HMWYBS: Double Indemnity and LA Architecture

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I seem to start every Hit Me With Your Best Shot post like this, but I’m going to say it again: Today I would like to talk about one of my favorite subjects. No, this time it’s not Technicolor or film restoration or censorship (although I may get back to that one). This time, I want to talk about Los Angeles. Double Indemnity isn’t just the story of a crooked insurance salesman and a black widow housewife. It’s the symphony of a city, a tour through postwar LA like it wasn’t supposed to be but so often was: ugly, dark, and cruel. Architecture geeks (like me) revel in the wide array of architectural styles on display in the film. However, Billy Wilder’s real triumph is not just recording these styles, but using them to probe the fractured soul of a man and a city without a center.

In Billy Wilder’s Los Angeles, we see the smoggy streets of downtown…

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…the brighter, busier Hollywood Blvd…

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…the Art Deco arch of the Hollywood Bowl…

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…the staid Beax Arts design of Pacific Insurance (check out that “Tiffany” window)…

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…but most importantly, the Spanish Colonial Revival residence of one Phyllis Dietrichson.

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It looks sunny from the outside, cheery even. Spanish Colonial Revival is an almost uniquely Southern California architectural style, meant to celebrate regional history and atmosphere. When the style was first developed in the 1910s, Los Angeles was beginning a small boom as America’s Mediterranean Getaway. Spanish Colonial Revival mixed influences from Pueblo, Mediterranean, and of course Spanish architecture. Other styles initially competed with it (the Arts & Crafts movement in East LA and Neoclassical downtown). But while others faded, Spanish Colonial Revival has continued even to present day, due to its apparent appropriateness for its sunlit surroundings. After all, what is LA if not America’s Sunny Spot? But what happens when you go inside this little villa?

BEST SHOT

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An architectural style that’s supposed to celebrate sunshine and air and all of those things that make Los Angeles the New Mediterranean rendered claustrophobic and dark. The thick stucco walls loom, venetian blinds meant to let in sun instead cast shadows, overstuffed chairs feel sensual and decorative metal ornaments become twisted prison bars. The atmosphere is one of decadent entrapment, and at the center of it is Barbra Stanwyck, prisoner and jailer all in one.

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Imagine Norma Desmond decaying in a sleek modernist mansion. Imagine Dixon Steele eyeing his buxom neighbor through a large Chicago Window, unhidden by the metal grate. Imagine Mildred Pierce baking pies in her Kitchen Of Tomorrow, complete with dishwasher and laminate countertops. You can’t, can you? The mood, the melancholy, the malevolent shadows that creep from corners are the stylistic hallmarks of Los Angeles Noir, inextricably tied to an architectural style that goes from sunny to savage with the flick of a light switch. The International Style was too antiseptic, Art Deco too frenetic, Arts & Crafts too provincial. Noir demanded drama, humanity, and location, and Spanish Colonial Revival provided all three. There has never been a greater marriage of architecture and genre.

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About Anne Marie Kelly

Classic Film history & restoration nerd. Writer of A Year With Kate and Women's Pictures for The Film Experience. Follow me on Twitter @WeRecycleMovies.
This entry was posted in Film and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to HMWYBS: Double Indemnity and LA Architecture

  1. Well written and instructional. Now, I want to go visit the Dietrichson house.

  2. Nathaniel R says:

    “prisoner and jailer all in one” — LOVELY POST! It’s interesting to read about the movie through this prism (architecture) because I know not a thing about the subject but I totally hear you. well done.

  3. Squasher88 says:

    Nice post. The Spanish Colonial architecture definitely stood out to me while I was watching.

  4. Patrick says:

    My favorite shot is the one with the Hollywood Bowl.

  5. sona says:

    It totally looks like The Sunset Boulevard.

  6. Pingback: HMWYBS: Spring Breakers Isn’t My Cup of Jungle Juice | We Recycle Movies

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