Houses of film noir villains: through the Hollywood keyhole
Why is it that in Hollywood the bad guys always seem to get the best houses? Whether it’s Bond villains bent on world domination or crime kingpins looking out contemplatively from their beachfront villas, for many years the presence of modernity in a house could be taken as an indication of evil, immorality or megalomania.
Thom Andersen brilliantly dissected this Hollywood cliché in his 2003 film Los Angeles Plays Itself. Recently, though, there has been a turnround. It might have begun with Michael Mann, whose love of Los Angeles’ slick modernity shines through his films, but it certainly culminated in Tom Ford’s exquisitely shot A Single Man (2009) in which the sympathetic protagonist (played by Colin Firth) lives in a beautiful – if relatively ascetic by Hollywood standards – John Lautner house, the 1949 Schaffer Residence in Glendale.
But I’d like to concentrate on two of the bad guys’ houses – one of which is, incidentally, also designed by Lautner (1911-94), who has arguably become Hollywood’s favourite architect. If there is a reason for that popularity, it is that he designed such extraordinary houses that production designers seem to have difficulty coming up with anything more exotic, more outlandish, more futuristic or, frankly, more eccentrically beautiful. Reality, even in architecture, is often stranger than fiction.
The two houses are both in Los Angeles and were both designed by architects who had worked with Frank Lloyd Wright. They have one other thing in common: in the movies, they both belong to seedy pornographers living a glamorous lifestyle, a dark parody of the Hollywood movie dream.
The first is the Lovell Health House (1927-29) which appeared as the house of the slick, high-class pornographer and pimp Pierce Patchett in LA Confidential (1997). The second is the Sheats Goldstein Residence (1961-63) on the edge of Beverly Hills in Beverley Crest which made a memorable appearance in The Big Lebowski (1998) as the home of pornographer Jackie Treehorn.
The Lovell Health House was designed by Richard Neutra (1892-1970). Neutra was born in Vienna (where he studied under Adolf Loos) and emigrated to the US in 1923 where he worked, briefly, for Frank Lloyd Wright. He quickly established his own practice and the Lovell House was the commission that made his reputation. The house was arguably the first major European-style modernist house in the US, and it blended what would later be called the “International Style” with the expansiveness and openness to the landscape of Wright’s best work to make a kind of emergent American modernism.
It is an extraordinary building. Its spaces flow into each other, the interiors appear contiguous with the terraces and the layering of screens, walls and balconies creates a complex framing of every view and enhances a sense of depth and movement through space. Its interlocking volumes recall an abstract sculpture or a De Stijl painting, and the constant variations between single and double height spaces inside are a very clear echo of Adolf Loos’s raumplan. This is where an interior is conceived not solely through the plan but in section, through a complex three-dimensional conception of rooms distributed at different levels, each being allowed to develop a particular character derived, in part, from its relation to the others in the vertical as well as horizontal dimensions.
Unlike Loos’s spaces – dense, dark, domestic and inward looking – Neutra’s look to the Californian sky, each space oriented to a view. This combination of central European complexity and west coast sunshine proves the perfect foil for Curtis Hanson’s LA Confidential, with its labyrinthine plot and corrupt characters.
Film noir was itself inspired by the same central European imagination as Loos and Neutra’s architecture (film noir directors were often Vienna-born or educated by Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger and Billy Wilder, or deeply influenced by German expressionism). Hanson’s tribute to Hollywood’s 1940s detective films with their moral ambiguities and dark endings finds its natural home here.
Patchett, the pornographer/pimp of LA Confidential, is one of those typically film noir characters: bad but not all bad – nuanced. The sunny, open aesthetic of the house is in contrast with the closed, secretive underworld in which Patchett’s dark business tagline is, “whatever you desire”. And this house, of course, with its idealised lifestyle, is exactly what we all desire. When he is discovered dead in his modernist armchair the contrast is clear: the house that was built for health, sunshine and openness can conceal a soul as black as night. It expresses the coexistence and inevitable interdependence of good and evil that is at the core of film noir.
The Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski blends film noir plotting, indie awkwardness and stoner humour. In one of the film’s key scenes, the stoner hero The Dude (Lebowski), played by Jeff Bridges, is on a convoluted search for a missing girl, and visits pornographer Jackie Treehorn in his extraordinary Malibu house.
The house was designed by John Lautner and is most noticeable for its dramatic diagrid roof, which overshoots the glass walls of the house and blurs the distinction between interior and exterior in that classic Los Angeles manner. Its odd, prow-shaped form is echoed by its purpose-made concrete and leather seating, which creates an entire informal internal landscape. The pool outside picks up reflections of the geometrically-patterned underside of the roof. The deep coffers are punctuated by hundreds of drinking glasses set into it, which allow twinkling points of bright California light into the interior like a constellation of stars. The master bedroom, meanwhile, sits in a corner, its walls fully glazed. The view across the city below is astonishing.
The whole creates an ensemble that looks as futuristic half a century after it was completed as it must have done when new. Its form was profoundly influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright’s later projects, to the extent that this could almost be designed by Wright, who died only two years before Lautner began designing it.
Bridges’s scruffy, harem-panted dude looks out of place on the geometric furniture. This might be regarded as an organic house, but the dude looks just a bit too organic. His incongruity with the architecture perfectly reflects the case of mistaken identity central to the plot.
You get the feeling that the natural milieu of this house is the cocktail party. This is a space designed for socialising far more than it is for dwelling. In 1972, it was bought by the millionaire businessman James Goldstein who continued to make changes until Lautner’s death in 1994. These have included the addition of an installation outside the house by James Turrell, one of his remarkable skyspaces. Goldstein may have had respect for Lautner’s work but that didn’t stop him demolishing a neighbouring property, also designed by Lautner, to build a tennis court.
This is one of those houses that becomes familiar without one quite knowing why. It has appeared as a backdrop in music videos by Snoop Dogg and Pharrell Williams, the films Bandits, Playing God and Charlie’s Angels II (interestingly, a set inspired by Lautner’s Chemosphere house appeared in the first Charlie’s Angels film). In most cases, the house steals the scene. From rappers to soft-core porn directors, the house has become a magnet for film – just as Lautner’s Chemosphere did a few years earlier.
It would be a mistake to think this is because of some fashion for retro futurism. The reason is because most houses commissioned by LA’s wealthiest citizens today are blandly second rate. Nothing, it is sometimes said, dates faster than the future. Well sometimes, everything does. And I’m not sure we’ve even caught up with Lautner yet.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic