LOS ANGELES -- It was a dank, rain-sodden Raymond Chandler kind of morning, as if some omnipotent auteur had rung up the studio and ordered a classic film noir sky. Cumulonimbus clouds the color of a snub-nosed revolver hovered with ominous intent, and tires on slickened freeway lanes gave off a sinister, knife-sharpening hiss.
Only a sap would be out on a day like this, searching for the seedy, serrated soul of L.A. noir.
Yet tourists often come here, searching for the Los Angeles of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. They seek remnants of a period when the city was an incubator of tawdriness, a place where corruption, double-dealing and unchecked passion gave rise to a literary and cinematic genre that to this day captures the imagination.
Fitting, then, that the weather would cooperate and set the mood. But, really, the sun has never served as a nourishing, warming presence in L.A. noir; rather, it’s a carcinogenic inferno bent on mocking desperate dreamers with incessant, incongruous cheeriness.
Already this morning, fueled by too many black and bitter cups o’ Joe, you’ve swung by the Southern Pacific Railroad Depot in Glendale. At the scene of the crime in the seminal noir thriller Double Indemnity, you picture a hunch-shouldered, stubble-jawed Fred McMurray skulking around the tanned Mission Revival structure, not stopping to admire the twisted columns or handcrafted ironwork.
Now, you head downtown and to the Hotel Barclay (nee Hotel Van Nuys), one of Chandler’s haunts and the setting for the gruesome ice pick-in-the-neck murder scene in his novel The Little Sister. All that remains is the art deco sign; the hotel has long been shuttered, its windows cracked and duct-taped.
Move along, bub. Nothing to see here.
The Black Dahlia
Plenty to see at the nearby Millennium Biltmore, the famous, swanky downtown hotel that once hosted the Oscars and retains its ornate, retro opulence. This was, legend has it, the last place the Black Dahlia (aka Elizabeth Short) was seen in 1947 before her dismembered body was discovered in a weedy patch south of town.
That’s a real-life murder, pal, not some made-up movie plot. (Although, this being Los Angeles, where fact and fiction can quickly meld, it eventually became a feature film.) In its day, the Black Dahlia case — still unsolved — created a media frenzy: Think O.J. Simpson trial to the nth degree.
In the expansive lobby, featuring a stained-glass ceiling and marble fountains with water trickling out of lions’ mouths, you try to picture the Black Dahlia in her low-cut black dress, snapping gum and batting heavily mascaraed eyelashes as she slinks out the door toward her fate.
You approach a dame behind a desk. She has an alluring smile, one that can make even the most cynical wise guy ask impertinent questions. She says her name is Nicole Solum. Claims she’s the hotel concierge. You have no reason to doubt her.
“We get people bringing it up all the time,” she says. “Sometimes, we get tour groups. Sometimes, they’ll ask if (the Black Dahlia’s) ghost haunts the halls.”
What of it? Is it true about ghosts? Spill it, sister.
“Well, this is an old hotel …” she says, leaving the answer dangling. “We don’t mind people asking. We even have a cocktail in the bar called the Black Dahlia.”