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Uncovering San Diego’s Darkest Corners

Above: Kate Winslett and Guy Pearce in the HBO miniseries "Mildred Pierce."

Poor Mildred Pierce.

The wayward husband. The spoiled daughter. And a body that just won't quit attracting the worst kinds of men.

If you've been watching HBO's miniseries starring Kate Winslet, you know about Mildred's tough situation. It's a familiar one to film and fiction fans: "Mildred Pierce," a delicious 1941 novel, became a classic Joan Crawford movie.

Poster for the 1941 film version of "Mildred Pierce," starring Joan Crawford.
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Above: Poster for the 1941 film version of "Mildred Pierce," starring Joan Crawford.

The movie and the miniseries aren't alike; the HBO screenwriter didn't even bother watching the sexy, shoulder-padded Crawford do her thing on screen. But the productions do share the same locale: Glendale, with its sun-dappled homes hiding the darkness within. (You can even take an L.A. bus tour and visit the home that appeared in the movie; the L.A. Times recently looked at the 1930s interiors of the miniseries).

We've got our own share of Southern California sun and shadows. Earlier this year, I asked Culture Lust readers for their thoughts about the perfect locales in San Diego for a film noir along the lines of "Double Indemnity," "The Maltese Falcon" or "The Talented Mr. Ripley."

KPBS staffers had some ideas, and I came up with my very own dark and devilish plot. Here's the skinny:

KPBS's Maureen Cavanaugh finds inspiration in the work of onetime San Diegan Raymond Chandler, who's buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery:

"Parts of Raymond Chandler's last novel "The Long Goodbye" are set in San Diego, and all of his unfinished work "Playback" is, so we know one of the great Noir writers saw something dark and menacing under San Diego's sunny skies. I would suggest The Hotel Del and Santa Fe station as evocative daytime locations.

Then at night, the shadows and animals of the San Diego Zoo, or the lonely border field state park, where the fence meets the sea. I can also see the road to Julian, and a little cabin along the way as a Noir-setting, like the cabin in "Out of the Past" where Robert Mitchum and Janet Greer meet up and murder.

Old Town might make a good location for a murder plot to hatch. I like the San Diego Museum of Modern Art in La Jolla for a scene where the hero crashes an elegant reception. And for a final chase and shoot out, the backstage and basement of Symphony Hall has enough dark halls, multi-leveled corridors and steep metal staircases to delight any Noir director.

•••

Those are fine ideas, and they suggest that the host of "These Days" has a dark side. (Maybe she should start a sister show called "These Nights"!)

"Out of the Past," which also starred Kirk Douglas, was filmed up in the little town of Bridgeport in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Julian would be a great place for a sequel full of apple pie and cider and menace. There could even be be a scene at the ancient little cemetery on the hill overlooking town.

A personal note: About 20 years ago, I won honorable mention in the La Jolla Library's international Raymond Chandler write-alike contest. My story included this line: "She had two long legs and two shapely ankles. He did some quick addition and came up with a figure he liked." (No, I didn't quit my day job.)

Here's another Chandler tidbit: his very own Big Sleep just got a little cozier. Just in time for Valentine's Day earlier this year month, the late mystery author was finally reunited with his wife, Cissy. After years of red tape and decades of being separated from him in death, her remains were finally buried next to him at San Diego's historic Mt. Hope Cemetery.

Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in the 1946 noir film "The Big Sleep."
Enlarge this image

Above: Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in the 1946 noir film "The Big Sleep."

•••

KPBS's Jocelyn Maggard notes how California is a fine location for noir and mentions another Chandler book (and movie):

The Big Sleep" is set in L.A., but like L.A. San Diego also has a port, and we discussed that ports make a great setting for this genre.

First off, there is a lot of movement in the population. People tend to settle more in rural areas rather than bustling cities. The movement and the bustle allows for crime because people can slip under the radar.

Also, ports bring in drugs, and other illegal paraphernalia. Second, the topography, as mentioned in Maureen's post above, is a good setting as well. The hills and winding roads allow for more privacy than flat areas. Even though houses are closer together than in the back woods, one may be out of their neighbor's sight based on the way his or her house is situated.

As much as Southern California has a sunny and fun disposition, it still has the ability to be a dark and seedy setting.

•••

I've plotted my own San Diego noir film. With sincere apologies to author James M. Cain, author of "Mildred Pierce," I've borrowed the plotline and the character names from "Double Indemnity." But my movie has a different, Chandler-ian title: "The Big Slip."

The Meeting: Phyllis Dietrichson (beautiful, blonde and bored) likes to sit in the Hummingbird House at the San Diego Zoo and admire the little birdies. Well, at least when she's not accidentally dropping her guidebook in front of tall, handsome gentlemen. Like insurance agent Walter Neff.

The Rendezvous: Unfortunately, Phyllis has a pesky husband, a couch potato who likes to spend each evening in front of the tube watching Animal Planet. But he works, leaving her free to meet Walter for a burrito at El Indio in Mission Hills, followed by dessert in her Miata under the flight path. (And by dessert, I mean some naughty nookie.) The planes overhead are loud enough to drown their throes of guilty passion.

The Plotting: It's time for hubby (and his $2 million insurance policy) to go bye-bye. But Phyllis has to be careful: she's worried about eavesdropping and nosy neighbors. So she and Walter head to the San Diego Zoo's Skyfari aerial tram, where they can explore the deep depths of their mutual depravity as they ride together above it all.

The Murder: Hubby sure likes wildlife, enough to go on the Roar & Snore camping exhibition at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. But hubby can't sleep out because he's royally peeved that a perfectly good name -- Wild Animal Park -- is history. So he goes for a little walk to calm his nerves.

Little does he know that Missy the Elephant is also out for a stroll, where she steps onto a banana peel that someone left next to a bush. Aieeee! The elephant goes keister-over-tea-kettle (elephants have keisters, right?) and lands on you-know-who.

Hubby will never roar nor snore again. Phyllis and Walter are free to share tortilla chips at El Indio whenever they want. Or are they?

There's more to my movie: a detective, of course, and a denouement. (Well, as at least as soon as I figure out what a denouement is.)

Those will come later. For now, beware of femmes fatales in aviaries.

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