Let’s begin with a digression. The sense of place in noir is a key element in how these films distinguish themselves. As location shooting became more commonplace, urban scenery began to dominate the visual style of noir, becoming a kind of shortcut for establishing the narrative environment.
Paradoxically, however, American film historians haven’t done a very good job in cataloging and analyzing the use of urban locations. There are exceptions, of course. Thom Andersen’s visual essay, Los Angeles Plays Itself, is an ambitious attempt to find the real city amidst its many guises in the movies. This effort takes its point of departure from the dawn of noir, where location shooting began to be a more self-conscious matter, establishing the urban setting as either a subtext to the story being told or a subliminal character within the film itself.
Silver and Ursini’s recent book, L.A. Noir,alludes to Andersen’s work but mostly fails to build on it in any meaningful way. Its filmography, encompassing just 36 films from both noir and neo-noir, exposes the shallowness of its construction. A few connective paragraphs of generalized urban history have been superimposed into a series of geographically-organized film synopses.
The arc of the book is meant to indicate that noir, as represented in Los Angeles, has shifted its ground from a vertiginous, claustrophobic sense of corruption to a horizontal homogeneity that inexorably eats away at the suburban landscape. Such an arc is a bit too pat, since most of the vertiginous atmospherics in noir are studio constructions. What’s really needed is some better way to compare the visual strategies of noir and neo-noir as represented in urban location shooting. Alas, L.A. Noir isn’t going to get us there.
Andersen’s points about the anonymity of vast portions of the city ring truer, and suggest that we need better and more specific points of reference for understanding the changes in noir that resonate with the evolution of L.A.’s urban environment.
One of those key points of reference is Bunker Hill. Andersen chronicles it in various segments in Los Angeles Plays Itself, showing how it is a signifier for a pivotal period of Los Angeles urban history. Noir chronicles the decline of Bunker Hill in a series of location settings spanning the first decade after WW II in films such as Criss Cross, Cry Danger (a film completely overlooked by Silver and Ursini), Losey’s remake of M, and Kiss Me Deadly. The Bunker Hill and Angel’s Flight rail car sequences in these films are all remarkably evocative, but also contain significant differences that resonate within the films themselves.
Andersen takes the story further, in his magnificent reconstruction of the nascent “neo-realism movement” in Los Angeles filmmaking, beginning with Kent Mackenzie’s exceptional "docu-noir" The Exiles, which shows Bunker Hill in the late 50s as a neighborhood clinging to life by its fingernails, a dumping ground for the expatriated Indians who try to overcome the effects of their dislocation. We are pretty much past the realm of noir as we commonly define it by this point, but the echoes of it to be found here are suggestive and haunting.
Even later, and not unearthed by Andersen, is Angel’s Flight, a low-budget noir-exploitation hybrid set smack in the middle of an even-grubbier-than-before Bunker Hill. A great deal of effort was made by the principals involved in Angel’s Flight to use the setting as a metaphor, creating a tragic story around a fallen “angel”--a beautiful young woman traumatized by a rape into murderous revenge with men who make sexual advances. Angel’s Flight has more of the feel of a downbeat Mexican “cabaretera” film, where the decay and squalor of the physical surroundings seeps into the souls of the characters.
One can also trace a lineage to the more lurid slasher films which began to pop up a few years later, and to Abel Ferrara, whose interest in combining sex, sin and religious guilt may have first been ignited by the awkward sequence where the sexually conflicted Liz (who has responded to her forced sexual “awakening” by becoming a stripper) performs her act; as it proceeds, the viewer is painfully aware of the struggle within Liz as she performs. Though she is extremely attractive, it’s clear that she is tremendously uncomfortable with her own body. The camera shifts from her body to her eyes, and holds there for a montage where images of candles appear through her, dissolving into a scene where Liz is surrounded by candles in a squalid storefront church.
It’s an awkward scene technically, but a resonant image nonetheless, considering how much it links in terms of the film’s setting, plot and theme. The other gazer on Liz whom we are linked with is a down-on-his-luck, boozing writer who witnessed one of her murders while drunk. A former crime reporter, he hooks up with an old friend on the police force and goes undercover into Bunker Hill to act as bait for the killer (who chooses only “pretty men” to kill). When he sees Liz dance, he begins to understand that she may be the killer, and once he befriends her, that her violent acts are a result of her victimization. Falling in love with her, he tries to save her.
The basic plot of Angel’s Flight has many similarities with The Screaming Mimi, but much of the exploitation aspects in the latter film have been eliminated in favor of an increased emphasis on this parallelism between physical and spiritual/psychological deterioration. By merely referring to the original traumatic event instead of depicting it onscreen, the film stays focused on the broader ramifications of a dangerous environment and its effects on those forced to exist in it.
60s starlet Indus Arthur, in her first film, is at the peak of her youthful beauty here, and this greatly aids her performance, which centers upon a projection of innocence and melancholy. William Thourlby, best known for his work as a male model (he was the original Marlboro Man), is stretched a bit beyond his means, but he improves as the film plays out.
There are many more mysteries about this film that a major-league film noir detective should tackle. The striptease sequence extends into an oddly filmed but strangely haunting singing performance featuring post-cool jazz vocals that sound like offshoots from the film’s oblique soundtrack (created by Bolivian composer-musician Jaime Mendoza-Nava, the only member of the production team to have a significant career in the film industry). The IMDb shows a role in the film for Australian-American actress Ann Richards, but it seems more likely that the singer in the post-striptease sequence is in fact a jazz vocalist of the same name, who was herself on the downward slide after a short period in the spotlight (as wife to Stan Kenton and featured singer on several of his late 50s/early 60s records). That would explain the references appended to the beginning of the print we have of this film, where she and Arthur (who both died in the 80s) are eulogized.
Angel’s Flight is not a “great lost noir”; it lacks the skill and depth (and enduring sociological relevance) achieved by Mackenzie in The Exiles. But it does deserve to be fully restored as a very interesting curio of the very last embers of film noir, and for its striking use of Bunker Hill in its final death throes.
Use the link below to go to Jim Dawson's website, where he has a long page discussing the various appearances of Angel's Flight in the movies...