How Archivists Helped Video Game Designers Recreate the City's Dark Side for 'L.A. Noire'

The Circle Cafe located at 953 E. Colorado, Pasadena, November 25, 1946.  Photograph by J. Allen Hawkins.  Image courtesy of the Archives, Pasadena Museum of History (Hawkins Collection, #2077)Earlier this week, video game enthusiasts and fans of L.A. history cheered the release of Rockstar Games' L.A. Noire, a police procedural game noted for its faithful reproduction of Los Angeles circa 1947. To recreate a city now hidden beneath 64 years of redevelopment projects and transformed by age and expansion, production designers with the game's developer, Team Bondi, consulted several Los Angeles area archives.

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At the Huntington Library, the researchers found a collection of maps that helped them reconstruct the layout of the city's streets in an era that preceded the Hollywood or Harbor freeways. The boldly-colored maps--also accessible through the USC Digital Library--were produced for the city's planning department with assistance from the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency that put unemployed men and women to work on public works projects. When stitched together, the maps form a kind of template for the universe inhabited by the game player's character, a swath of the city stretching from Boyle Heights in the east to Hollywood in the west.

WPA map of central Los Angeles. Image courtesy of the USC Digital Library. Physical document stored at the Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.

In UCLA's Department of Geography, a unique collection of aerial photography—combined with topographical information from the U.S. Geological Survey—helped the game developers flesh out the two-dimensional street layout into a three-dimensional model of a living city. From roughly 1920 through 1971, Robert Spence leaned out of airplanes and snapped photos of the city below with his 46-pound camera. Spence's photographs, now the Spence Air Photo Collection at the UCLA Geography Air Photo Archive, depict a city inhabited by pedestrian, trolley, and automobile traffic and marked with road construction and oil wells--details reflected in the game.

1948 aerial photograph by Spence Air Photos of the General Petroleum Building at Wilshire and Flower. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Prints Collection, USC Libraries Special Collections1948 aerial photograph by Spence Air Photos of MacArthur Park. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries Special Collections

Human-scale details were important, too. The USC Libraries' Regional History Collection offered production designers a sense of how city streets and sidewalks looked at night. USC's Dick Whittington and Los Angeles Examiner photography collections cover the same time period as the video game. The Whittington Collection—preserving the work of the Dick Whittington Studio, from 1924 until 1987 the premier commercial photography concern in Southern California—contains a number of streetscapes captured after dark, including the photo of Vine Street in Hollywood below.

Vine Street in Hollywood at Night. Courtesy of the Dick Whittington Collection, USC Libraries Special Collections

The production designers' months of research also included a visit to the Los Angeles Public Library, whose newspaper archives provided real-life antecedent for the fictional crime stories depicted in the game. In fact, one of the game's central characters, Mickey Cohen, was a major figure in the actual Los Angeles crime world.

A former boxer with ties to the Chicago crime syndicate once ruled by Al Capone, Meyer Harris "Mickey" Cohen grew up Boyle Heights, once a predominantly Jewish Los Angeles neighborhood. In 1937, he fell out of favor with the so-called Chicago Outfit and returned to L.A. to work as an enforcer for mobster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel. Cohen quickly rose in influence and, despite serving two stints in prison for tax evasion, became a national celebrity. Cohen is pictured below, hat on his lap, at his 1949 arraignment in the Los Angeles Superior Court.

Mickey Cohen (center) at his arraignment in the Los Angeles Superior Court, 1949. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA. Used under a Creative Commons license.

One invaluable Southern California archive also documents the life and work of a literary icon whose fiction helped inspire L.A. Noire.

In 1939, Raymond Chandler introduced private detective Philip Marlowe to the world with his debut novel, The Big Sleep. Marlowe quickly became the prototypical private detective, appearing not only in Chandler's novels and short stories but also later in fictional works by others.

Today, Chandler's papers are archived in the UCLA Young Research Library's Department of Special Collections. The collection includes unpublished works, correspondence with the author, and personal photographs, including the one below of Chandler with director Billy Wilder on the set of Double Indemnity, which Chandler co-wrote with Wilder, in 1944.

Author and screenwriter Raymond Chandler with film director Billy Wilder on the set of 1944's Double Indemnity. Courtesy of the Raymond Chandler Papers, Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA

Chandler's hard-boiled detective fiction popularized Los Angeles as a setting for tales of common crime entangled with powerful, nefarious forces almost obscured by the perpetual sunshine and the glitz of the motion picture business—the city described by Orson Welles as a "bright and guilty place." That meme replicated itself on the silver screen, appearing in film adaptations of Chandler's works and in original stories from Double Indemnity to Chinatown. Now, with the release of L.A. Noire, it is has spread to a new medium, and to a new generation ready to sleuth around the harsh shadows of the City of Angels.


Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, personal collections, and other institutions. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here will provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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