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Tuesday May 11th 2021

Gangster Squad | 2013

Gangster Squad film location: Park Plaza Hotel, South Park View Street, Downtown Los Angeles
Gangster Squad film location: Mickey Cohen books out every room of the hotel: Park Plaza Hotel, South Park View Street, Downtown Los Angeles

Ruben Fleischer’s tough and stylish period gangster movie was filmed on over 50 practical locations around Los Angeles but had the misfortune to be released in the wake of the horrific cinema shooting in Aurora which necessitated a major set-piece of the film having to be replaced.

As the opening title says, it’s “inspired by” real events, but it’s a cracking thriller with only the most tenuous grip on historical accuracy.

The scene is set in 1949 with a totally CGI view of the old LA with its ‘HOLLYWOODLAND’ sign, at the foot of which a gruesome scene demonstrates the bloody ruthlessness of East Coast gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) as he begins his attempted takeover of the West Coast.

Gangster Squad film location: Union Station, North Alameda Street, Downtown Los Angeles
Gangster Squad film location: Sgt O'Mara follows the pimp: Union Station, North Alameda Street, Downtown Los Angeles

Soon we’re on to the real Los Angeles and one of the great unchanged glories of thew city’s heyday. In the deco splendour of Union Station we’re introduced to Cohen’s ultimate nemesis, LA cop Sgt John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), who’s staking out a slimy pimp attempting to recruit a newly arrived innocent into his sleazy business.

The magnificent architecture of the 1939 Spanish Revival-style station at 800 North Alameda Street, Downtown, has graced countless productions, including Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor, Walter Hill's The Driver, The Way We Were, The Replacement Killers (which shares many of Blade Runner’s locations), Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle – and has now hosted the Oscar ceremony.

With the promise of a screen test, the procurer takes the young ingenue to what turns out to be the brothel he manages.

The bedroom and corridors of the house were among the few sets built for the film but the exterior and the lobby are 1842 North Cherokee Avenue, south of Franklin Avenue in Hollywood.

By a creepy coincidence, this was discovered to have been one of the addresses of Elizabeth Short, the unfortunate victim in the notorious Black Dahlia murder of 1947, when it was known as the Chancellor Apartments.

Short was supposedly seen drinking at Boardner’s bar a couple of blocks south on Cherokee on the night she died (though that's been disputed), and Boardner’s itself makes an appearance later on.

The brothel is one of Mickey Cohen’s operations and O’Mara’s nerve in rescuing the woman is seen as a brave move indeed.

Gangster Squad film location: Los Angeles City Hall, Spring Street, Downtown Los Angeles
Gangster Squad film location: the police HQ: Los Angeles City Hall, Spring Street, Downtown Los Angeles

Cohen is powerful and, predictably, his man is soon released from police HQ, which is Los Angeles City Hall. That’s the real Spring Street frontage with its wide staircase and grand pillars, but the Civic Center district has radically changed and the reverse shot, with the passing trolley car, is almost entirely digital.

Nevertheless, O’Mara’s fearless attitude comes to the attention of Police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte), who tasks him with putting together a small, uncorrupted and incorruptible Untouchables-style team – off the record – to take down Cohen by any means necessary.

Parker’s office in the film is a real City Hall conference room which stands alongside the Mayor’s office. The expansive view over the Hollywood Hills from the window, though, is no more than a painting.

Gangster Squad film location: North Gramercy Place, Koreatown, Los Angeles
Gangster Squad film location: the house of Sgt O'Mara: North Gramercy Place, Koreatown, Los Angeles | Photograph: Google Maps

O’Mara’s home, where he’s supported, if somewhat reluctantly, by wife Connie (Mireille Enos) is 228 North Gramercy Place, south of Beverly Boulevard in Koreatown. Again, some real interiors were filmed here though the bedroom is a set.

There’s a stunning nighttime overview of the old Wilshire Boulevard, though little of this remains unchanged. It's a combination of CGI and practical locations.

The real section, on the left of the screen, with ‘Slapsy Maxie’s’, the luxury nightclub around which much of the story centres, is looking south on Bellflower Boulevard in Bellflower, south LA. An abandoned store was turned, both inside and out, into a glamorous Forties nightspot. Standing at 17434 Bellflower, the site is already being redeveloped as a modern retail space.

It’s in the nightclub we’re introduced to louche cop Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), dangerously flirting with Cohen’s stylist-cum-girlfriend Grace Faraday (Emma Stone).

Jerry wastes no time in coming on to Grace and the pair spend a passionate night at the ‘Garden of Allah Apartments’.

The apartments were real but are long gone, though the film's stand in is not too far away from the original site. It's the 1920s Spanish-style courtyard of 1803 Courtney Avenue, Nichols Canyon, north of Hollywood Boulevard in West Hollywood.

The Garden of Allah actually stood further southwest at 8152 Sunset Boulevard, also in West Hollywood, until it was demolished in 1959 to make room for an undistinguished Chase bank building. The estate had been built in 1913 but after being bought by actress Alla Nazimova in 1919, it was cheekily renamed the Garden of Alla Hotel. The name was mis-spelled so frequently that in 1930 it was officially renamed with the added ‘h’.

Jerry is on O’Mara’s list of trustworthy, though unconventional, contacts but his invitation is met by a firm refusal.

The burlesque club in which O’Mara confronts Jerry with the proposition is The Mint, 6010 West Pico Boulevard, east of Crescent Heights Boulevard south of Midtown. Dating from 1937, the nightclub is still going strong and retains enough of its 1930s period features to have needed little in the way of period dressing.

Next on O’Mara’s list, and reacting with significantly more enthusiasm, is Officer Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), whom he approaches in a bar on ‘Central Avenue’, which was once the centre of Afro-American culture in the city. You can see the area recreated on Downtown’s Main Street for 1995’s excellent Devil In A Blue Dress, with Denzel Washington.

Gangster Squad film location: North Figueroa Street, Highland Park, Los Angeles
Gangster Squad film location: the exterior of 'Club Alabama' on 'Central Avenue': North Figueroa Street, Highland Park, Los Angeles | Photograph: Google Maps

The exterior of ‘Club Alabama’ is another vacant store, the art deco 5615 North Figueroa Street in Highland Park northeast of Downtown, which used to house the Highland Swap Mall.

Gangster Squad film location: Jewel's Catch One, West Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles
Gangster Squad film location: the interior of 'Club Alabama' on 'Central Avenue': Jewel's Catch One, West Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles | Photograph: Google Maps

The club interior was Jewel’s Catch One, 4067 West Pico Boulevard, at South Norton Avenue in Mid-City, which closed in 2015 after a long and proud history as a pioneering black LGBTQ nightclub. Established in 1973, it's appeared on-screen before – did you recognise it as the 'Blue Banana' club from Pretty Woman?

For a dependable gunman, O’Mara looks up veteran Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), whom he finds in ‘Cafe Caliente’, which was a real Latinx restaurant which used to stand at 20 Olvera Street, in Downtown's Historic Core.

Gangster Squad film location: Lucy's El Adobe Cafe, Melrose Avenue, Hollywood, Los Angeles
Gangster Squad film location: O'Mara meets Max Kennard in 'Cafe Caliente': Lucy's El Adobe Cafe, Melrose Avenue, Hollywood, Los Angeles | Photograph: Google Maps

It's gone now and the film uses Lucy’s El Adobe Cafe, 5536 Melrose Avenue, in Hollywood. The cafe has stood here since the 1960s and, despite its modest appearance, has been something of a celeb hangout due to its position directly opposite the entrance to Paramount Studios. Don’t expect to see those striking stained-glass windows – they were a colourful addition by the production’s art department.

If ‘Slapsy Maxie’s’ is the brash future then ‘Club Figaro’, where Mickey Cohen makes a grand entrance as a celeb for a crucial meeting with mob representative Jack Dragna (Jon Polito) represents the old dynasty which is about to be swept away.

The exterior is a familiar part of LA’s Downtown old Skid Row district. It’s the entrance to what is currently gallery ArtCenter, 114 West 4th Street, immediately alongside Harlem Place, the alleyway seen in both Todd Phillips’ 2004 version of Starsky & Hutch and Cathy Yan’s 2020 film of DC’s Birds Of Prey. For good measure, the spot is also directly opposite the familiar Barclay Hotel (Armageddon, As Good As It Gets).

The ornate red and gold interior is that of the Tower Theatre, 802 South Broadway, previously seen in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and in Antoine Fuqua’s The Replacement Killers, Coyote Ugly and The Mambo Kings. Closed for many years, Apple has announced plans to convert the old cinema into a retail outlet. Let's hope its architecture is preserved.

The newly assembled Squad meets up surreptitiously in the quiet industrial area beneath the old 6th Street Bridge, west of Mesquite Street, where Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña) turns up uninvited to become a final member.

The bridge, featured in countless films, began to suffer from structural problems and was demolished in 2016 to make way for a new structure.

The Squad's first covert operation is a hit on a makeshift casino in ‘Burbank, which goes terribly wrong when they come face-to-face with a bunch of uniformed cops. The scene was filmed in Thousand Oaks, way to the west on Hwy 101.

Awkwardly, O’Mara and Harris end up getting arrested and they’re hauled off to ‘Burbank Police Station’. This still isn’t Burbank, and not even in the Valley. The cop house is the old Highland Park Police Station closed in 1983 and now housing the Los Angeles Police Historical Society Museum, 6045 York Boulevard, west of North Figueroa Street in Highland Park, just west of South Pasadena.

The museum, previously seen as the cop station in Rob Zombie’s 2007 reboot of Halloween, chronicles the formation of the LAPD from its beginnings in 1869 to the present day, and it’s open Monday to Friday.

Although in real life, Jack Dragna ordered several hits on Mickey Cohen, in the movie it’s the other way round. Cohen makes his move against the mob boss as he arrives at the ‘Cabana Club’ in Hollywood. The club exterior is on North Cherokee Avenue just south of Hollywood Boulevard. There’s some set dressing but alongside the fake newsstand you can see the entrance to Boardner’s by La Belle, the historic dive bar at 1652 North Cherokee.

Boardner’s is a great neighbourhood bar and quite an institution, dating back to the Thirties. It's been seen on-screen in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, Curtis Hanson' s LA Confidential and Hollywood Homicide.

Outside on Cherokee, the accidental killing of shoeshine boy Pete in the hail of bullets finally motivates Jerry to join the Squad to help take down Cohen once and for all.

Gangster Squad film location: Canfield-Moreno Estate, Micheltorena Street, Silver Lake, Los Angeles
Gangster Squad film location: Jack Dragna's estate: Canfield-Moreno Estate, Micheltorena Street, Silver Lake, Los Angeles

Cohen is not one to give up and a successful hit on Dragna – along with his wife and maid – is carried out in his luxurious mansion. This is the Canfield-Moreno Estate, 1923 Micheltorena Street, Silver Lake. Itself no stranger to the screen, the grand estate has been seen as the ‘private school’ in Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, as well as being featured in Scream 3 and Nicolas Winding Refn’s bizarro 2016 The Neon Demon. It's a private estate and not open to the public.

The real Dragna lived on to die – comparatively – peacefully of a heart attack in 1956.

Conwell Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), the ‘brains’ of the squad, comes up with the idea of bugging Mickey Cohen’s house. The mobster naturally lives in splendour, his estate being 1146 Tower Road, off Benedict Canyon Drive, Beverly Hills. The $38 million Spanish Colonial Revival house, built in 1927 and once home to James Coburn, is also seen in 2011 romcom No Strings Attached.

The shack in which they record Cohen’s conversations and which seems to be within sight of the mansion, was an old – and apparently cramped – garage up in Sylmar.

Alerted to a heroin shipment due to be collected from Burbank Airport, a subsequent truck chase and shootout – with hand grenades too – was filmed in Griffith Park, with views over Los Angeles added digitally to establish the scene as taking place up in the Hollywood Hills.

As Cohen begins to twig that maybe Grace is cheating on him, he sends a couple of his goons with a message – and a bottle of acid to make the point – to Clifton’s Cafeteria, where she’s drinking with Jerry.

The kitschy forest décor really is the old Clifton Café, 648 South Broadway in Downtown LA which, after being closed for many years, has thankfully survived to reopen as Clifton’s Republic.

Gangster Squad film location: Gin Ling Way, Chinatown, Downtown Los Angeles
Gangster Squad film location: the Squad gets ambushed: Gin Ling Way, Chinatown, Downtown Los Angeles

Realising also that his house is bugged, Cohen sends the Squad off on a false lead to Chinatown, where a bloody ambush awaits them.

The set-up is staged on Gin Ling Way, running through the heart of Chinatown, where the truck explodes in front of Realm Art Salon, a gift store used as the restaurant from which a debt is collected in Sam Raimi's 1990 Darkman.

This, along with the cold-blooded killing of Keeler and a machine gun attack on O’Mara’s own home ups the stakes.

O’Mara sees his wife and newborn baby off at Union Station, in the tunnels which lead to the platforms, as they flee to safety before the final showdown.

Gangster Squad film location: Park Plaza Hotel, South Park View Street, Downtown Los Angeles
Gangster Squad film location: Mickey Cohen books out every room of the hotel: Park Plaza Hotel, South Park View Street, Downtown Los Angeles

His home under surveillance, Cohen chooses to hole up by booking out every room in the Park Plaza Hotel, 607 South Park View Street, overlooking MacArthur Park in Downtown.

The hotel must be one of the most frequently used locations in Los Angeles, having featured in Joel & Ethan Coen’s Barton Fink, Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, Steven Spielberg’s Hook, David Lynch’s Wild At Heart, Richard Attenborough’s biopic Chaplin (with Robert Downey Jr) as well as The Bodyguard, Not Another Teen Movie, What’s Love Got To Do With It?, The Big Picture, Mystery Men, Hocus Pocus, Primal Fear, Stargate, Bugsy (which covers some of the same story), The Mask and Naked Gun 33 1/3 to name a few.

The monumental landmark with its spectacular vaulted lobby was built in the Twenties as the Elks Building and served as a hotel until the 1990s. As the surrounding area, particularly the park, became associated with drug gangs and the related violence, it became increasingly deserted until finally closing its doors in 1998.

The park, seen also in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, Volcano and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, has undergone a major clean-up since the Nineties, but the Park Plaza is still used exclusively for movie and photo shoots and private functions.

Following a shoot-out in that magnificent lobby, Cohen escapes out into MacArthur Park itself where he’s finally subdued, mano-a-mano, by O’Mara.

Remember this is only “inspired by” true events. Mickey Cohen was not actually arrested following a fistfight in MacArthur Park.

The epilogue sees O’Mara reunited with wife and child, chilling on Westward Beach in Malibu, where he eventually tosses his badge into the Pacific.