The Best Films Set in Los Angeles

“I’m from California, I’m from Los Angeles, I was born in 1970, so there was a straight flush of reasons to be interested in this era,” read the production notes of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. Adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name, Anderson’s film sets us in Los Angeles during the ‘70s, where drug-fueled detective Larry “Doc” Sportello investigates the disappearance of a former girlfriend. “Captured by Robert Elswit’s grainy camerawork, the smoggy Los Angeles sunlight acts as the dissolve between the death of a dream and the awakening into an undesired reality,” writes LAist. The boundarylessness of Los Angeles is evoked in its endless highways and the larger-than-life dreams the City of Angels promises. It’s a city much mythologized in cinema that brought hardboiled noir out of the dark and onto the hazy, neon streets. We look at the greatest films that capture the essence of Los Angeles and all of its deadly dreams.

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The Long Goodbye

Robert Altman’s 1973 neo-noir The Long Goodbye, based on Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel of the same name, is marked by its Los Angeles personalities — shabby, wild, self-driven characters brimming with casual apathy. Roger Ebert on Elliott Gould’s near satirical, schizoid version of iconic private dick Philip Marlowe:

The earlier movie Marlowes (Humphrey Bogart, James Caan, James Garner, Robert Mitchum, Robert Montgomery, Dick Powell) are terse and guarded. They talk, as Chandler wrote, ‘with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.’ And they talk a lot, because they narrate the novels. Gould’s Marlowe has these qualities, but they emerge in meandering dialogue that plays as a bemused commentary to himself.

Chinatown

Chinatown

Chinatown’s Los Angeles locations — from the Central L.A. district the film is named after, to the desert, and Jake Gittes’ (Jack Nicholson) office shielded by Venetian blinds — become a map of secrets. Chinatown’s urban geography reflects the unraveling of its conspiracy, the full picture finally revealed to Gittes during the movie’s dramatic ending.

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Body Double

We watch the events of Brian De Palma’s Body Double unfold from a modernist home on stilts in the Hollywood Hills (the alien-esque Chemosphere), where an unemployed actor (natch) spies on a beautiful woman from the window. “The setting for Body Double uses the milieu of the soft-core porn and the low-budget movie industry in Los Angeles as a backdrop,” writes Sound on Sight. “Not only does De Palma revel in the low-brow art of Los Angeles, but he also shoots stylish modernist architecture in the film, along with sunny Californian streets, beaches full of lazy people sun-tanning during a chase sequence, images that feature elaborate outdoor shopping centers and expensive beach side houses, ambivalent joggers listening to their portable cassette players, and lots of shiny convertible cars like the one Jake drives around in throughout the film.”

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The Big Sleep

Howard Hawks’s classic noir The Big Sleep, starring Hollywood power couple Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, is a sharp-tongued adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel of the same name that captures the surreal juxtaposition of Los Angeles’ urban sphere and postwar suburbs, where wealth and class are not impervious to scandalous goings-on.

Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart in Nicholas Ray's IN A LONELY

In a Lonely Place

From Offscreen on the 1950 noir In a Lonely Place, adapted from Dorothy B. Hughes’ 1947 novel:

As all of the above suggests, In a Lonely Place is also about Los Angeles — or more precisely, Beverly Hills and Hollywood. It was shot at several different locations in the vicinity: City Hall, at 455 North Rexford Drive; Villa Primavera at 1300-1308 North Harper Drive; West Hollywood; and mostly at the Columbia lot at Sunset and Gower. We recognise shots of Benedict Canyon, Santa Monica Boulevard, the Beverly Hills Post Office and Civic Hall, Inglewood and the opening scene, which takes place at the junction of Fountain Avenue with North Harper. Ray was careful about limiting the kind of architecture on display, determined to place Dix in conflict with his environment, which is mostly a version or imitation of what is known as California baroque (an appropriately plastic simulacrum, perhaps). The texture of this life is all.

Roger Ebert writes of the Beverly Patio apartment that serves as the locus of Dixon’s psychodrama,

The courtyard of the Hollywood building occupied by Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place (1950) is one of the most evocative spaces I’ve seen in a movie. Small apartments are lined up around a Spanish-style courtyard with a fountain. Each flat is occupied by a single person. If you look across from your window, you can see into the life of your neighbor. (Ebert, 2009)

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The Big Lebowski

Bowling alley rats, slackers, pornographers, artists, philanthropists, and cops — all self-imposed exiles living in Los Angeles (reflective of the city’s compartmentalized personalities) and none too tolerant of the other in the Coen brothers’ 1998 film. Jeff Bridges’ Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski struggles like a fish out of water as he flits from place to place, but abides when necessary.

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Killer of Sheep

A neorealist slice of working-class, African-American life in Los Angeles’ Watts district that is powerfully understated and captures an often ignored aspect of L.A. life as it’s portrayed on the celluloid.

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Mulholland Drive

Slant on David Lynch’s haunting Mulholland Drive, which depicts Los Angeles as a graveyard of broken dreams:

The bizarre jitterbug freak show that prefaces Mulholland Drive gives way to a hovering camera crawl over the writhing body of a person cocooned in bed sheets: this is the film’s panicked dreamer on the brink of waking life. Betty and Rita may be Diane’s fantasy pawns but they are also Lynch’s. The director’s dream factory — where a certain patriarchal rule is the only absolute and crucial decision-making hinges on the taste of espresso — is an efficient, interconnected network of mob rule. If Hollywood is a chessboard then Lynch’s women are its pawns.

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Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls — a self-parody about an all-girl band that loses itself in a haze of sex and drugs — points to Los Angeles’ artificial underpinnings, where everything is a come-on. “If you don’t live for now, why, you might as well just roll over and take the full count,” one character says. The film also marks the first big-budget movie of filmmaking maverick Meyer — and who better to make a movie about the sleazy side of showbiz than one of Hollywood’s outsiders?