From a Derelict Mansion to the Malibu Coast: Film Noir, Urban Spaces, and the Articulation of Gender Identity in Los Angeles

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in a scene from the film "Double Indemnity"
In this Student Voices essay, Vassar student Junyi Zhou considers the representation of gender relations in post-war film noir set in Los Angeles.
[Ed.note: This article is part of our bi-annual, peer-reviewed Student Voices section. Click here to read about this issue and the other articles in the section.]

In Charlie Chaplin’s words, Los Angeles is “the land of the future, a paradise of sunshine, orange groves, vineyards, and palm trees.”1Tina Olsin Lent, “The Dark Side of the Dream: The Image of Los Angeles in Film Noir,” Southern California Quarterly, vol. 69 (1987): 334 This image of the “promised land” is in fact a dark reflection of the dream that it poses in disguise. Admired for its physical and economic growth by the turn of the century, Los Angeles transformed into a place crippled by rootlessness and lawlessness after the Great Depression.2Lent, “The Dark Side of the Dream,” 332. This conflicted identity and history were the subject of many Hollywood productions in the 1940s and 1950s. Often based on the hard-boiled fictions of Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain, these films fall under film noir, a loosely defined term for a cinematic movement or cycle. Exuding a particular tonality, as suggested by Paul Schrader,3Paul Schrader, “Notes on Film Noir,” Film Comment, vol. 8 (1972): 10-11 film noir is often characterized by stark light and dark contrasts, convoluted storylines, and ambiguous morality gesturing toward an all-enveloping hopelessness. Embodying the social reality reflected in the fictional world, film noir sheds light on the processes of changes taking place within it.

As I argue in this essay, many of the noirs set and shot in Los Angeles pay special attention to the quandaries and uncertainties of gender relations in this city across the decades, as embodied in and negotiated through public and private spaces and with a focus on relationships that depart from the traditional nuclear family unit. In particular, they tend to portray degenerate romantic encounters that test the boundaries of traditional moral codes. These narrative conventions indicative of the Los Angeles noir films of the 1940s and 1950s are especially evident in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard (1950) as well as Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973). Wilder’s two films are central to the noir canon and offer immoral portrayals of heterosexual relationships, while Altman’s film is a revisionist noir that defies many traditional noir trappings and, at the same time, retains the sense of inherent danger and ambiguity typical of film noir, specifically in terms of its treatment of gender relations.

In her essay on the representation of Los Angeles in film noir, Tina Olsin Lent explores the popular perceptions of this city in the 1920s. The golden image of Los Angeles, she notes, lies in people’s belief that “in its warmth and beauty, one could escape from the hierarchies and constraints of the East to find freedom and regeneration.”4Lent, “The Dark Side of the Dream,” 329. With its sunbaked plains, unrestrained capital, and suburban lifestyle, it signified the ideal home for many. At the same time, its automobile culture, decentralization, and spectacular urban sprawl made it into an archetype of the modern city, one that contains many problems within contemporary urban culture. Following the stock market crash of 1929, Los Angeles turned into a wasteland, overwhelming the local communities with heightened crime rates and the threat of displacement. This change calls attention to the contradiction of Los Angeles as described by Mike Davis: it plays the double role of “utopia and dystopia,” “heaven and hell.”5Mike Davis, “Sunshine or Noir?” in City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (London: Verso, 2006), 18. Because of such duality, Los Angeles became the focus of numerous novels written in the 1930s and 1940s, with many of them later adapted into films. Known as noirs, these films responded to the social and cultural upheavals experienced by the residents of Los Angeles both during wartime and the postwar period.

The US entered World War II in 1941. While many men were recruited to serve in the army, women were strongly encouraged to abandon their roles as housewives and join the workforce. Investigating the social transformations that occurred during the war, Frank Krutnik argues these changes “set in motion a temporary confusion to the traditional conception of sexual role and sexual identity for both men and women.”6Frank Krutnik, In a Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity (New York: Routledge, 2001), 57. At the same time, the increase in the production of durable goods led to growing consumption. As Krutnik suggests, the idealized home, stacked with consumer products, “became a new ‘temple’ of aspiration and conformity.”7Krutnik, In a Lonely Street, 60. Many wartime noirs put concerted emphasis on these phenomena, resulting in their negative representation of heterosexual relationships. Double Indemnity is one example.

Walter Neff, an insurance salesman, drives to a Spanish Revival home located on the foothills of Glendale. “It was one of those California Spanish houses everyone was nuts about ten or fifteen years ago,” he muses in his voice-over. “This one must have cost somebody about thirty-thousand bucks.” As he mounts the steps to the front door, a long shot captures him and the architecture in its totality. Surrounded by the thriving palm trees, the immense house seems like the embodiment of wealth and a retreat from the rest of the world. Though his original intention of coming over is to remind his client of an automobile insurance renewal, Neff is struck by the stunning display of the house’s exteriors and detects a concrete business opportunity. He enters, expecting to find Mr. Dietrichson, the master of the house, only to be greeted by his wife Phyllis. A medium shot from Neff’s back documents their encounter. Standing beneath a low archway on a wrought-iron staircase, Phyllis looks down at the visitor. To the white stucco walls on her left hang a painting and a candelabrum. On her right, a fringed Mexican throw drapes over the landing. Framed in a cluttered space, she appears to have become a lifeless commodity, desirable like all of the luxuries that surround her. In Neff’s eyes, she is merely a decorative sight without substance, which makes her all the more attractive. Departing from its function as a refuge and a space of stability, the Dietrichson residence — symbolic of capital and its mistress’s hollow femininity — marks Neff and Phyllis’s liaison. The family home thus “operates as a metaphor for social discontent, ” as Krutnik puts it.8Krutnik, In a Lonely Street, 60.

Fig.1. Still from Double Indemnity: Neff and Phyllis in the Spanish Revival house. Paramount Pictures, 1944.

If the domestic space in the context of Double Indemnity translates into a realm of unrest, then the public places contain, to a greater extent, an underworld of perversion and passion. Writing on the function of supermarkets in noirs, Eric Dussere suggests that the supermarket, a stand-in for consumer culture, signifies “a movement away from urban centers toward a suburban, car-oriented lifestyle and a movement from marketing aimed at bringing glamor to the middle class to the marketing of affordable food and sundries to the masses.”9Erik Dussere, “Out of the Past, Into the Supermarket: Consuming Film Noir,” Film Quarterly, vol. 60 (2006): 19. It thus remains an important locale in Double Indemnity. To avoid suspicion, Neff and Phyllis decide to see each other elsewhere. They have their eyes on Jerry’s Market, a supermarket on Melrose Avenue that they do not otherwise frequent, to plan their murder of Phyllis’s husband. The scene begins with a full shot of Phyllis standing among the neat aisles of products, pretending to shop. Emerging inside the frame, Neff exchanges a furtive glance with Phyllis, and the two proceed to a less populated area. Meanwhile, the camera slowly pans across the store, surveying the shoppers aimlessly. Like Neff, they drift in and out of the frame without a warning, which gives the place an air of anonymity. Taking advantage of the bustle, the lovers finally settle beside the baby food section to talk. However, their conversation is constantly interrupted by other customers, most notably a lady with a child in hand, who forcibly separates them. Representing the stable family unit, her presence contrasts with that of Neff and Phyllis. As Dussere astutely observes, at this point, Neff and Phyllis “can no longer inhabit the same world as the ‘real’ shoppers.”10Erik Dussere, “Out of the Past, Into the Supermarket:” 21. By framing themselves in the context of consumer culture and hiding behind the stacks of goods, they exploit a space of conformity to commit an adulterous crime, while others use it for the opposite purpose: to strengthen the nuclear family through their obsession with commodities.

Neff and Phyllis’s revolt against domesticity, or the traditional conceptions of romance, is further exemplified by postwar conditions. With more soldiers returning home, the social and economic priorities in the U.S. shifted once more. The re-entry of men into the workforce deprived many women of their jobs. The layoffs and discrimination experienced by women, Krutnik explains, were accompanied by “a renegotiation of the wartime discourses which had promoted the idea that women could find a place in society outside the traditional home context.”11Krutnik, In a Lonely Street, 61. A large number of postwar noirs were thus concerned with the problems posed by women who sought satisfaction outside their households, including Sunset Boulevard.

At the beginning of the film, Joe Gillis, a down-on-his-luck screenwriter, is fleeing from car repossessors. Stumbling upon a run-down, remote mansion on Sunset Boulevard, he hides his car in its garage and scrutinizes the property. Tucked behind thriving vegetations, neglected by its owners, this Mediterranean-style mansion seems to have frozen in time, still indulging in its past glories. Inside he meets Norma Desmond, a forgotten silent film star who is struggling to return to the screen. Mistaking Gillis for a vet, Norma invites him into her chamber where her pet chimpanzee is dying. As they proceed from the doorway to the back, a tracking shot follows them, documenting the extensive decorations. The curtains over every window pervade the room and the screen, shielding Norma from the intrusion of the outside world, one that continues to go on without her participation. The myriad photos of her on the wall and the cabinets attest to, and remind her of, her impressive achievements in the past. In this mansion filled with her images, a life-sustaining device for her, Norma longs to find herself again in the limelight of Hollywood, a dream that Gillis, a promising youth, can fulfill. At the same time Gillis, short on cash, is desperately in need of her aid. Much to his dismay and resignation, he becomes a kept man who has to endure her suffocating affection. Their sordid relationship is only possible, or legitimized, within Norma’s residence—the crumbling, secluded mansion removed from any social reality.

Fig. 2. Still from Sunset Boulevard: Gillis in Norma’s chamber. Paramount Pictures, 1950.

Only when leaving the cocoon that Norma has so carefully constructed, the disinfected zone untainted by the real world, can Gillis reclaim a sense of normalcy. After refusing Norma’s declaration of love on New Year’s Eve, he visits a downtown bar where his friend is hosting a party. The deep-focus shot of the celebration, highlighting its scale, foregrounds the exuberance of the scene. This sense of intimacy is absent in Norma’s mansion, which drains every drop of human warmth with its frigid, Gothic architecture. The fluidity of the camera movement as Gillis pushes his way through the throng, laughing and bantering with the guests, also signifies his seamless transition into this environment. He comes across Betty, a screenwriter for Paramount Studios, at this party. Bonding over their similar interests, the two retreat to a bathroom to talk. Rather than deploying shot-reverse-shot, a common strategy to depict an ongoing conversation, Wilder chooses to frame them in a medium close-up, showing their profiles facing each other. That they each occupy half of the screen testifies to the equality in their relationship. Later in the film, Gillis and Betty are shown strolling along the sets of Paramount. This place, emblematic of the ever-evolving Hollywood that denied Norma her stardom, makes room for people like them, who have a viable future. Walking alongside Betty under the soft lighting, Gillis grows out of the uneasy demeanor he wears at Norma’s place. The romance he cultivates with Betty, in which they treat each other as equals, is pitted against his affair with Norma, an ill-matched relationship that perhaps only invites feelings of disgust from the audience.

The conclusion of the film noir cycle did not end the portrayals of deviant desires. In 1966, the breakdown of the Motion Picture Production code set the scene for New Hollywood. In the years that followed, Hollywood films featured anti-establishment political themes, with a particular focus on the transgressive gender politics that characterized the 1970s. In particular, Altman’s The Long Goodbye addresses the subtleties of gender and sexuality. A revisionist noir, it abandons the typical noir aesthetics and transplants Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel of the same title to a hazy, washed-out Los Angeles. Introducing this film in Sight & Sound, Kim Newman points out that the conventional reading of The Long Goodbye was that it was a critique of Chandler’s worldview and his vision of Philip Marlowe, the exemplar of the hard-boiled detective. The charismatic Marlowe who deftly flirts with every woman he sees, originally set to be portrayed by Humphrey Bogart, contrasts with the casting of the mumbling, taciturn drifter as embodied by Elliott Gould, with his unruly hair, nonchalance, and an untainted innocence. An outsider to the world he inhabits, Altman’s Marlowe is an ideal candidate to explore the dark underbelly of Los Angeles.

Living in the High Tower Court complex that sits atop a steep hillside, Marlowe is alienated from his surroundings. Awakened by his hungry, petulant cat, he walks into the kitchen to feed it. With its curtains undrawn, the window in the kitchen can be seen as a portal to the outside, or rather, a telescope that brings it closer. Living across from him, his neighbors, a commune of women dedicated to nude yoga, are still active in the middle of the night. He looks at them in silence. Standing in the rear right of the frame, Marlowe is pushed to the periphery. Observing the women through a layer of glass, which poses a visual barrier, he makes clear his disinterest in the female sexuality so blatantly flaunted under his nose. Rendered in this light, he rests on the outside of heteronormativity. This scene shot inside his apartment thus foregrounds the ways in which he engages with the world around him: never belonging to a community, he steps back and scrutinizes from a distance, as his occupation requires him to. In his book-length study on film noir and the urban landscape, Edward Dimendberg devotes a chapter to Los Angeles. Examining the role that Marlowe plays in Chandler’s fictions, he writes: “As a private investigator, Marlowe is in a privileged position to grasp the social and spatial structure of Los Angeles; hence the prominence of specular diversions and opportunities for gazing at the city throughout his urban journeys.”12Edward Dimendberg, “Centrifugal Space,” in Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 171. Even though Dimendberg here is discussing in particular the Bogart version of Marlowe, his claim can also be applied to the character as inhabited by Gould despite the discrepancy previously mentioned. Indeed, to infiltrate the seedy underworld of this city, Marlowe must play the part of a spectator, without any personal and romantic attachment that may lead him astray.

Marlowe, the “mobile perceptual center that links concrete experience with a social and political structure of growing complexity,” drives past freeways stretching between different locales—from the metropolitan area to the coastal region—to investigate the suspicious death of Sylvia Lennox.13Dimendberg, “Centrifugal Space,” 171. Amongst the sleazy coteries of individuals that he meets, the affluent Roger and Eileen Wade stand out, who seem to have a certain knowledge of Sylvia’s murder. Much of the second half of the film takes place in their Malibu home. In an extended party sequence set on the coast, a fight breaks out. Refusing to pay his bills from a detoxification clinic, Roger lapses into a fit of rage. The camera turns constantly from his distressed face to his friends, all appalled by his sudden outburst. Unwilling to speak about his troubles, he exits the scene with a hundred questions left unanswered. In broad daylight, the Malibu coast morphs into a “bright, guilty place”—so perfectly encapsulated by Orson Welles—teeming with secrets, buried to the sound of the sea. Later the same day, Roger drowns in the ocean. The peaceful coastline in the darkness loses its warmth; instead, it threatens to wash up its secrets on the shore. Only in the cacophony of voices and the piercing light coming from the search party does Eileen own up to the truth, which leads to a bigger lie: that her husband had been involved in an affair with Sylvia, and might have killed her. Regarded in this light, the coast, much like Norma’s mansion, preserves and protects the sprouting of nonconformist relationships.

Fig. 3. Still from The Long Goodbye: Marlowe in Eileen Wade’s Malibu home. United Artists, 1973.

In the three noirs that this essay surveys, Los Angeles inverts its image of the land of freedom and regeneration. Instead, it becomes a dark web wrapping the processes of change inside, especially in terms of gender relations. With wartime mobilization upsetting the traditional conception of gender roles and encouraging consumer culture, the Spanish revival house and the supermarket in Double Indemnity transform into sites of rebellion against the nuclear family. The postwar upheavals, characterized by the crisis within masculinity, are reflected in Sunset Boulevard’s use of Norma’s mansion and downtown locales. Fast forward to the 1970s, a period reigned by progressive gender politics, and unconventional desires manifest in Marlowe’s apartment and the Malibu coast. Taking advantage of the public and private spaces in Los Angeles, film noir is able to comment on dissentient relationships across time — each of them different, yet strangely similar in their resistance to the traditional family and social structures.




1 Tina Olsin Lent, “The Dark Side of the Dream: The Image of Los Angeles in Film Noir,” Southern California Quarterly, vol. 69 (1987): 334
2 Lent, “The Dark Side of the Dream,” 332.
3 Paul Schrader, “Notes on Film Noir,” Film Comment, vol. 8 (1972): 10-11
4 Lent, “The Dark Side of the Dream,” 329.
5 Mike Davis, “Sunshine or Noir?” in City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (London: Verso, 2006), 18.
6 Frank Krutnik, In a Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity (New York: Routledge, 2001), 57.
7, 8 Krutnik, In a Lonely Street, 60.
9 Erik Dussere, “Out of the Past, Into the Supermarket: Consuming Film Noir,” Film Quarterly, vol. 60 (2006): 19.
10 Erik Dussere, “Out of the Past, Into the Supermarket:” 21.
11 Krutnik, In a Lonely Street, 61.
12 Edward Dimendberg, “Centrifugal Space,” in Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 171.
13 Dimendberg, “Centrifugal Space,” 171.
Zhou, Junyi. "From a Derelict Mansion to the Malibu Coast: Film Noir, Urban Spaces, and the Articulation of Gender Identity in Los Angeles." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 8, no. 2 (June 2023)
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