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.