At the beginning of Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom spies an accident on a Los Angeles freeway and pulls over. As the police try to pull the car’s occupant from the burning vehicle and freelance news photographers swarm to get the best shot, Louis is transfixed. The city’s vast blanket of darkness is suddenly rent by light: flames, camera lights, and the flashers atop the cop cruiser. It is a moment both disorientating and beautiful, a possible death and a possible transaction simultaneously unfolding, and Louis sees the answer to his unvarnished ambitions.
Dan Gilroy’s 2014 film, a magisterial thriller about a sociopath with corporate desires, is not the first to find that Los Angeles after dark is a vast otherworldly realm where pools of light pepper the blackness and the possibilities are invigorating. If the enduring cinematic image of New York is the Manhattan street where storefronts and apartment buildings climb vertically upwards from the sidewalks, Los Angeles is a horizontal landscape punctuated by the palm tree. There’s empty space everywhere, waiting to be filled come dusk.
The road system can feel like the city’s cardiovascular system, with cars like the blood circulating through a body to keep it going. No moment is more in tune with Los Angeles in Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn’s neo-noir about a getaway driver, than the credit sequence, where Ryan Gosling’s wheelman cruises the city in silent contemplation. It’s the only time the character feels like a loyal citizen, at ease with his environment.
Sometimes the participants on the screen – themselves projected via light through the dark – don’t even have to leave their vehicles to get a sense of the dark city around them. In Michael Mann’s Collateral, where a tenacious cabbie (Jamie Foxx) is commandeered to be the driver of a ruthless hitman (Tom Cruise), the pair’s nocturnal journey is at one point interrupted by coyotes loping across the bitumen; the animals regard the people with disdainful glances as their eyes glow.
"Los Angeles after dark is a vast otherworldly realm where pools of light pepper the blackness and the possibilities are invigorating."
In such an environment homes look like redoubts, alluring and remote. The best sequence in Sofia Coffola’s black, biting satire The Bling Ring, the story of teenagers whose aspirational hopes lead to robbing celebrities, is a long shot of a reality television star’s deserted home being invaded. The adolescent robbers are like scurrying ants, running from room to room and turning on lights as the camera slowly zooms in to capture their acquisitive pathology at play.
Sometimes the potential of Los Angeles at night can be farcical: Jeff Goldblum’s frustrated insomniac ventures out one evening and encounters a jewel smuggler with numerous demands (Michael Pfeiffer) at the beginning of Into the Night, a John Landis comedy about a different kind of La La Land (bonus: David Bowie as a hitman), while Alicia Silverstone’s Cher dodging a crude suitor in the teen classic Clueless leaves her stranded but nonetheless safe after a high school party.
Mostly, however, it’s a metropolis where transgressions await when you cross an unseen boundary. Los Angeles is a city of communities whose inhabitants don’t move from one locale to the next, and people who venture beyond where they’re meant to invariably find trouble. Think of Jack Nicholson’s private eye in Chinatown, J.J. Gittes, running afoul of a pair of hoods (one played by director Roman Polanski) after he goes searching for the city’s water supply – his nostril gets slit with a knife as a warning.
It’s fitting that Los Angeles, the city that transformed the movies, should give the medium so many memorable moments at night. The sunshine and space proliferates during the daytime, but the streetscape is transformed when the sun goes down. David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, a film that gets L.A. as a state of mind, also takes shape at night, with another car crash, this time in the winding roads above the city. Only Laura Elena Harring’s femme fatale survives, and like Goldilocks she takes to another’s bed, awaiting her unexpected, troubling discovery.
Take that as a final, lingering lesson: whatever happens in Los Angeles by night stays with you long after dawn arrives.
Nightcrawler screens Saturday 27 June, 9:30pm on SBS, and after broadcast at SBS On Demand.
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