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 cataloguing 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 Ward’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, Losey’s remake of M, and Kiss Me Deadly. The Bunker Hill and Angel’s Flight railcar 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 The Exiles, which shows Bunker Hill in the late 50s as a neighborhood clinging to life by its fingernails, as 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 noir 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 “caberetera” film, where the decay and squalor of the physical surroundings seeps into the souls of the characters.
One can also trace a direct 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 Angel’s Flight 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 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. The FNF would do right by its mission if it tracked down Thourlby (who was also the producer as well as the star), who is apparently still alive, make a deal with UCLA to create a new print, and program a slot in NC5 to show it with The Exiles as “Bunker Hill Noir’s Last Stand.”
ANGEL'S FLIGHT was re-screened at the Egyptian Theater in 2015, as part of downtown Los Angeles historian Nathan Marsak's ongoing presentations about Bunker Hill.
Writer Dean(e) Romano, interviewed as noted in the following commentary from AFI's online sources, passed away in 2011; William Thourlby, who was the likely instigator of the apparently lost SHOCK HILL variant of the film, changed careers in the 1970s and passed away in 2013. (The haste with which the FNF arranged for its screening of ANGEL'S FLIGHT seems to have omitted any effort to contact Thourlby at the time.)
Here are more production notes as pieced together and consolidated in the AFI online entry for ANGEL'S FLIGHT:
Angel's Flight was filmed in and around the aging Bunker Hill neighborhood of downtown Los Angeles in the summer of 1962, according to notes by Bob Martin, who shot still photographs for the production, and dates written on clapper boards visible in those photos. A prominent landmark in the film is Angels Flight, a 1901 funicular, or incline railway, from which "Liz" jumps to her death. The Los Angeles Police Department reportedly shut down production at one point because the crew was shooting without permits.
Writer Deane Romano, whose first name in credits was spelled Dean, told AFI Catalog that he found the negative for Angel's Flight at a Hollywood film laboratory in the 1980s and rescued it. The ending was gone, so he duplicated the opening credits and added them to the end. A digitized version of the film was shown at a Los Angeles film noir festival at Hollywood's Egyptian Theater in 2005, and KCET, Los Angeles' Public Television affiliate, aired it as part of its coverage of the reopening of Angels Flight. A positive film copy may not exist, and following Romano's death in 2011, the whereabouts of the negative is uncertain. However, the film is mostly extant and available.
There is some doubt whether the picture was theatrically released in the 1960s. A re-edited version with a newly filmed wrap-around story may have played at Midwestern drive-ins under the name Shock Hill.
Over the years, the funicular's name has been spelled Angel's Flight and, more recently, Angels Flight. Romano explained that he gave the title an apostrophe because the story is about "an angel in flight."
The club where "Liz" performed her dance act was The Other Ball, located at 825 East Valley Boulevard in San Gabriel, northeast of Los Angeles. It was the sister club of The Odd Ball in Santa Monica, CA.
Director of photography Glen Gano's career went back to the silent film era.
Angel's Flight is prized for its location coverage of Los Angeles' Bunker Hill neighborhood, which was slowly being razed when filming took place, according to Jim Dawson’s landmark Los Angeles’s Bunker Hill: Pulp Fiction’s Mean Streets and Film Noir’s Ground Zero (2012). By 1969, the last remnants of the hill, including Angels Flight, were hauled away. During the 1920s, and again from the late 1940s into the 1960s, Bunker Hill was used as a location in well over a hundred films. See also M (1950), Chicago Calling (1952), The Turning Point (1952), and The Exiles (1961).
OTHER writers/bloggers have been haunted by ANGEL'S FLIGHT, and their commentary can be found around the Internet if you spend some time searching for them. To save you some time, here are some of them. First, we have the impassioned advocacy of AndreIron from Letterboxd:
Perhaps you would first encounter this truly unknown oddity through its title, which poetically promises something otherworldly and eerie, but literally refers to one of THE iconic LA locations: Bunker Hill and the lift that takes its denizens from the slums to up above. Walled off from the rest of the city by the landscape itself, the victim of the flight of its more affluent residents, neglected at large until it became an unsafe-haven for the destitute and lost, finally demolished and with its residents scattered, the Hill is a story no noir writer could have come up with.
So perhaps you think this Z-grade exploiter has only capsule value. Oh, it has that: the underpass, the tenements, the streets and park benches, and the (eponymous) lift all make their appearance. One of the most memorable scenes features the saddest rendition of "Rock of Ages", with uncomfortably convincing extras, in a dilapidated church. Because this is a noir meant to make some quick cash, of course there's a scene where a bartender shoots the breeze with a drunk hack, whose stories are accompanied by Weegee-like snapshots of hell. When he finds out his ambition and occupation, he says that he should really tell the stories of the people, that are worth telling. It may have been accidental, but this grubby film achieved that.
"There's a devil loose out here."
"There's always been devils loose..."
Yet, this is an excellent horror noir beyond its accidental chronicle of a lost world. It is rather a haunting film in its own right, a melancholy entrant in the estimable Psychotic woman genre, granted power by the eternal themes of the loss of control that comes with loss of innocence. It takes almost all of its atmosphere and plot cues from The Screaming Mimi, though it curiously jettisons the ingenious structure and revelation that has always given the tale its raw power (so powerful even Oswald's campy version from 1958 can't dull its edge). The violence is intimate and hinted at, often observed at a high angle from the perspective of a witness. The camera is surprisingly fluid, with Scorsese-esque push-ins and subtle tracks. There is a hauntingly mystical motif of church candles put at play (I was reminded of the avant-garde horror The Voices at several points), with startling close-ups and shifts in composition to punctuate key scenes. There's care in this story. Argento's excellent adaptation left out everything but the twist--this film loses the final punch, but keeps the soul. It is relevant, and poignant.
"Do you know that sometimes murders happen INSIDE a man?"
Finally, there is the angel herself: Indus Arthur. She is intense, beautiful, innocent and fascinating. Nothing is played for titillation--she is alert and ferocious at every moment. It should have propelled her into the big leagues. Put her and Sian Barbara Allen as my discoveries of the year. She is fascinating to watch as she walks down her equally fascinating milieu, and convinces totally as an innocent brought down by the world.
This only exists in a crappy, VHS dupe copy, perhaps befitting the society it lives in. But like those who lived in it, it deserves to be seen.
Others are less enthralled by the film's relentless downbeat swirl, but Cigar Joe at the Noirsville blog is appreciative, and indefatigable in his supply of screen captures from the film (sadly, the quality is wretched, but in some ways this gives the film an oddly added power, particularly in its embodiment of "after the end-state" film noir). Those interested in seeing more without watching the film itself will get a good sense of it thanks to the copious images.
Chris Zisi veers into femme fatale territory in his interpretation at his "Emporium of B Movies" blogsite. But the prolific Zisi (over 1000 posts on hyper-edgy movies since 2013, and still going strong) is drawn to the psychoexotic like a moth to a...threshing machine. A solid, positive, albeit somewhat perfunctory review: those similarly inclined toward the ultra-extreme genres may find more fodder in his other entries.