Does Manchester look as good as Los Angeles on film?

There is a story – I’m not sure how true it is – that Tony Wilson – the famous Mancunian music impresario behind Joy Division and New Order, wanted to fly a film crew over Manchester in a helicopter at dusk to ascertain if the city looked as sexy as Los Angeles in the moonlight.

LA has long appeared sultry on celluloid, but has Manchester? The answer, in case you are wondering, is yes.

To me, Los Angeles has never looked better than in Robert Altman’s 1973 film of the Raymond Chandler detective thriller The Long Goodbye. Altman’s detective, Philip Marlowe, played by Elliott Gould, is a man out of time. He’s a man who has seemingly been asleep for thirty years only to wake up in a spinning world of non-existent morals that he does not understand.

To support this picture of Marlowe as a chain-smoking Rip Van Winkle, Altman’s detective lives in the High Tower in Hollywood Heights, with its tall turreted lift shaft that leads to several nautical style art deco residences on a palm-tree covered hillside.

From his chaotic hilltop flat that he shares with his cat, Marlowe can see all the urban sprawl of Los Angeles, which is captured in soft, hazy colours on film by the inventive cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond.

Does Manchester have an equivalent of LA’s Marlowe? Well, yes. Just take out Elliott Gould and replace him with Stanley Baker, the great Welsh actor, who played Detective Inspector Harry Martineau in the 1960 Val Guest directed film noir Hell is a City, which was shot in Manchester.

Just as The Long Goodbye tries to create a colourised film noir, Hell is a City does the same in 1960s black and white. Just as the characters in The Long Goodbye step out of seedy shafts of light, so do the characters in Hell is a City, only the light is distinctly Mancunian. Just take out the sun-streaked haze of the Hollywood Hills and replace them with the rain-soaked gloom of Saddleworth Moor, where one of the film’s key moments takes place.

Hell is a City’s climax sees Martineau clambering over the rooftop spires of the Palace Hotel on Oxford Street as he hunts down an escaped convict, all guns blazing, as the smokey dirty urban sprawl of early 1960s Manchester hums beneath him. 

Los Angeles just like Manchester is urban sprawl. Los Angeles in the time of Altman, and before, was choked by smog, just like Manchester was choked by smoke from its factory chimneys.

Manchester, in fact, sounds very similar to a description David Lynch once gave of LA. “I know a lot of people go there and they see just a huge sprawl of sameness,” Lynch once said about the city, “but when you’re there for a while, you realise that each section has its own mood. Even with the smog, there’s something about that light that’s not harsh, but bright and smooth.” Just like in Manchester when those endless grey slate rainy days bring a sense of warmth and homeliness through familiarity.

Jumping forward a few years to 1969, Manchester’s next significant appearance on film comes in 1968’s Charlie Bubbles. This film was directed by and stars Albert Finney as the eponymous Bubbles, a successful London writer, a Mancunian exile, and another man like Marlowe, trapped in a world he doesn’t understand, asleep on his feet.

So he heads back home to rediscover his childhood in Salford and he takes his assistant, Eliza Hayhoe, who is played by Liza Minnelli, back with him. Did you know that Liza Minnelli once clambered over the ruins of a bulldozed Salford street? The answer is yes, and she appeared to enjoy it.

Aside from witnessing slum clearance in Salford, Charlie is also seen sauntering past the under-construction Piccadilly Plaza Hotel an appearance of the brutalist architecture that would come to dominate the northern look for the rest of the century, which is not something Stanley Baker would have recognised as he tumbled across the Palace roof. However, Altman’s Marlow would have seen some similar brutalist designs such as the Liberty Savings and Loan on the corner of South Beverly Drive and West Pico Boulevard.

We end where we began, with Tony Wilson and the band he made famous, Joy Division. The life of Ian Curtis is perhaps best depicted in the stately black and white of Anton Corbijn’s 2007 film Control, which almost sees Manchester appear like the monochromatic images of Berlin that were seen when David Bowie was making Heroes in the 1970s.

The most recognisable image of Joy Division is the picture of the group crossing the Epping Walk Bridge which stretches over Princess Street in Hulme. The street leads towards the city centre and the raised road that encircles the city known as the Mancunian Way or ‘the highway in the sky’ as it was called when it was built in 1967. 

It is another element of Manchester that could perhaps be compared with the freeways of LA that segregate rich and poor neighbourhoods to this day. The poor and the glamorous living at close quarters is what is so often captured in films about Manchester and Los Angeles, but in both, it has always been in the underbelly where the magic happens.

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