crash on the benches is priceless.
Devil in a Blue Dress
Easy Rawlins is one of the great gumshoes of American literature, and Columbia Pictures thought they had a franchise on their hands when they were able to land Denzel Washington to give him life. The first chapter Walter Mosely penned of Easy is Devil in a Blue Dress, and it is translated into an absolute classic noir thriller. Easy and his exploits take place in the Watts section of LA in post-War 40’s.
Watts is glowing and lovely, filled with an influx of African Americans arriving on the West Coast to escape the South or find new glory working with the burgeoning airplane manufacturers. It’s LA as LA is becoming great–a similar period as captured by Chinatown and LA Confidential–and this movie dodges and moves as well as either of those classics. It sets up LA so we understand what Watts, and Crenshaw and Compton, become in the 80’s. Look for a tense moment on the fishing pier in Malibu, but the South Central LA jazz scenes are the best. Too bad the franchise never took off.
This might be the ultimate LA movie because it expands LA the way only Angelinos really understand. Not only do you see the Beverly Hills haunts of movie stars and movie moguls, but you get a sense of the freeways, the country clubs, the studios, the trek it is to go from Hollywood to Pasadena, and how close yet how far it is to go to Palm Desert. But The Player also has its crucial scene in the most appropriate of LA locations: an alley/parking lot. Every city has these hidden places tucked away where all the bad things happen, but LA seems to have more of them. The darkness is different. And they evoke the worst in people. Just ask Griffin Mill.
To Live and Die in LA
The first 17 minutes of To Live and Die in LA are about the most kinetic, dynamic, best edited opening 17 minutes ever assembled on film. This movie about Secret Service officers chasing a counterfeiter cooks from the word go (thanks in large part– surprisingly–to a fabulous soundtrack by Wang Chung!). But this movie also is one of the first to show LA’s modern underbelly. From the San Pedro/LA Harbor to the LA River bottoms to the strip clubs of Los Feliz, To Live and Die in LA recognizes how unglamorous the city can be. The sting scene in LAX is fantastic (those tile walls!), but the freeway chase (yes, they really went the wrong way) that follows is as good as any car chase scene ever filmed. And the smog-filled skyline only lends to the grunge that is LA.
Max Dugan Returns
This is a small miracle of a movie. Scripted by Neil Simon and starring Marsha Mason, Donald Sutherland, Jason Robards and Matthew Broderick (in his first movie role), the dialog of this offbeat family story crackles out of the cynical mouths of each of these great actors. But this movie also shows LA life as hard.
Mason and Broderick are widowed mother and son, living in a ramshackle Venice house. Broderick attends a decidedly unglamorous Venice High. Mason’s long-estranged criminal father suddenly appears with a satchel filled with money, and all he wants is to spend time with his grandson. Mix in Sutherland’s cop/boyfriend who’s struggling to balance police work with being a single dad and hitting on the pretty lady, and you have an entire group of folks who are merely making their way in life. While LA is never ugly, it is raw and real. Max Dugan Returns is the LA the rest of us experience.