The L.A. River on Film

Charles Graham Dixon,

In a new regular feature entitled 'Film Locations', we take a look at an iconic film location and explore its various appearances on-screen.

The Los Angeles River flows from the San Fernando Valley 48 miles to its mouth in Long Beach. Once free-flowing and often flooded, the river is now contained within huge man-made concrete channels and is a vast, desolate landscape that is both gritty and beautiful. At certain points in the year the river is reduced to just a trickle. The perfect film location?

With its proximity to Hollywood, and containing endless stretches of concrete banks, the river has been the setting for countless chase scenes as well as numerous skate videos; while in 1997, renowned L.A. graffiti artist Saber from MSK crew painted what is described as the largest piece ever; his full colour piece on the banks of the river took over 35 nights to paint and was visible from satellite. 

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (James Cameron, 1991)

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This classic chase scene takes place in Bull Creek, North Hills near where the river begins. John Connor is pursued by the relentless T-1000 through a myriad of concrete barriers, narrow flood channels and burnt-out cars.

To Live and Die in L.A (William Friedkin, 1985)

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William Friedkin knew he was onto a winner with his car chase sequence in The French Connection, and here he repeats the same trick with a thrilling chase through the streets of L.A., over the freight tracks and onto the vast flats of the L.A. River. The chase took six weeks to film and took place after the majority of the movie was shot so that none of the actors would have to be replaced if they were badly hurt.

Drive (Nicholas Winding Refn, 2011)

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Nicolas Winding Refn’s modern take on the neo-noir wisely chooses to include the L.A. River as one of its key locations. In a departure from the vast majority of films using the river for chase or thrill scenes, Drive interestingly uses the setting for a scene of tenderness and kindness with College’s Real Hero, the tone-perfect musical accompaniment.

Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow, 1991)

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Kathryn Bigelow’s surf/heist movie contains what has to be one of best foot chases committed to film. Keanu Reeves, aka Johnny Utah, chases down Patrick Swayze who is clad in a rather terrifying Ronald Regan rubber mask. The chase goes through streets, alleyways, living rooms, back gardens and eventually into the dusty sun-baked concrete of the bone-dry L.A. River. 

Prayer of the Rollerboys (Rick King, 1991)

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OK, so rollerblading or inline skating was and never will be as cool as skateboarding. But for those that did innovate the world of street rollerblading in the '90s, this dystopian sci-fi film starring Corey Haim was something of an inspiration. In countless rollerblading videos, magazines and interviews, skaters cite this film as inspiring them to push the limits of what seemed possible on a pair of skates.

Repo Man (Alex Cox, 1984)

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Alex Cox’s cult classic showcases the full cinematic potential of the L.A. River with a series of brilliant wide-angle shots that display the location’s stunning visual landscape. Also, any scene involving Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton engaging in an aggressive finger-gesturing argument with some Latino heavies and including the line ‘gypsy dildo punks!’ has to be worth watching.

Point Blank (John Boorman, 1967)

John Boorman’s crime drama has aged beautifully, becoming something of a revered classic. Lee Marvin carries out a killing under the 4th Street Bridge as he hunts down those that have double-crossed him. The use of the L.A. River is ideal for this gritty piece of 1960s cool.

Roadblock (Harold Daniels, 1951)

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This bleak 1950s film noir was one of the first movies to use the river for a chase scene, and its stunning black-and-white cinematography starkly shows the vast and haunting quality of the interminable concrete landscape.

Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)

Roman Polanski’s timeless neo-noir includes the L.A. River as a location perhaps to act as a visual symbol for L.A.’s grim underbelly with its channels and gutters representing the corruption and crime within the sprawling city. The best use of the river on film? 

For more Film Locations...

Film Locations: Berlin on Film
Film Locations: New York on Film

Follow Charles on Twitter: @CharlesGD  

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