The Fight for Los Angeles’ Soul

SO, THIS afternoon, I was finally finished with deadlines and ducked in to see Gangster Squad. It was at one of the theaters up here where you pick your seat before you go in and you’re not bombarded with advertisements while you wait for the show to start.

The gentleman who “introduced” the film for us this afternoon decided to go personal: He told the five or so of us gathered at the early show that he liked the film because he’d arrived in Los Angeles in 1960 “Before Bunker Hill was all torn down. When the city in places still looked like it does in this film.”

He talked a bit more about what he missed about the old Los Angeles — and about how much had been gutted in the name of progress. It was passionate and startling but welcome little-extra feature, hearing this impromptu oral history.

The film? I liked more than I expected. But if you know enough about this story you’re going to be a little more than a bit frustrated by how liberally facts are bent, time-frames changed. Sean Penn, (as Mickey Cohen) looked as if he enjoyed every mili-second inhabiting this role — thrashing about, throwing fists, eventually wielding a Tommy gun; and Josh Brolin’s performance, as John O’Mara, the head of the Gangster Squad, felt solid and authentic, like something plucked from luminous black and white celluloid — all dead stare, square jaw. But the star of this film is Los Angeles — a reconstructed L.A.: spacious, elegant, untamed — sunlight and neon. That’s the part of the film I didn’t want to walk away from. The usher was right, with so much of the smaller details that comprised the old L.A. bulldozed away — it wasn’t the obvious iconic landmarks — City Hall, the Hollywoodland sign — but the bungalows and dining room the built-ins, the tap rooms and restaurants — even Cohen’s “leisure wear” recalled those old photographs in the papers of “life on the Coast.”

Michael Peña and Anthony Mackie -- from Gangster Squad

Michael Peña and Anthony Mackie — from Gangster Squad

The script also grazed some social/racial issues, with both an African American and Latino member of the detail who are less characters than archetypes. Their presence (and the ensemble’s reaction to it) was a device to communicate racial attitudes of the era.

Even in this “wide-open L.A.” in this motley band of outsiders — these two men existed on its outer-edge.

images — top: Mickey Cohen via all
bottom: via


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