City of Angles
Published: June 2009
By Dave Gardetta
As the new flick <i>L.A. Confidential</i> proves, everyone in this town is looking for something. Me, I was on the trail of L.A.'s film noir past. Was it still there?Or would I come up with the big razoo?
I was neat, clean-shaven, and sober—everything a travel writer ought to be—when I stepped into downtown L.A.'s Union Station.
I'd been hired to retrieve a lost city: my client, an East Coast editor who wished to remain anonymous, wondered if the L.A. of L.A. Confidential, the new film of James Ellroy's gritty noir novel, still exists. The place where travelers once arrived via the Sunset Limited, flagging taxis to chophouses and martini lounges before venturing to Ciro's or the Mocambo for that dangerous mix of gangsters and alcohol-fueled movie stars.
I walked out into a rare morning, cool and still as an adobe wall in moonlight. A leggy number in orange hot pants passed by, hanging on the arm of a Brooks Brothers fossil looking for a cab. She threw a smile my way; the fossil noticed it, and his face crumbled like a bride's piecrust. This was my city—glamorous yet seedy, refined but vaguely threatening.
You can grow a beard waiting for a cab in L.A., so I walked the two blocks north to bag some lunch. In recent years L.A. has been overrun by retro diners as false as an usherette's eyelashes. Philippe the Original, opened in 1908, is the real McCoy. It's a calm cave with sawdust floors, communal tables, and a chrome counter where women in tan uniforms assemble the "World Famous French Dip." Coffee is still nine cents, and the bleached-blond "girl" at the newsstand looks like she's been manning her station since the price was raised from a nickel. Philippe's patrons haven't changed much either: pale, bony postal workers; railmen large as lumberjacks; assistant D.A.'s talking murder over macaroni salad.
Motoring down Sunset, I wondered if I'd find a worthy hotel. The air had grown drowsy with heat, and my brain ticked like a clock, the minutes on tiptoe.
There was only one place to go.
The Chateau Marmont looked like something out of the hills of France, if they still allow hills over there. A path of large pavers beneath a series of columns straight out of the 15th century led to two huge oak doors set in a sculpted façade that rose seven stories above the Sunset Strip. "If you must get in trouble, do it at the Chateau Marmont," Harry Cohn, the first boss of Columbia Studios, once told William Holden, and certainly the property seemed as if it had been designed by a man wanting to shield his guests. You see a lot of that in my line of business, but this fellow had pulled it off. On the lawn were tables where couples sat drinking in casually expensive outfits that said everything was jakeloo to anyone nosy enough to care.
General manager Amanda Class, a tall brunette with an English accent and a smile tapped from a maple sapling, led me to my room—one of the three penthouses. These were the same quarters that Howard Hughes had holed up in during the fifties, picking over poolside demi-virgins through his binoculars like they were fresh produce, having the unlucky ones carted upstairs. A checkerboard hall led to a room that seemed to have been untouched since the day Hughes checked out: gauzy white jungle-print curtains; plush, modern furniture; a dark-blue carpet that could only be called cubist. In the kitchen, there was a pristine Wedgwood stove for fixing Salisbury-steak-and-martini dinners, and outside, on the wraparound balcony, perhaps the best hotel view in all L.A.
I took a swim and a nap, sleeping like seven Swedes.
When I awoke in darkness, I walked to the balcony and looked out over the big angry city. Raymond Chandler's alter ego, Philip Marlowe, resided just a few blocks west of the Marmont, up Laurel Canyon, and often meditated on the same skyline I watched tonight. "A city no worse than others," he mused over this view in The Long Goodbye, "a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness."
My stomach was full of emptiness, so I ran three fingers through my hair and drove to Marlowe's favorite watering hole, the Musso & Frank Grill. Inside, everything was shiny, with the barkeep giving himself a last look in the mirror to make sure his tie was straight. Musso's is the oldest restaurant in Hollywood, the fourth ace in the hand that once included the Brown Derby, Chasen's, and Scalia, only quieter, more anonymous—perfect for a travel writer minding his own business.
What passes as the hip crowd these days visits Musso's for Ketel One martinis, but I asked for a gimlet, Marlowe's drink. Sipping it, I admired the high ceilings, the ancient murals, the burnished wood-and-leather booths deep enough to lose your thoughts in. A waiter in a red monkey suit took my order—lobster cocktail, osso buco—and I sat back, momentarily listening to that other part of me, the part that tires of tracking down $500 rooms on stilts in Micronesia. In another life I might have been a food writer, maybe even gotten rich—food-writer rich, with plank-roasted Chilean sea bass every Sunday, two sport-utility vehicles in the garage, a wife with a cast-iron perm, and me with a stomach like a sack of portland cement.
On a windy corner of Santa Monica Boulevard sits the Formosa Café, a turn-of-the-century railcar converted into a comfort station for deadbeat screenwriters who wash down their Chinese with rum-and-Cokes. It's where Lana Turner tosses a drink at a cop's face in L.A. Confidential, and after leaving Musso's I had similar notions concerning my own mug.
The lounge was bathed in golds, reds, and browns, wrapped by the woolly murmur of Gil Evans on the Hi-Fi. The air was spattered with crimson nails and studied laughs; two dolls, walking by, joined a pair of sharpies wearing their brains on their faces. The stool beside me was empty, but the next cookie in the dish was a cool number with slate-gray eyes and a kissable, go-to-hell mouth. She reminded me of my ex, who left me for James Ellroy himself several years ago, and who showed up these days only in bad dreams or in the dedications of Ellroy's novels. She was the reason I had wanted to avoid this case; my client, however, believed my former love life made me perfect for the job. Yeah, perfect like a concrete dinner jacket on an ocean cruise. I rolled 12-year-old scotch over my tongue, ordered a second, and began dreaming—not of Helen but of the third scotch.
I came to with a Buick parked on my head. I needed coffee the way Marlowe liked it—"rich, strong, bitter, boiling hot, ruthless, depraved." I shaved and headed downtown to the Original Pantry Café, where every politician in L.A. has squared deals over breakfast since it opened in 1924. His Honor the mayor also happens to own the joint, but even shadier characters have passed through those doors that never lock: mob boss Mickey Cohen, a regular in Ellroy's novels, ate there every morning.
Finishing my steak and eggs, I rolled north to Echo Park Lake, where, while rowing across the dark waters, Jack Nicholson as shamus Jake Gittes spied on Faye Dunaway's father in Chinatown. A small forest of Canary and Mexican palms dominates the banks; like everything else in L.A., those trees originated somewhere else. Chinatown is the best of Hollywood's noir-inspired films, maybe because Roman Polanski—along with many of the great film noir directors—was from out of town, namely eastern Europe. (Strangely, L.A. Confidential's director, Curtis Hansen, is homegrown.) The chance encounter between the hard-boiled American crime novel and exiled German expressionist cinema, film noir let darkness into the overlit room that was the city, awarding moviegoers with some cool losers—Nicholson, Mitchum, Bogart.
Where would three jakes like that spend a second night in the city of the big sleep?
I started out at the Good Luck Bar, in Los Feliz. Nicholson never found time to hit a bar in Chinatown, but if he had, it would have been something like the recently opened Good Luck. Black-and-red Oriental wallpaper, Chinese lanterns, keyhole mirrors—the joint could have been as artificial as a wooden leg, but whoever designed it got everything in apple pie order. The Good Luck was dusky and empty; the bartender moved mothlike against the red glow. I looked over the drink menu—Enter the Dragons, Hong Kong Bongs, Double Happinesses—and ordered a Fist of Fury. The nerves inside my taste buds jumped in all their branches: it hurt good.
Next stop: the Pacific Dining Car, which, like the Formosa, is another railway-inspired establishment dating back to the twenties. It shows up in almost every Ellroy novel, and it's also, I had learned, one of the author's favorites. Which certainly didn't make me feel any better walking in. It's the kind of place that talks up its "house butcher" and "humidity-controlled" meat lockers, so it's no surprise that not one of the nine steaks on the menu goes for less than $36. Still, it was classy in a way: I half expected to see Bogie and Betty Bacall curled up in a corner, huddling over Rob Roys with Howard Hawks.
I ended the evening in the piano bar at the Dresden Restaurant. Its space-age bachelor pad look is from an era slightly later than L.A. Confidential's, but it comes close to the feel director Hansen says he was after, which is a sunshine noir informed by fifties boosterism. You could imagine Mitchum lounging here before scoring some hop and heading off for his infamous bungalow bust.
Couples whispered of love, or advanced percentages, or whatever they whisper about in L.A. At the piano, Marty and Elayne drifted through "Look for the Silver Lining" and "I Concentrate on You." I spent the last of my retainer on a Manhattan, and then ordered a couple more on my own tab, figuring I could tell my client—the editor—that this case was closed. I thought of Hot Pants, of Amanda Class, of Gray Eyes in the Formosa, and finally of Helen.
I never saw any of them again—except the editors. No way has been invented to say good-bye to them.
DAVE GARDETTA lives in Los Angeles and Big Sur and writes for Men's Journal, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine.
Philippe the Original 1001 N. Alameda St.; 213/628-3781; lunch for two $12, no credit cards.
Chateau Marmont 8221 Sunset Blvd.; 213/656-1010; doubles from $195.
Musso & Frank Grill 6667 Hollywood Blvd.; 213/467-7788; dinner for two $70.
Formosa Café 7156 Santa Monica Blvd.; 213/850-9050; dinner for two $25.
Original Pantry Café 877 S. Figueroa St.; 213/972-9279; breakfast for two $15, no credit cards.
Good Luck Bar 1514 Hillhurst Ave.; 213/666-3524.
Pacific Dining Car 1310 W. Sixth St.; 213/483-6000; dinner for two $90.
Dresden Restaurant 1760 N. Vermont Ave.; 213/665-4294.
Meal prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.