Posted by Richard Harland Smith on January 24, 2014
I came of age as a movie lover in the early 70s, a great time for slim softcover film books packed with useful information and plenty illustrations calculated, it seemed to me, to bend impressionable minds toward the iron will of cinema. At some point between the ages of 9 and 10, I cleared the shelves of my boyhood bedroom of the myriad Big Little Books and Johnny West action figures to make room for what became dozens of trim genre overviews (Ivan Butler’s HORROR IN THE CINEMA, Carlos Clarens’ AN ILLUSTRATION HISTORY OF THE HORROR FILM, Robert F. Moss’ KARLOFF AND COMPANY: THE HORROR FILM) , director monographs (Peter Bogdanovish’s FRITZ LANG IN AMERICA, James Leahy’s THE CINEMA OF JOSEPH LOSEY), collected essays (Andrew Sarris’ THE AMERICAN CINEMA, AGEE ON FILM), and “movies of” filmographies (Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi). Any book I could stuff into the pocket of my Husky Youth shorts as I headed out the screen door for a long summer day of reading and no exercise was a first class ticket to good times and I still feel that way. So I was delighted when Jim Dawson’s LOS ANGELES’S BUNKER HILL: PULP FICTION’S MEAN STREETS AND FILM NOIR’S GROUND ZERO! landed on my desk this week. Published in 2012 by The History Press, the book boasts a slim 150pp page count and a selection of silvery black-and-white photos, among them archival shots of downtown LA’s long-gone Bunker Hill section and production stills (not frame grabs) from such shot-on-location films noir as NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES (1948), CRISS-CROSS (1949), SHOCKPROOF (1949), ONCE A THIEF (1950), M (1951), CRY DANGER (1951), THE TURNING POINT (1952), and KISS ME DEADLY (1955), which was released the year that the City of Los Angeles signed the death warrant for Bunker Hill.
If the name Bunker Hill conjures for you more than anything else a costly victory for the British against our American colonists in 1775 then perhaps a quick précis is in order. At the time of its annexation by New Spain (by way of Mexican explorers) in 1781, Los Angeles (specifically downtown) was distinguished by the presence of three promontories that rose above the landscape to afford staggering views of the river basin and afforded an excellent defense against prospective invaders. After the American Civil War, a French-Canadian real estate developer named Prudent Beaudry bought one of these at a sheriff’s auction for little more than $500. The parcel bore the name of the Mott Tract. The forward-looking Beaudry envisioned a residential community sprouting on the elevated area and even created his own aqueduct to redirect water from the LA river to what he envisioned to be communities for the affluent and privilged. To this end, he planted trees and paved streets and the landscape bore the fruit of hundreds of Queen Ann style Victorian homes, whose spires, cupolas, verandas, and gables evoked an almost fairytale ambiance. In 1875, Beaudry named the area Bunker Hill, to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of that storied battle of the American Revolution.
In many ways, Bunker Hill was a victim of its own success. Beaudry had created such a paradise that a lot of people wanted to live there and with the advent of modernization as the 19th Century yielded to the 20th and as street cars linked many parts of Los Angeles into a viable network and as business flourished downtown the area began to attract the middle and lower classes. As the upper crust jumped ship for the leafier, more exclusive confines of Beverly Hills to the west and Pasadena to the east, the grand Victorian mansions of Bunker Hill were subdivided, turned into hotels, apartment buildings, and flophouses. Innovations such as the incline railsways (pictured above) known as Angel’s Flight and Court Flight, meant to ferry bonneted housewives and the help between the shops and home, now became public transportation for the hoi polloi. Bunker Hill became overcrowded, its landmarks neglected, its streets, alleys, and parlors magnets for crime. It was in its degradation that Bunker Hill became a frequent film location for Hollywood studios.
As Jim Dawson lays it out in LOS ANGELES’S BUNKER HILL, the creation of what know as film noir came about by form following function. The desire of the Hollywood studios to make affordable fare for moviegoers led to the acquisition of hundreds (hell, maybe thousands) of cheap pulp crime novels to be turned into B-pictures, films to played on the bottom half of double bills in support of a more prestigious, star-studded film. Wartime belt-tightening after 1943 left Hollywood filmmakers with considerably smaller budgets for their art directors to work with, prompting directors (many of whom had learned their craft in Europe) to take it to the streets, where atmosphere was cheap and the sets, as it were, were already standing. The use of actual LA locations was actually nothing new — silent moviemakers had employed downtown Los Angeles, Echo Park, Silver Lake, and neighboring communities as backdrops for years (that’s not a rear projection of downtown’s bustling Broadway below Harold Lloyd as he hangs from the hands of a skyscraper clock in SAFETY LAST!) and it was only the advent of sound that brought the cameras back into the studio. And yet Hollywood’s return to the streets had a profound effect on the American film industry, though it took the French (who coined the phrase “film noir”) to explain it, as we were too busy washing our cars and rounding up Reds. Dawson gives a fair, accurate accounting of the French response and is equally thoughtful in his own right when explaining the difference between films of this vintage that are shot in downtown LA versus those that avail themselves of studio sets:
By the end of World War II, Bunker Hill (and the surrounding areas, which shared similar topography and architecture) had baggage, it had history, and those layers are all apparent on camera. The place looks not so much lived-in as stepped-on, which reflected the world weariness and defeatism of the film noir dramatis personae. Jim Dawson’s affection, his obvious devotion to the area extends not just to sharing vintage photographs from the era but in relating the history of those buildings, right down to their street addresses and the names of the people who owned them. (The home pictured above in a scene from Robert Parrish’s CRY DANGER was not on Bunker Hill but rather perched atop nearby North Hill Place, above Sunset Boulevard, and can also be seen in Kurt Neumann’s THE RING.) In this way, such tumbledown residences as the Foss-Heindel home (315 South Bunker Hill) seen in Joseph Losey’s 1951 remake of M, the Julius Brousseau Mansion (238 South Bunker Hill Avenue) seen in THE MONEY TRAP (1960), and “The Castle” (325 South Bunker Hill Avenue) seen in KISS ME DEADLY assume a stature not unlike those of recurring film noir character actors — veritable Jack Elams, Timothy Careys, and Percy Helton. You knew them when you saw them, even if you didn’t know their names. You looked forward to seeing them again… and, many years after the fact, you read about their passing and you mourned.
LOS ANGELES’S BUNKER HILL is the kind of book that makes you misty. You may well get caught up in it and forget that these places are no longer there, that the bulldozers and wrecking balls moved in at some point in 1955 and, over the course of several years tore down the houses and flattened the hills and that the area now, as undistinguished a plot of the downtown business district as any other, is unrecognizable. (The Bunker Hill affair represents an example of urban renewal that has no precedent or peer in the history of urban planning. End to end the project lasted more than fifty years.) The book’s portability makes you want to stuff it into a backpack and go to there, to walk where Mitchum, Lancaster, Powell, Meeker, Duryea and all the rest wore out their shoeleather; you’ll want to Google Earth the footprints of those grand old homes, and stand, if only for a minute, where film history was made.
Long story short: if you care about film and/or film noir, buy this book. I’ll let the last word on Bunker Hill go to Jim Dawson:
To buy LOS ANGELES’S BUNKER HILL: PULP FICTION’S MEAN STREETS AND FILM NOIR’S GROUND ZERO! on Amazon.com ($15.98), click here.
To order directly from The History Press ($19.99), click here.
To order from Powell’s Books ($19.99), click here.
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