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The big picture: The Famous Cafe, Los Angeles, 1953

The Famous Cafe, Los Angeles, 1953.
Photographer unknown. Image courtesy of University of Southern California/Taschen

At a crime scene, the man with the camera is either a sharp-eyed detective or a skulking culprit. In this inky tableau from Jim Heimann’s book Dark City: The Real Los Angeles Noir, the photographer, like a forensic examiner, finds clues everywhere. The diner’s menu brags of its large, tender, juicy steaks and, since meat is murder, we can easily imagine a corpse on the floor, oozing ketchup from its wounds; the twisted tubes of neon advertising “chops” could be spilled entrails. The name of the joint, Famous Cafe, counts as an incitement: in the US, crime is the fast track to celebrity.

But perhaps – as in a film noir where the killer is the unsuspected narrator – the camera itself is the murder weapon. Photographers back then spoke of “shooting” film, as if they were discharging a gun, and they popped flash bulbs to stun their victims. Here, the bullet holes in the window target the onlookers with deadly aesthetic exactitude. One puts out a woman’s eye, while another gives her an explosive sparkler to wear on her ring finger. The cop with the owlish specs takes a direct hit on one side of his chest, to balance the badge on the other side.

The guilt, however, is deflected on to those jostling spectators, for whom a good murder is as nutritious as one of the cafe’s greasy meals. The woman with the missing eye points the finger back at us: we too are voyeurs, incriminated by our curiosity.

Dark City: The Real Los Angeles Noir by Jim Heimann is published by Taschen (£75)

This article titled "The big picture: The Famous Cafe, Los Angeles, 1953" was written by Peter Conrad, for The Observer on Sunday 11 February 2018 08.00am

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