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2013/01/13

Chinatown

by Dave Gourdoux

Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in "Chinatown"
I’m always surprised, when talking to younger film buffs, by the number of them who have never seen Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown”, or  how unaware they are of 1970s cinema.   They find it hard to believe that the same decade that produced leisure suits and disco was also the golden age of American film history. 

But it’s true; the 70s represented a true renaissance in movie making.  Young directors like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Robert Altman and Terrence Malik were coming of age and establishing themselves as giants, while established European directors John Boorman and Polanski were making insightful examinations of American culture.  Woody Allen was making the transformation from brilliant stand-up comedian to serious artist.   Older masters, like John Huston and Stanley Kubrick, were still making great films, while other major American directors of the 1960s, like Arthur Penn and Sydney Lumet and Mike Nichols, contributed some of their best work.

This all came at a time when America was otherwise exhausted, burned out from the turmoil of the civil rights riots and political assassinations and the divisiveness of Vietnam that was the 1960s.  The 1970s began with the war becoming even more unpopular and futile and with a political scandal that would lead to the president resigning in disgrace in 1974.  With the rest of the world having effectively rebuilt from the destruction of World War II, a new global economy began to form and started challenging the United States as the sole economic superpower, planting seeds of rampant inflation and economic uncertainty.   As a result, the idealism and hope that spurred so much of the tumult of the sixties and it’s cultural revolution faded into a cynicism and self absorption that caused the seventies to be labeled “the me decade”.
Film, particularly in the first half of the decade, somehow not only avoided this malaise but managed to flourish.   There were so many great movies made about America, from Coppola’s “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part 2”, and Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver,” to Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” and “Nashville”.   These movies were all intensely personal and defied typical Hollywood storytelling convention.  To me, the greatest movie made in and about America in the 1970s is Roman Polanski’s 1974 masterpiece, “Chinatown.”

“Chinatown” is Polanski’s tribute to the great detective movies of the 1930s and 40s.  It is even set in the same timeframe, as all the action takes place in 1937.  Not only does “Chinatown” effectively pay homage to the genre, it takes its place right along “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Big Sleep” as the best it has to offer.

“Chinatown” has all the elements of a great detective movie, starting with its characters and the actors who play them.  Jack Nicholson is the detective, and a direct line can be drawn from his Jake Gittes to the Humphrey Bogart characterizations of Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon” and Phillip Marlowe in “The Big Sleep.”  Both actors are tough, world weary and cynical, and both are living embodiments of “cool.”  They are both screen icons, and as such, are very underrated as screen actors.  Both had incredible range and depth to draw on.  Bogart and Spencer Tracy literally invented screen acting, navigating the differences between acting on a stage for a live audience and on a set for a camera, and as such are the finest screen actors of the first half of the century.   Nicholson and Robert De Niro drew upon the influence of Marlon Brando to carve their own unique niches in screen history. 

As great of actors as Bogart and Nicholson are, both became famous for the tough guy, wisecracking persona they developed, and both became representative screen icons of their generations.    Bogart could play the paranoid Fred C. Dobbs of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” or the riverboat captain in “The African Queen” or the disturbed naval commander Captain Queeg of  “The Cain Mutiny,” but he’ll always be remembered first and foremost as Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe, the quintessential screen private eyes, or as Rick Blane in “Casablanca.”   Likewise, Nicholson is capable of playing the sad and pathetic retiree of “About Schmidt” or the vulnerable and conflicted young man of “Five Easy Pieces,” but he’ll always be remembered for the explosive rage and rebellion he brought to movies like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “A Few Good Men.” 
In “Chinatown,” Nicholson gives perhaps his greatest performance because he is essentially playing Bogart.   Countless detective films and actors have tried to approximate Bogart and failed.  “Chinatown” succeeds because Polanski and the screenwriter, Robert Towne, recognized the similarities between Bogart and Nicholson and tailor made the role of private eye Jake Gittes for Nicholson.  As such, you aren’t consciously reminded that you are watching Jack Nicholson in a Humphrey Bogart movie, but that’s essentially what’s going on.

Towne’s screenplay is perfection.   He not only understands Nicholson and Bogart, he understands the genre, and he understands the time he is living in.  The only way a story taking place in the past can be great is if it says something about the present.  Towne understands the complicated twist and plot turns and characters that the genre requires; he also makes them relevant to the everyday experience of the viewer.

Gittes, like Spade and Marlowe, is tough and cynical, and even when he is in over his head, he remains a step ahead of the rest, clearly tougher and smarter than everyone else.  Towne gives Gittes a tragic past that not only informs him of the corruption that surrounds him, but also makes him a victim of it.  There is vulnerability in Gittes that is at the core of the movie, and no matter how familiar he becomes with the corruption, he never gets used to it, and ultimately falls to it.   The movie makes a lot of unspecified allusions to his past working the beat in Chinatown – we get enough to know it was corrupt, it was where Gittes learned the ways of the world, and it is also where he had his heart broken by getting too caught up in everything - and we see it all happening to him again, as he gets involved with the beautiful and mysterious Mrs. Mulwray and her husband and father’s world of political scandal and cover up.   We sense what Gittes senses – that this is not going to end well; there is inevitability, almost a resignation, and it’s no surprise when evil and corruption triumphs in the end.

Like most great detective films, the plot depends on a strong and seductive and dangerous female that is formidable enough to potentially bring the protagonist down.  In “Chinatown,” we are given perhaps the most complex and beautiful female lead in any detective film ever - Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of the beautiful and mysterious and ultimately tragic Evelyn Mulwray, who may or may not have hired Gittes to investigate her husband's extramarital affairs.  Mulwray is one of the greatest characters ever created for film, and Dunaway’s performance is the crowning achievement in an illustrious career.  In the movie, nothing is what it appears to be; especially Evelyn Mulwray.

Dunaway’sperformance and Towne’s script conjure up comparisons to other great femme fatales in screen history, particularly Mary Astor in “The Maltese Falcon".  With her hair tied up to accentuate her exquisite cheekbones, there is even a physical likeness to the short-haired Astor.  Just like Bogart, you can understand why Nicholson starts falling for her, why he’d be willing to risk everything for her. What Townes adds in “Chinatown” is a secret that Dunaway is carrying, and without exposing what it is, suffice to say it is a doozy, as the entire film centers on it, and it brings a clarity and a complexity to the Evelyn Mulwray character. Only a gifted actress like Dunaway could explore her depths. Dunaway is simply amazing, and as great as Nicholson is in the film, it wouldn’t--it couldn’t--work without Dunaway’s tour de force.

John Huston as the evil and deranged Noah Cross
The film also features, as the personification of evil, none other than John Huston as the deranged and wealthy and powerful Noah Cross.  The casting of Huston, who, thirty three years earlier wrote and directed “The Maltese Falcon,” is no coincidence and one of many examples of how Polanski invites comparisons between the two films.  Huston also gives a brilliant performance.  Knowing he was one of the creators of the archetypes the film is paying homage to gives him instant credibility.  He is the Godfather of the genre, and he brings that level of authority to the role.  That he so effectively portrays evil and madness makes Noah Cross intimidating and frightening.  His triumph at the film’s end is truly horrifying.

Polanski makes a key choice and sticks to it: even though the film was made in 1974, after the abolition of the production code, and even though it was shot in color, Polanski chooses to not only place the movie in the era of the classic detective movie (the 1930s), he also chooses to mostly play by the same rules.  The result is a modern movie that conforms to the standards of the era it is paying tribute to; there is only a brief frame of nudity, the violence is not graphically depicted as per the norms of the day (or Polanski’s own usual standards), and even the profanity is tame by today’s standards.  Yet while watching the movie, you are aware of none of this.  It is testimony to how lost the viewer can get in a great script and great acting and great direction, regardless of when it was made, which of course remains true of the great movies Polanski is paying homage to.
The other key choice Polanski makes is to shoot the film not only in color, but that most of it takes place in the bright and warm Los Angeles daylight.  This is in direct contradiction to the classic film noir genre that so many of the great detective movies of the 30s and 40s fell into.  Film noir was almost exclusively shot in shadowy black and white, and took place in the eerie and threatening dark of night.   One of the main plot devices of “Chinatown” is based upon the real manipulation of Los Angeles’ water supplies in the 20s and 30s, one of the great political scandals of its time.   As such, the city of Los Angeles, still a “small town” (to quote Gittes) at the time, becomes a central character in the film, and nothing says Los Angeles like sunshine and light.  Yet a mood of sinister dread pervades throughout “Chinatown” that is worthy of the most atmospheric film noir.  It is a tribute to Polanski’s skill that he is able to imbue the bright California sunlight with the same menace usually saved for the dark shadows of night.
Roman Polanski, about to show Jack Nicholson what happens to nosy kitty cats
There are references to other famous detective and gangster movies. Polanski himself shows up as one of Huston’s henchmen.  He has a particularly memorable scene where he shows Nicholson what happens to people who get a little too “nosy.”   The resulting scar conjures up memories of Paul Muni in the 1931 Howard Hawks version of “Scarface”, which can be seen as both a tribute and a clue to the central plot device that is revealed later in Chinatown (check out the implied relationship between Muni’s character and his sister.)

Although it takes place in the 1930s, “Chinatown” is ultimately about America in the 1970s.   The government’s manipulation of the city’s water supply and its attempt to cover it up resembles the Watergate scandal that was occurring at the time.  More than anything else, it is an intensely personal meditation on evil and corruption.   Polanski himself wrote the movie's final scene, changing the happy ending Towne had originally written and replacing it with a bold and chillingly memorable statement on the timeless perpetuity and power of pure evil.  

This is no accident, because few people are as familiar with evil as Polanski.  As a child in Poland, he was a holocaust survivor and orphan who witnessed an extraordinary number of atrocities (and grew to love many of the American movies he pays homage to in “Chinatown.”).   In the 1960s, just as he hit big time success with the release of “Rosemay’s Baby,” his wife, the actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Charles Manson clan.  The atmosphere that is heavy with cynicism and corruption in “Chinatown” can be seen as a metaphor for the triumph of corrupt evil over the idealistic and optimistic dreams of the 60s, just as Polanski witnessed evil destroy the innocence of his childhood and the love of his life.  In fact, on a personal and ugly level, evil seems to have continued its hold on Polanski, as in 1977 he was convicted of raping a minor and has lived in exile from the United States ever since.

"Forget it, Jake.  It's Chinatown"
Put aside that ugliness, if one can, for a moment, and celebrate "Chinatown" for the best of the best period in American film history, when talented artists made complex and uncompromising and intensley personal films, and when the focus was on artistry more than special effects and box office receipts.  

For more on "Chinatown", check out the IMDB page here: www.imdb.com/title/tt0071315

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