Saturday, December 29, 2012

Approaching High Tower: Raymond Chandler Lives!

When I approached High Tower Drive, the day didn’t exactly scream film noir. The rains of the night before had given way to a brilliant blue sky, dappled with fluffy white clouds. Still, I would not have been totally surprised, when rounding a curve on the steep walking path, to stumble upon a dead body. This is Raymond Chandler territory, a pocket of residential L.A. where you can imagine bad things happening to bad people.

Hollywood Heights, a hilly enclave whose Mediterranean-style villas date back to the 1930s, is sandwiched between the tawdry bustle of Hollywood Blvd. and the dramatic vistas of the famous Hollywood Bowl. What makes this turf so distinctive is the slender italianate tower -– High Tower –- that unexpectedly looms above the pavement. It’s essentially a free-standing five-story elevator shaft, built circa 1920 to accommodate residents whose homes cling to the hills above. You can’t enter the tower without a key, but years ago, while on assignment for a local magazine, I was instructed to park on the street below and take the elevator up. It was dark, and the ride was exceedingly spooky. When the door slid open at the top of the hill, a strange man stood waiting. I’m sure I jumped, imagining a scenario straight out of Farewell, My Lovely. Fortunately, it was the husband of my host, waiting to guide me to their wonderfully atmospheric abode.

Hollywood location scouts have of course long known about High Tower. I have no list of the movies in which it’s been featured, but one stands out vividly in my recollection. Director Robert Altman, updating Chandler in 1973’s The Long Goodbye, gives his down-at-the-heels detective hero a home near the tower. Though it’s hard to imagine Philip Marlowe being able to handle the rent in this neighborhood, its sense of slightly decayed glamour fits perfectly into the Chandler universe.

After strolling the overgrown walking paths of Hollywood Heights, I took a gander at the small but well-appointed Hollywood Bowl Museum. The Bowl’s iconic entry statue, I discovered, is called the Muse of Music, and she was designed by sculptor George Stanley, who had previously created the Oscar statuette (working from a sketch by legendary Hollywood art director Cedric Gibbons). The museum contains memorabilia of famous performances by everyone from Pavarotti to Ella Fitzgerald to the Beatles. Also on display are clips of some of the films in which the 18,000-seat Bowl has played a part. These include Anchors Aweigh, A Star is Born, and yet another film noir classic, Double Indemnity, for which Chandler co-wrote the screenplay.

From the Bowl I walked down Highland Avenue to Sunset Boulevard (those noir names keep coming!), where I wandered through Crossroads of the World, the distinctive office complex built in 1936 in Streamline Moderne style to resemble a sailing ship and its ports of call. Today it provides space for a lot of creative folk. The makers of L.A. Confidential set a major character’s office here. But I’ve also been told one of the quaint outbuildings was used in a Muppet movie as the home of Kermit the Frog. (No film noir hero he. Maybe film vert?)

Back on Hollywood Boulevard, surrounded by tourists and crazies, I happened upon the Walk of Fame star of the late Charles Durning, whose death had prompted a large floral tribute. A passing kid demanded to know who Durning was, and seemed disappointed that his glory days were in the 1980s. But Durning kept on working: he was filming something called Scavenger Killers when he passed away at age 89. Now, alas, he sleeps the big sleep.

(All photos courtesy of Bernie Bienstock)


  1. Thank you for the tour - I still long to come out and take a thorough tour of Los Angeles and its surroundings. It's nice to see you in one of the pictures, too!

    I always enjoyed Charles Durning's work - a versatile actor who could travel blithely back and forth from comedy to drama. He even jumped in to the mid 80's action movie bonanza as an action hero with 1986's Stand Alone. He's not the most lithe heroic lead in film history - but his talent makes the movie worth a watch.

    Raymond Chandler rules - when you read or see anything with hard boiled dialogue in it - especially spoofs ("I woke up feeling like Tuesday's pastrami sandwich...and it was Thursday...") - it's Chandler's style they're aping - that guy could work his way around the words. You really did take us on a fun trip with this post, Ms. Gray - if I don't "see" you before then - my retrospective blog post tomorrow will feature a certain interview from this past year as one of the highlights - a little more traffic will hopefully result. And let me go ahead and wish you a Happy New Year! Can't wait to see what 2013 brings us here at Beverly in Movieland!

  2. Mr. Craig, I salute you and Let's Get Out of Here -- it's so nice to have been a star of your 2012 highlight reel!