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Thursday, 28 January 2010

Chinatown (1974)

Director: Roman Polanski
Stars: Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Smoky music by Jerry Goldsmith that Mike Hammer would have loved sets the timeframe wonderfully as Chinatown begins, even though we're merely watching a long list of credits that includes John Huston, who provides a notable acting performance here, and ends with director Roman Polanski, the last such credit he would earn in the US. Given that we're looking at an elegant font on a dark and faded sepia background, it's not difficult to realise that we're not in 1974, when Chinatown was made. Sure enough we're a lot further back, so far back that the cars come in any colour we like as long as it's black and Seabiscuit is still on the front page of the Racing Record without the benefit of a biopic to advertise the name.

It's 1937 and it looks precisely like 1937, as well it should, given that notable critics have cited Chinatown as having the best design ever seen in a American film, courtesy of production designer Richard Sylbert and his team. It's hard for me to buy into that accolade, having seen both Blade Runner and Brazil, but it's definitely something to experience in its original anamorphic widescreen glory, full of sumptuous visuals, skilful and deliberate composition and with plenty to look at, whether it's the focus of the frame or not. Do not watch this the way I first saw it, in fullscreen on television, under any circumstances. While it's always going to be a powerful film noir, quite possibly the best such ever made in colour, in fullscreen it's a shadow of its former self, literally half a movie.

We're watching Jake Gittes, who is a Marlowe-esque private eye of the old school, with an abundance of cynical sarcasm, a receding hairline and a stock of whiskey bottles in his office ready for any occasion. He's played to everyday perfection by Jack Nicholson, way before he let the Joker get into his blood and started overacting for a living. He should have been good because writer Robert Towne wrote the part specifically with his way of speaking in mind, but it's more than that: both Nicholson and Towne thankfully resist the temptation to turn it into a star vehicle. Private eyes should be completely inconspicuous because by definition they don't want to be seen, especially when they're the sort of private eyes who look into the personal lives of people having affairs and take pictures of them.

Gittes is hired to look into the personal life of the chief engineer of the Department of Water and Power in Los Angeles, Hollis Mulwray. He's apparently cheating on his wife who wants to know for sure and so almost browbeats the detective into investigating. Of course he quickly discovers that there's a lot more to the story, film noir never being about transparent storytelling. Mulwray is indeed seeing a beautiful young woman on the side, but it turns out that the wife doing the hiring isn't the real wife after all and that real wife sues Gittes. To make it even stranger, she quickly drops the lawsuit but Gittes refuses to accept it. His thinking is that whoever has made a fool out of Mulwray has also made a fool out of him, so he perseveres regardless of circumstances.

He discovers that Mulwray, who is a big fish in a big pond, has stumbled onto something much bigger than he is, something to do with bringing water to the deserts around Los Angeles. There's a drought on and tempers are flaring with the heat. There are city meetings to propose dams, through which farmers drive their herds of sheep in protest and there are threats to blow up the city reservoirs. Strangest of all, while water is still in very short supply, it's also being dumped out of these reservoirs into the ocean each night and people are turning up drowned in dry river beds. It doesn't take long for Mulwray to be included in that company and this story promptly becomes a murder investigation, among many other things. There are webs of corruption, layers of fraud and even seedier revelations to come.
Much of this has a solid basis in history, being what historian Margaret Leslie Davis has called a metaphor for the rape of the Owens Valley, part of the California Water Wars. Mulwray is a thinly disguised version of William Mulholland, a self taught Irish engineer who had arrived in Los Angeles when it only contained 9,000 people and effectively masterminded the construction of its entire water supply up until 1928, when the St Francis Dam collapsed mere hours after he had personally inspected it, an event that is specifically referenced during a city meeting in Chinatown. This was the worst civil engineering disaster in 20th century America, the resulting hundred foot torrent swamping much of Ventura County and burying utterly the town of Santa Paula, leaving 450 people dead, including 42 schoolchildren. The California Water Wars were hardly a minor event, ripe for fictionalisation.

Given the superb cinematography, the admirable production design and the wonderful script, it seems strange to focus on something as basic as Jack Nicholson's nose, but Chinatown, as befits what is really an old black and white film noir that just happens to be a little newer and in colour, doesn't try to make its characters look pretty. The gritty reality of the story really hits home through the device of having Nicholson's nose bandaged or at least notably damaged for at least two thirds of the film, as a reward for, well, being nosy. Nicholson knows well that Gittes is a vaguely decent man making a living in a vaguely indecent way, who becomes notably more damaged as the film goes on, both on a metaphorical and a literal level, and if a star of his stature is happy to put his art before his vanity for the sake of the movie, then it must be something special. He wasn't the major name back then that he is today but he certainly wasn't nobody either.

Towne's script is a peach, one which brought the film its only Academy Award from eleven nominations. The Writers Guild of America West named it the greatest original screenplay of all time, even more notable because it was Towne's first, as he had previously only adapted other work. In fact he was initially hired to adapt The Great Gatsby but as he felt he couldn't improve on it, took less money to write a script of his own. I'm sure he never regretted that decision. He does nothing less than reinvent film noir here, both in the sweep of the thing and in the details, but he reserves the right to leave his own stamp on the genre. It's rare to see noir done both traditionally and well in latter years, LA Confidential being possibly the best other great example of the colour era.

There are genre traditions here, not least that the story is told through the lead character's perception of events. Gittes is in every scene of the film and when at one point he's knocked unconscious the film fades to black until he recovers. The tone is uniformly dark. Anyone truly innocent is little more than a victim, there for the talented and more morally flexible people to exploit. The only really good looking character is Mulwray's wife Evelyn, played by the ever-sensual Faye Dunaway, but of course she's firmly in the role of the femme fatale so good looking comes with the territory. Towne wrote this character with plenty of depth and Dunaway develops it notably over the course of the film, so it's impossible to pigeonhole her. In the end she's possibly the only selfless character there is. Everyone else fits somewhere on the bad scale from two bit thug to evil mastermind, and of course somewhere in there is the director of the film, Roman Polanski.
He was never afraid to turn to the dark side, which of course is a prerequisite for anyone making a film noir, but he takes Towne's script and runs with it, taking it into some truly dubious territory, so much so that the movie certainly couldn't have been made while the Production Code was still in effect and it probably couldn't be made today, at least by a major studio. Polanski, of course, is rather notably associated with the dark side, having already been embroiled in more controversy than most directors or most people will ever be. Polanski was involved in controversy even before he was old enough to know what the word meant, so a modern film noir that touches on taboo subjects seems like a natural choice for him.

He's a good parallel to the title, which at once has nothing to do with the story and everything to do with it. Hardly any of the film takes place in Chinatown, but it's always being referred to, because when you ask questions in Chinatown you find answers to questions that shouldn't be asked. As writer Robert Towne later explained, he based the concept on an experienced vice cop who pointed out that in Chinatown with its maze of different accents, gangs and cultures you never really know what's actually going on: by doing anything at all you could find yourself either stopping a crime or unwittingly assisting in one. The only way to avoid doing the wrong thing is to do nothing at all, thus leading to the memorable line, 'Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.'

Polanski was born in Paris but moved at the age of three with his parents from France to Poland, a really unwise choice of destination for a Jewish family in 1936. It's hardly surprising that his parents were soon moved again, to Nazi concentration camps where his mother was killed, no doubt one of the major influences to his other film in the IMDb Top 250, The Pianist. Some time later in 1969, his pregnant wife, the actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by followers of Charles Manson at their Los Angeles home, an event that surely flavoured his next few films including a violent version of Macbeth as well as this one. Had his life been freer from tragedy, I'm sure Chinatown would have been a very different film with a very different ending. Certainly writer Robert Towne and producer Robert Evans wanted something very different, but I'm happy that Polanski got his way on it. Towne even admitted he'd been wrong when the film was rereleased in 1999.

Towne intended for the story to be the first part in a trilogy, each about the manipulation of a different critical and finite municipal resource and focused around detective Jake Gittes. Jack Nicholson believed so much in Towne's vision that he has conspiciously refused to play a detective again, so that this one remain the only one associated with him. He returned to the role in 1990 for the second part in the trilogy, The Two Jakes, which he also directed, which Towne wrote and which included a number of other returning cast members. It centred on oil and was not a success, never mind the wild success that Chinatown was, so the third and final part, Gittes vs Gittes, about land and the LA freeway system, has never been made.

When I first saw Chinatown, Polanski was living in Europe, unable even to enter the United States for fear of a fresh arrest for the statutory rape and drugging of a thirteen year old girl at Jack Nicholson's house. As I post this review, he's in house arrest in Gstaad, having been taken into custody by Swiss police on an international arrest warrant while travelling to accept a lifetime achievement award at the Zurich Film Festival. Maybe one day, if Polanski gets out of jail, he'll have enough dark left in him to make a real successor to Chinatown.

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