Chinatown (1974, Roman Polanski)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

On some level, the intoxication factor of Chinatown hinges upon its being a movie about movies, one that explicitly uses the crime dramas of directors like Howard Hawks and Jacques Tourneur as a crutch. In at least the sense of its wide cultural presence, Chinatown has arguably outlived or at least joined the films it relied on for crafting its image set, from Laura to The Big Sleep. This is the rare instance of the new permissiveness of 1970s American cinema creating an instant classic that has proven to deserve that status — it hits all the oppressive, dark notes of the greatest film noir without the compromise necessary in the studio era, while retaining the romance of those films in what’s finally a haunting, deliberately distressing manner. It’s a piece of harsh atmosphere and enigmatic unease that represents a triumph in throwing us into the deep end of the emotions in a man.

In other words, the sleight-of-hand detective story — seemingly about adultery, then water and power, then incest, then everything — isn’t the point, but it informs and consumes all of the specifics of Chinatown‘s operatic, bleak tale. And in a rarity for a Hollywood mystery, it moves quickly enough for the audience but not at the expense of complete absorption and involvement, a trapping that even great American detective thrillers like The French Connection, and certainly The Big Sleep itself, were capable of falling into. There is time to be reeled into the world of the film, because of course, that world is really the story.

Director Roman Polanski made a triumphant but troubled return to Los Angeles here for what would end up being the last film he shot in America. Long searching for a movie to shoot with Jack Nicholson as the lead, he loved Robert Towne’s superb, intricate script (a well-deserved recipient of the Oscar) but was reluctant to return to the city in which his wife was murdered by the Manson family just a few years earlier; in stark contrast to the trajectory predicted by his work up to and including the hit Rosemary’s Baby, his subsequent films What? and Macbeth had been shot in Italy and the UK respectively, ironically predicting his later exile from America. Ultimately he couldn’t justify turning down such a brilliantly nuanced project, and the resulting film is starkly evocative of the hopelessness and despair implied by Polanski’s mindset following the killings. The unforgiving nature of its setting and outlook are as much the result, therefore, of the filmmaker’s psychology as of the screenplay itself, lending it the grace of purest (and most claustrophobic) cinema.

The rewrites in which the director participated were dedicated mostly to crafting a more subjective narrative from Towne’s work, by placing the character of Jake Gittes (Nicholson) in every scene and bringing story information and clues to the audience simultaneously with his own discovery of them — so that his various false conclusions are, in fact, ours. The hazily beautiful but discomfortingly muddy look of the film seem also to reflect the outlook of a man already broken, one who, in his words, “was trying to keep someone from being hurt and […] ended up making sure she was hurt.” The film traps Jake, a resourceful and mostly competent man, back in this cycle yet again in much the same way Out of the Past trapped Robert Mitchum (but more so in a way, because Nicholson is forced to live with the consequences), and the dread becomes our own. Remarkably enough, after one sees the film the first time, it only seems to become more passionately horrific and sad with each repeated viewing. The result is a sumptuous film with oppressive undercurrents that gradually become impossible to ignore — and we come back for more because the experience is so rich.

Towne’s themes go far beyond interpersonal relations and character study, even if that’s what we remember most. The L.A. water crisis it depicts has its roots in the reality of the California Water Wars of the late 1930s. Gittes initially is following Mulwray, the head of water and power, on what turns out to be a bogus sting to discover an affair he’s having; he of course suspects more and, digging deeper, finds it all, starting with Mulwray’s corpse — the truth about the rerouting of the water supply, the truth about the reason he was sent to tail Mulwray, and the deep-rooted nature of the power and corruption driving everything in the region. Everything leads to the massively powerful mogul Noah Cross (deliciously evil John Huston), whose daughter is (of course!) the wife of the dead man (Faye Dunaway as Evelyn) and soon enough an informer and lover of Gittes. Inevitably, she becomes a suspect until Gittes realizes with horror what’s really happened, and who he’s really been controlled by — when it’s too late. The supposed lover of Mulwray had in fact been Cross’ daughter, the result of an incestuous rape, and in one horrible final swoop the fate of everyone involved is determine, Gittes included: he’s let someone down again, someone trying to protect her daughter, someone whose eye is now shot out with her face landed on a steering wheel that echoes solemnly through the streets of L.A.’s Chinatown.

For all the literary strength of the script and its novel, intelligent development of character and plot, the film itself is a raw creation, a document of anguish. In even something so simple as the minor but sickening foreshadowing of Evelyn’s violent end in her accidental honking of a horn in a carefree moment, there is that pervasive dread. Yet it’s a joy to witness such a complete and emotionally complex creation in the context of a crime drama. This is true artistry, and not just on the part of Polanski and Towne. It isn’t easy to name Jack Nicholson’s finest performance, but outside perhaps of The Last Detail, I’d name this as the greatest possibility; Nicholson doesn’t just enliven the cinematic idea of the wily gumshoe, he transforms it to something modern, incisive, pained. Faye Dunaway achieves seductive power and motherly warmth at alternating but equally persuasive moments. The entire supporting cast is remarkable — Huston a personification of movie evil who seems to have become the embodiment of horror itself by the final scene, with Perry Lopez, Darrell Zwerling, and Diane Ladd each crafting unforgettable caricatures in their brief key sequences. And the film’s fast pace is countered gloriously by the lilting, aching beauty of Jerry Goldsmith’s remarkable, quickly-commissioned score — his best ever.

Chinatown is hardly humorless — there is some freewheeling mockery of Gittes and his profession, to say nothing of the Kane-quoting World’s Second Meanest Archivist scene at the Hall of Records, and Polanski is correct to strike a note of absurdity conflating with danger lifted from the greatest of original Hollywood noirs (think especially of the ridiculous masks and wrestling scenes in The Killing). But the cold pessimism Nicholson seems to physically embody, through it all, abounds as a distinctly American feature in a portrait of a man who honest-to-goodness wants to care. The tragedy shorthanded as “Chinatown,” slang in the film’s world for a hopelessly confusing atmosphere of dread, is firmly in the past, but we know just what Nicholson means when he talks about how overwhelming it was. Beyond help. Why bother?

Why bother, indeed? Like all-time greats of the same period such as The Graduate, 2001 and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Chinatown leaves us with a question. Gittes does what he does, despite all that’s bleak and suffocating, because he believes he can accomplish something. Whether that survives the end of the film… well, that’s another question. For all its echoes of Casablanca, Notorious and The Big Sleep, the story allows Polanski and Nicholson to go several steps farther (partially due to the time in which the film was made), and it’s for that reason that this becomes a more personal story than ever before allowed in Hollywood pictures of this genre. Evelyn wonders why Jake finds it so difficult to talk about the past, and she is, of course, the answer. Chinatown lives in the past, one filled with years of promise cut short by choking death, multiplied by thousands upon thousands of dead, and it’s perhaps more out of need than hope that Jake continues, like any hero, no matter how conflicted or amoral, would. From beautiful and suffocating first scene to last, color and Scope and date of creating notwithstanding, this — Polanski’s masterpiece — is as much the essence of film noir as Hollywood has ever produced.


[Includes some elements of a review I posted in 2006. I also added some associations with Out of the Past and They Shoot Horses… when I copy-edited this blog entry in 2019.]

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