With its year-round sunshine, diverse landscapes and wild-west sensibilities, Los Angeles was a natural choice to become the center of the movie industry. In the early 20th century, movies were made not only in the newly-built studios and in its backlots, but also on the streets of the city – streets that have changed a great deal since then. Here, for the next installment of our Movie Atlas, we take a look back at movies that capture time-capsule footage of vintage LA and feature some of the best Los Angeles movie locations…
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
It’s hard to think of Los Angeles without thinking of Sunset Boulevard, the iconic street that stretches all the way from the coast to Downtown. And it’s hard to think of the street without thinking of Billy Wilder’s 1950 film noir starring Gloria Swanson and William Holden. Sunset has been associated with the movie industry since 1911 when the first studio opened there, and it’s arguably the city’s most famous thoroughfare.
Sunset Boulevard showcases parts of the well-known street, as well as Hollywood more generally, with long-gone locations like Schwab’s Pharmacy (which once stood at 8024 Sunset but was torn down in the Eighties), and the celebrity hotspot Perino’s Restaurant at 3927 Wilshire.
Joe Gillis’ apartment scenes were filmed at the Alto Nido, a real building in Hollywood which used to be rented by struggling writers, and Norma Desmond’s mansion (10086 Sunset) was actually located just off Wilshire at 641 South Irving. Movie fans may recognize it from another LA classic Rebel without a Cause, which used it as a location two years before it was torn down and replaced with an office block.
Rebel without a Cause (1955)
The classic teen angst movie Rebel without a Cause is set in a nameless town, but it’s clearly Los Angeles. And one of the city’s most striking locations is the setting for some of its key moments – the Griffith Observatory, located high above the sprawling city in the hills near the Hollywood sign.
The most famous scene shot there is a knife fight on a ledge overlooking the city, and the characters return to the site again, at night, for the tragic final scenes. Today it’s hard to visit the Observatory without thinking of James Dean, and a bust of the actor stands there on a pedestal as a further reminder.
Elsewhere throughout the film, we see other footage of LA’s streets 60 years ago, school scenes at Santa Monica High, and shots of 641 Irving, this time as the mansion Dean and Natalie Wood pretend to buy.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
This science fiction film noir was directed by Robert Aldrich, based on the Mickey Spillane novel. It’s a great time capsule, not only because of the Cold War era storyline, but because of its great locations and sense of place.
The once-elegant Downtown neighborhood of Bunker Hill features prominently. Once the home of affluent Angelenos, it boasted magnificent views of the city, but by 1960 it was run down and decaying, and it was later largely demolished to make way for high rises and concert halls. Although some of the locations are now gone (Hill Crest Hotel on 3rd and Olive, and the Donigan Castle on Bunker Hill Avenue), some remain, including the much-loved Angel’s Flight incline railway, most recently featured in the 2016 movie La La Land.
Other locations include the Hollywood Athletic Club on West Sunset (which was the tallest building in LA when it was built in 1924), and the Club Pigalle nightclub on Figueroa.
The Exiles (1961)
If you’re looking for a really unique view of 20th-century LA, this innovative docudrama, directed by Kent MacKenzie, has rarely been seen outside of film festivals as it never received a commercial release. However, according to Thom Anderson, director of Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), a documentary about the city in movies, it is “a remarkable record of a city that has vanished.” The movie follows a group of young Native Americans who leave their reservation to live in the Victorian neighborhood of Bunker Hill. The cast takes to the streets of the city at night, and the Angel’s Flight funicular makes yet another appearance. If you want to watch the movie, it is available on DVD from Milestone Films.
Angel’s Flight (1965)
Yet another chance to see the streets of the long-gone Bunker Hill neighborhood, this film noir tells the story of an alcoholic newspaper reporter who falls for a stripper. As he follows her around the streets (Third and Olive), past the Third Street Tunnel and into the Angel’s Flight terminal and café, he gradually discovers that she is in fact a serial murderer. Directed by Raymond Nassour and Kenneth W. Richardson, Angel’s Flight is one of the last movies filmed in Bunker Hill before it was demolished and gives you a real feel for the streetscape. The neighborhood had apparently become so run down that the funicular became a symbol of despair, and this movie has some great footage of it. It can be watched in full on YouTube.
Model Shop (1969)
French filmmaker Jacques Demy’s first English film was inspired by a trip to LA. He told the LA Times in 1968: “I came here for a vacation, not to make a movie. But I fell in love with LA. I just had to make a film. It’s so marvellous. … I learned the city by driving – from one end of Sunset to the other, down Western all the way to Long Beach. LA has the perfect proportions for film. It fits the frame perfectly.”
Demy avoided the sound stage, big stars and a big budget, instead choosing the city streets themselves as locations, and real people whenever possible. His homage to the city follows a troubled architect and an erotic model (Anouk Aimée reprising her role from Demy’s 1960 film Lola) through the maze of LA’s streets – with a memorable scene at Dockweiler Beach. Vincent Canby of The New York Times described the movie as a “film made by a sensitive tourist”, and as such it stands alone.
Directed by Roman Polanski, Chinatown is the story of a private detective (Jack Nicholson) battling municipal corruption in Los Angeles, 1939. And it’s considered by many to be the quintessential LA movie. According to Polanski, screenwriter Robert Towne “had this thing about Los Angeles, about the history of the city, and that’s what makes it so profound. Without that, you would just have another detective thing.”
Its production designer Richard Sylbert described Chinatown as “a Los Angeles movie, not a Hollywood movie”. Scenes are set all over the city, well-known and unknown alike – inside LA’s City Hall, at Point Fermin in San Pedro, and on row boats in Echo Park’s lake. The production even made it out to the city’s adjacent Catalina Island and features the Avalon Casino, a 1928 Spanish-Moderne waterside building on Crescent Bay, and El Rancho Escondido.
Even though the original script never set foot in any actual Chinatown, Polanski insisted the movie should – and it reaches its climax at Spring and Ord, in LA’s real Chinatown. For fans of the city, this movie is unmissable.
If you’re thinking of exploring Los Angeles movie locations like the Sunset Boulevard or Chinatown, we have a great collection of LA homes available for rental. Check them out here.