The Taj Mahal of L.A. Noir: Revisiting the Bradbury Building

By on January 27, 2016

You may not live in Los Angeles, but if you’re a movie nut you’ve probably been inside the Bradbury Building dozens of times. Located downtown at the corner of Third and Broadway, the 123-year-old structure has been used in dozens of films, TV shows, and commercials – but most notably in some classic films noir and neo-noirs.

Blade Runner atrium 2

In 1892, the Bradbury was commissioned by its namesake, gold mining magnate Lewis L. Bradbury, who would not live to see its completion. Bradbury rejected a design by Sumner Hunt, but it was completed by one of the architect’s draftsmen, George Wyman. Hunt’s reluctant apprentice only took on the job after receiving approval from the spirit of his late brother, who was contacted via a planchette board, a precursor of the later Ouija board.

Opened in 1893, some months after Bradbury’s death, the edifice was one of the glories of its day. Inspired by Edward Bellamy’s futuristic utopian novel Looking Backward (1887), the five-story building sported a spacious atrium with a vast skylight, exposed brick walls, elegant tile floors, and spectacular iron work, employed on its angular staircases and parallel “birdcage” lobby elevators.

Bradbury_Building,_interior

Naturally, as the local film industry developed, Hollywood came a-calling at the Bradbury. Some of its cinematic history is laid out in Thom Andersen’s sprawling, wonderful 2003 documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, which surveys the way the capital of the movie industry has surveyed itself through its indigenous locations over the years.

The Bradbury made its movie debut in the 1943 wartime melodrama China Girl, standing in for a hotel in Burma. It would see a variety of uses thereafter, representing buildings in a plethora of locations, in genre pictures ranging from sci-fi (The Indestructible Man, a 1956 Lon Chaney, Jr. vehicle) to modern rom-com (2009’s The 500 Days of Summer) and even a latter-day silent feature (the 2011 Oscar winner The Artist).

But since the late ‘40s the building has been used most creatively and integrally in a variety of noir features, which have employed the setting – one that required little or no dressing or alteration to look dramatic and somewhat menacing – to great creative effect.

Its first appearance in noir was likely in Shockproof, a wacky 1949 picture set in Los Angeles. The picture was directed by Douglas Sirk, who would go on to greater renown in the ‘50s as the director of such highly perverse CinemaScope romantic dramas as Tarnished Angels, Written On the Wind, and All That Heaven Allows, all vehicles for Rock Hudson. It was scripted by Samuel Fuller, later the director of such noir-tinged pictures as The Crimson Kimono, Shock Corridor, and The Naked Kiss.

shockproof

German émigré Sirk knew his expressionism, and he brought the style’s deep shadows to bear in his tale of parole officer Griff Marat (Cornel Wilde) and his new charge Jenny Marsh (Patricia Knight, Wilde’s real-life wife at the time), who become romantically and criminally entangled.

shockproof poster

Marat and Marsh are introduced in a scene in which the newly paroled femme fatale visits the Bradbury Building parole office. The building’s atrium is later used effectively in a sequence in which two-time loser Joe Wilson (King Donovan) does a swan dive off one of the balconies to avert his return to prison.

Another European refugee, Rudolf Maté, was already an old hand at noir, of the most exotic variety, by the time he directed the B classic D.O.A. in 1950 – as a cinematographer, he had worked on Charles Vidor’s Gilda and Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai. He had also helmed the 1948 noir thriller The Dark Past.

D.O.A. street

As a director he is best remembered for his tense fourth feature, in which accountant Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) tracks the crooks who have dosed him with a slow-acting, lethal poison.

D.O.A

Maté’s sharp location footage makes splendid use of the hallways and stairwells of the Bradbury Building in a climactic shootout, seen in this homemade “trailer.”

Possibly the most effective use of the Bradbury in classic noir came in M, Joseph Losey’s 1951 remake of Fritz Lang’s 1931 German feature.

As in the original, the second version – little seen until its recent restoration – follows the hunt (relocated from an unnamed German city to L.A.) for a demented serial killer of children by the police and members of the local underworld, who are feeling the heat from the cops’ investigation.

M David Wayne

David Wayne takes the role of murderer Martin Harrow, originated (under the moniker Hans Beckert) by Peter Lorre in Lang’s film. The highlight of the Losey edition arrives in a stellar chase through downtown L.A., during which the killer, pursued by mob thugs, takes refuge in the Bradbury (identified by its address in the script) with a terrified girl he has kidnapped.


Harrow finds himself trapped in the office of a mannequin maker as the hoods search the building room by room. (One has to wonder if Stanley Kubrick saw the film before using a similar setting in his New York-set 1955 noir Killer’s Kiss.) The sequence climaxes with a stellar shot, taken from one of the lobby lifts, in which the mobsters, led by boss Martin Gabel, soar to the Bradbury’s top floor in one of the elevators.

M lobby card

Fittingly, the Bradbury was used in Marlowe (1969), an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled, L.A.-set 1949 novel The Little Sister, as the office of private investigator Philip Marlowe, played by James “Rockford” Garner. The location plays hob with the original setting: Chandler scholars say that in the books, Marlowe’s digs were in the Taft Building at Hollywood and Vine, a visually less interesting Tinseltown site.

Marlowe Lee & Garner

Marlowe is a little flat, and too bright to truly be considered noir, but its most entertaining scene (filmed on a set that stands in for a Bradbury office) marked the feature film debut of future kung fu star Bruce Lee. He portrays mob enforcer Winslow Wong, who pays a visit to Marlowe in an attempt to back him off an investigation.

Marlowe one-sheet1.jpg

Carroll O’Connor, playing police lieutenant Christy French, can be seen in the actual hallway of the Bradbury as Lee makes his exit in the final shot. (Appropriately, in real life the Bradbury has housed the Los Angeles Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division since 1996.)

The Bradbury was pretty played out as a location by the time Ridley Scott began filming his sci-fi noir classic Blade Runner (1982), an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The setting had become so familiar to moviegoers that screenwriter Hampton Fancher objected to its use, saying it had been done before. Scott replied, “It hasn’t been done the way I’m going to do it.”

And thus the Bradbury – swathed in smoke, swept by searchlights, sodden with rain water, with a spaceship advertising off-world living looming through its skylight — stands in for the domicile of genetic engineer J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson). It is there that “blade runner” Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) has his showdown with the murderous fugitive replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and his “pleasure unit” consort Pris (Daryl Hannah).

blade-runner atrium

It’s unlikely that the Bradbury will ever be used as originally as Scott did in his spectacular movie. But as long as the building stands – and stand it will, since it was declared a national historic landmark in 1977 – it will certainly be visited again and again by film crews seeking a visual je ne sais quoi. Historically, that elegant antiquity can be considered L.A.’s Taj Mahal of darkness.

BRADBURY FEATURED

About Chris Morris

Chris Morris is the author of Together Through Life: A Personal Journey with the Music of Bob Dylan (ROTHCO Press) and the critical biography Los Lobos: Dream in Blue (University of Texas Press). He is also a contributor to X bassist-vocalist John Doe’s bestselling book about L.A. punk, Under the Big Black Sun (Da Capo Books).
  • http://silentlocations.wordpress.com/ silentechoes57

    The Bradbury Building certainly has a rich history. This post shows how it appears in The Artist, and how the Bradbury Mansion, long lost, was used by Charlie Chaplin and silent comedians. https://silentlocations.wordpress.com/2012/01/20/the-artist-locations-part-4-bradbury-chaplin-and-lloyd/

  • Gary Hughes

    The Bradbury also features in a noir-ish episode (possibly the best episode) of The Outer Limits, “Demon With A Glass Hand”, by Harlan Ellison.

    I fondly remember talking my way into the Bradbury Building just so I could take a look around, many years ago.