Hard-Boiled Hollywood: Crime and Punishment in Postwar Los Angeles (Preview)
by Jon Lewis. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017. 248 pp., illus. Hardcover: $85.00 and Paperback: $29.95.

Reviewed by Adam Nayman

“Hollywood will fuck you when nobody else will,” says Mike Starr’s cynical detective Russ Millard in The Black Dahlia (2006). His cruel zinger zeroes in on a home truth about a city eternally predicated on projections of desire. Adapting James Ellroy’s classic true-crime novel about the famously unsolved 1947 slaying of would-be starlet Elizabeth Short, Brian De Palma faithfully translates the book’s plot as well as its ingenious central conceptual pun, in which a literal “little death” on the outskirts of the movie-industrial complex becomes a metaphorical entry point into a sprawling, morbid, and perverse coastal underworld where sex, murder, and cinema are hopelessly intertwined.

Former Cinema Journal editor Jon Lewis’s new book Hard-Boiled Hollywood is set against this same backdrop—what he calls “The Real Estate of Crime.” The author’s methodology differs significantly from that of Ellroy and De Palma; he’s a historian rather than an entertainer. But he understands the allure of pulp fiction as well as its unique documentary value. Although it’s first and foremost a work of historiography, compiling articles and anecdotes covering a fifteen-year period between the end of World War II and the beginning of the Kennedy–Camelot Sixties, Hard-Boiled Hollywood has the narrative momentum and visceral pull of a paperback page-turner.

Mia Kirshner in  The Black Dahlia  by Brian de Palma.

Mia Kirshner in The Black Dahlia by Brian de Palma.

If it’s less droolingly prurient than Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, that’s a matter of authorial voice rather than content. In fact, one way to look at this absorbing and scrupulously researched book is as a mild corrective to Anger’s enduring, appalling lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous exposé. Instead of simply being hypnotized by the spectacle of celebrities behaving badly, Lewis pays tribute to a handful of sad, foreshortened lives on the margins—starting with Short, whose introduction to the world as what John Gregory Dunne famously (and insinuatingly) termed “a pair of legs sticking out from a bush” is the subject of the first chapter, and extending to a series of similarly victimized women.

That Hard-Boiled Hollywood is bookended by the death of Marilyn Monroe and features a key cameo by a supine Lana Turner (not dead but unconscious after a much-publicized fainting spell at a swank studio party) is in keeping with Lewis’s stated ambition to write a book about “dead bodies left by the side of the road in post-war Los Angeles.” This setup sounds glib, but reveals itself in time as an exercise in empathy—a gesture of recognition to the wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time victims sacrificed on the altar of earnest aspiration. In contrast to Anger’s celebratory voyeurism, which basically boils down to “there’s no business like show business,” Lewis frames Short’s killing as the primal scene of a larger transition. “The public’s fascination with the [murder] accompanied a new Hollywood narrative,” he writes. “The city of dreams and dreamers had become the site of a new American nightmare.”

The Black Dahlia was the slashed, distorted face of that nightmare, and the revelation that Short had harbored dreams of making it as an actress added posthumous pathos to her fate (the De Palma film restages her auditions as heartbreaking exploitation). It also raised serious questions about the milieu in which she had been entangled in the weeks before her murder. The sheer pileup of potential subjects, none of whom were ever definitively fingered for the crime, indicated that sunny Los Angeles was a far more shadowy place than its official chroniclers had previously let on. Not only that, but the obsession with these dirty details was such that they started to infiltrate the movies themselves. The noirs of the 1940s had radiated a certain pessimism—and cast capitalism’s promises in a dim light. Lewis identifies a wave of nastily self-reflexive post noirs that transposed the genre’s bleak worldview to Hollywood itself. In a dazzling little fillip of film criticism, he lines up Sunset Boulevard, In a Lonely Place, and The Big Knife as three spiritually sympatico movies haunted by the presence of the Black Dahlia—all three deal in some way with the discovery of a dead body, and all reflect the collapsing old-school studio system that produced them.

Hard-Boiled Hollywood takes pains to explain how behind-the-scenes impropriety of all kinds contributed to an across-the-board institutional restructuring: it’s a picture of a paradigm shift encompassing the Paramount antitrust case, the rise of television, and an insatiable public appetite for sensation. The Hollywood it tours isn’t just hard-boiled, but cracking at a foundational level. Lewis lavishes extended attention on the intersection of studio hierarchies and gangland power brokering. “By the mid-1930s,” he writes, “mobsters, moguls and movie stars co-mingled frequently and often carelessly,” and the peril that came with the new order is persuasively connected to the introductory material about the Black Dahlia. Even leaving aside conspiracy theories that Short’s death was a mob hit (which get duly inventoried here, along with even wilder postulations drawn from crime reports of the era), the focus on encroaching criminality at every level of Hollywood—including the mob’s infiltration of the labor sector via the Teamsters—makes the case that by the late 1940s, a pervasive, implacable corruption, already present but largely repressed, had taken hold…

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