Noir L.A.: Bunker Hill Lost and Found

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Proposed building project for Bunker Hill (unrealized), 1950 Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

by Deborah Sorensen

The National Building Museum was proud to partner with the American Film Institute (AFI) Silver Theatre and Cultural Center to present two film series in association with the exhibition Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940–1990 (organized by the Getty Research Institute and the J. Paul Getty Museum) exploring L.A.’s modern architectural legacy in film. Part one, Overdrive: L.A. Noir, 1940–1959, reveals the changing landscape of post-war Los Angeles as filmmakers took to the streets and used gritty locales to mirror dark narrative themes.

Bunker Hill’s nostalgic charm—with its now raggle-taggle gingerbread houses that were Los Angeles’ pride in an earlier era—will give way to high rise architecture as our city begins to meet its space-age potential.
–Julie Byrne, Los Angeles Times, July 22, 1965

CRISS CROSS (Robert Siodmak, 1949).

Film Noir is a slippery construct that inspires debates over style, story, context, and time period. John Huston’s 1941 hardboiled detective film The Maltese Falcon is generally cited as the start of a cycle of American films known for their dark themes and stylized visuals. However, it wasn’t until a wartime ban on Hollywood films was lifted in 1946 that French critics coined the term Film Noir (“Dark Film”), and it was many more years before American critics similarly labeled films of the 1940s and 50s as “noir.” Stylistically, the genre has roots in 1920s German expressionism, ties to gangster films of the 1930s, and parallels to 1940s Italian neorealism. It also has many narrative forms, including police procedurals, detective stories and melodramas. What is easier to agree upon is the important role that L.A. plays in noir storytelling; with one neighborhood in particular, Bunker Hill, taking center stage.

The Bunker Hill you see in films of the 40s and 50s is, of course, a fiction, an imagining—if not a critique—of urban space, located in what was a very real and contested neighborhood labeled as undesirable by those clearing the way for new development. Inspired in part by pulp magazine stories of the day, the film noir image of Bunker Hill as a haven for criminal activity is not the reason the neighborhood was eventually leveled to make way for parking lots and banks—but it certainly could not have helped.

Early Years

The residential development of Bunker Hill was established on a hilly edge of downtown Los Angeles in the 1860s, and by the turn of the century it was the city’s most exclusive neighborhood—filled with stately Victorian homes and grand hotels. The city grew rapidly during this time, its population swelling from nearly 6,000 in 1870 to more than 300,000 in 1910, and Bunker Hill’s elite soon departed for less congested (and more automobile friendly) suburbs to the west. The area evolved into a diverse community of middle- to working-class residents; its mix of rooming houses, apartment buildings, shops, bars, and restaurants connected to the expanding city by steep roads, stairways and funiculars, like the iconic Angels Flight (built 1901).

Not long after the first motion picture companies were established in Los Angeles in the 1910s, filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and others began to explore Bunker Hill’s onscreen potential; using its height to frame action against views of the city, stairways for comic pratfalls, and tunnel overlooks for trick shots in which characters appear to dangle from tall buildings. The area proved popular until the late 1920s when the arrival of sound pulled cameras and crews off the streets of Los Angeles and put them into more easily controlled studio environments. It would be nearly twenty years before Bunker Hill could be seen onscreen as frequently as it had been during the silent era.

Beginning of the End

Bunker Hill was seen as a barrier to development in the expanding city, and plans were proposed to level it as early as 1912, and again in 1928, but were put on hold by the Great Depression and World War II. During this period the dense urban community of Bunker Hill was also being memorialized, usually unfavorably, by writers like Paul Cain (Fast One, 1933), John Fante (Ask the Dust, 1939) and Raymond Chandler (The High Window, 1942). The neighborhood was home to primarily low-income elderly tenants living in structures that were also showing their age, making Chandler’s oft-cited generalization of Bunker Hill as an “old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town” difficult to contradict.

The 1940s and 1950s saw a succession of ambitious plans to redevelop the “blight” of Bunker Hill and intense public opinion battles waged. Hill business owners and residents who had supported pre-war public housing plans, mobilized against mixed-use proposals seen as land grabs that would displace more than 11,000 people. Although protests delayed action, the multimillion dollar Bunker Hill Urban Renewal Project was adopted in 1959—the largest plan of its kind in the country—and the neighborhood began to be cleared. Bunker Hill’s last remaining structures, the “Saltbox” and “Castle,” were moved in 1969 to the newly established Heritage Square site a few miles up the road from another contentious L.A. redevelopment project—Dodger Stadium. Sadly, both buildings were lost to fire, presumably by arson, only eight months later.

Noir L.A.

Bunker Hill residences, “The Castle” and “The Saltbox,” sit on blocks awaiting their removal to Montecito Heights, January 1969. Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Just as silent-era comedians had been attracted to Bunker Hill for its picturesque features and urban milieu, postwar filmmakers saw potential in the area’s idiosyncratic architecture and unusual geography, although for more dark and complex storylines. Its turn of the century gingerbread homes and funiculars offered a stark, nostalgia-laced, contrast to the well-dressed criminals who drove new cars and conspired inside anonymous apartment buildings. Where the local press and authorities saw slum conditions, Hollywood saw the qualities of authenticity needed for an emerging genre of on-location, documentary-style crime pictures.

The first title in the L.A. Noir series took direct inspiration from a New York-based film, Jules Dassin’s influential on-location procedural The Naked City (1948). Producer Mark Hellinger wanted to do for Los Angeles what he and Dassin had done for New York and the idea for Criss Cross (Robert Siodmak, 1949) was born. The completed film conveys a unique dual vision of L.A., from the Deco glamour of Union Station to the smoking, industrial expanse of Terminal Island. Bunker Hill is similarly split in terms of its representation, at once the sunlit home-sweet-home of Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) and the shadowy lair in which an ill-fated heist is planned. Critics took notice film’s “air of realism,” as did producers like MGM’s Dore Schary  who “told [his] production units, ‘We’re in a different world, I want you to go down to Los Angeles and photograph some streets’.” (Dawson, p. 50).

In addition to Criss Cross, a handful of other films portray Bunker Hill in terms of its faded residential glory, such as Douglas Sirk’s Shockproof (1949) and the Dan Duryea melodrama Chicago Calling (1951). But more often than not, the Hill was a setting for illicit behavior (M), criminal activity (Criss Cross), violence (Cry Danger and Kiss Me Deadly), and entrapment (Act of Violence). For as long as on-location films noir remained popular—and they did well into the 1960s, even as buildings were coming down—filmmakers returned to Bunker Hill, reusing locations that they or others had featured before and sometimes even substituting other parts of the city as Hill locations. By the mid to late 1960s, however, most of Bunker Hill’s buildings were down and “space age” L.A. was on the rise; tastes were different and crime stories had found a new home on the small screen.

The story of Bunker Hill on film is a tangle of film production and urban history, in which the neighborhood was used as much to provide crime films with a sense of seedy local color, as it was to provide filmmakers with a convenient downtown ‘backlot’ of varied building types and great views of the city (particularly City Hall). But regardless of how post-war noirs portrayed the real place that was Bunker Hill, or the people that called it home, they nonetheless provide a valuable record of the neighborhood’s final days, as Los Angeles was launched into a period of dramatic change.