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Beats and Rhymes: Words on L.A. Noir


L.A. Noir is the other
Side of Sunshine;
Crime Novels,
A Century of scandals:
OJ Simpson to Fatty Arbuckle,
Charlie Chaplin to Phil Spector
Black Dahlia to the Hillside Strangler,
the Night Stalker & Charles Manson.
Celebrity mansions
in Coldwater Canyon.
Mickey Cohen's Haberdashery,
The Doors Live at the Whisky!
Take a left on Doheny,
Unsolved mysteries
like Who shot Biggie?


The roots of noir in Los Angeles go back to the city's birth. The lawlessness of the wild, wild west defined early Los Angeles -- and still does. Events like the Chinese Massacre of 1871 and 1910 bombing of the L.A. Times Building foreshadowed the tension and scandal to come. My first exposure to L.A. noir was my grandfather's tales about the disgraced actor Fatty Arbuckle. There were other similar tales told. My grandfather came of age in Los Angeles during the Great Depression, the anxiety and hard scrabble existence of that time defined his world view. He told me countless stories of people he knew and their struggles. He worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad for years until the '50s. In the 1980s he schooled me on World War II, Ida Lupino, Humphrey Bogart and Rita Hayworth.

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The fearful spirit of the Cold War contrasted with the optimism of the city of dreams -- this paradox is one of noir's central themes.


The Hollywood Ten became defendants
McCarthy frightened the country.
Fear ruled the Cold War,
Radicals became scapegoats.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
The City of Industry & Chinatown,
Conspiracy Theories abound,
And Most of them are true.


Noir taps into the evolving spectacle of the times and escalating crimes of an era with figures like Charles Manson and Richard Ramirez. L.A.'s corrupt political history, like the water politics of "Chinatown," has always made for phenomenal film. Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett were early noir progenitors with their novels turned into films. Noir's gritty spirit showcased characters going against the grain. The alienation of the Cold War reinforced the chaotic climate. Noir disrupted the status quo, offering an aesthetic of interruption interested in subverting the dominant paradigm.

In 2005 I worked with Mark Simon, a docent at the Egyptian Theater. Simon's encyclopedic knowledge of old film, 1920s movie palaces and Sid Grauman is staggering. His presentations on old Hollywood history explain the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Around the same time I met Los Angeles poet Michael C. Ford. Ford is a bastion of noir knowledge, from Ingrid Bergman and blonde B-movie ladies to David Lynch's latest. Salute as well to Suzanne Lummis, founder of Night & the City and the Los Angeles Poetry Festival. Contemporary L.A. noir writers Gary Phillips and Denise Hamilton carry on the tradition well. There are also noir themed tours led by Esotouric Tours. And the Black Dahlia murder has never been solved.

Noir lives on...


L.A.'s criminal underworld
Dates back to the legend of Zorro.
Offshore Gambling ships
Owned by Bugsy Siegel.
A blanket of lights,
The hills are on fire,
The city of night,
Seduced by desire.
Screams heard from afar,
An empty drink in a quiet bar,
A lonely ride in a busted car
Night in the city is L.A. Noir.


About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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