Chinatown April 18, 2016
Chinatown would never just be an exercise in film noir. It was the film that cemented Roman Polanski’s reputation as one of cinema’s greatest living filmmakers, the film that propelled Jack Nicholson to the status of a bona fide star, the film that reminded the nation why Faye Dunaway was always destined to be more than Bonnie Parker, more than Vicki Anderson. It was the film that went for the subversive when most of its kind safely turned to the arms of the homage; it was the film that stripped sexy romanticism away from the noir genre and assured us that the detectives of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett’s best works had it much better than their real-life counterparts.
There has, perhaps, never been a time during which Chinatown hasn’t been gazed upon as being among the finest films ever made. Upon release, it grossed almost five times more than its budget, was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, and was instantaneously deemed a classic of a genre most had previously thought to be dead. It’s a manifestation of what we consider to be a great film, marked by uncompromising, detailed direction, note-perfect performances, and a screenplay that, by the standards of the most serious of film circles, is one of the best ever written. We don’t just watch Chinatown; we grab onto it with our beings, hypnotized by its storytelling, its visual opulence, its unforgettable cynicism. For a little over two-hours, we are lifted from our theater seats and transported to 1930s Los Angeles, where illicit encounters are a thing of the everyday and where one’s character has to toughen to survive.
We cannot look for more when going to the movies. Chinatown is intoxicating in ways few films are. We can smell cigarette smoke as it dangles in the air, the liquor on the breath of its focal private detective, the European perfume that licks the aura of its bewitching femme fatale. Excitement runs as thoroughly through our veins as cryptic dread does; in a world as cruel as Chinatown’s Los Angeles is, an expectation of eventual euphoria seems as near as it does far. It’s a mystery of a mystery movie — it’s as familiar as it is foreign, a film noir we at first believe to be like all the others until we’re gobsmacked with the realization that no noir has ever gone quite as far in its prevailing pessimism. It traps us in its web of conspiracy, never to be released.
Formidable, too, is the way it avoids the easy use of the noir stock character, a downfall for most contemporary films trying to be Kiss Me Deadly. Some of Chinatown’s biggest successes revolve around the conception of its characters, which fill the roles of “types” we’ve come to know before (the sardonic private dick, the secretive femme he calls sidekick and lover, the ruthless villain easily able to hide his true evil) but do more than just stew in old characterizations and let the writing, the attitude, do the talking for them. Its cast gives performances, with Robert Towne providing them with roles of distinguished depth.
Take, for instance, its hero, J.J. “Jake” Gittes, who is of the Phillip Marlowe type but sidesteps rose-colored bitterness for forlorn optimism. He is a private detective that smokes too much, who drinks too much, and who cares too much; take off his layers of put-upon snakeskin and you’ll discover that he’s kind, obsessed with the idea of making right. Usually, he specializes in adultery cases, able to jump back and forth in-between them without emotion. But in Chinatown, he is presented with a case that just might change his perception of the world he’s come to know, and just might leave him wounded instead of merely jaded. Played by a scorching Nicholson (a risky but soundly advantageous casting choice), he’s the first PI we’ve met in the movies that doesn’t make dwelling in unremitting danger seem cool. Peril is authentic, and Gittes doesn’t always retain placidity a la Sam Spade — fear is a reality he’d like to escape.
In the film, Gittes is forced to take a break from his standard assemblage of adultery cases after he becomes involved in an all-encompassing conspiracy that works as an embodiment of the corrupt nature of the California government in the 1930s. The investigation is prompted by the murder of Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), the reigning chief of the Department of Water and Power. As the man was the subject of a former case (an imposter posed as his wife to attain pictures of Mulrway with a younger woman), Gittes cannot help but be drawn in, especially when suspicions are aroused that some corrupt happenings are occurring within the underbellies of the department.
In his process of probing and exploring the sea of enigmas before him, Gittes hardly goes unnoticed by Mulwray’s many enemies — he’s beaten to a pulp on more than one occasion, almost losing his nose in one of the scuffles — and he hardly goes unnoticed by those closest to him, particularly the man’s wife (Dunaway), who is collected and beautiful but also knows much more than she lets on.
Chinatown has the fatalistic personality of The Big Sleep but lacks the incomprehensibility. With a tight handling of its central mystery, it, unlike many detective noir movies, is just as much about plot as it is about atmosphere and character. It could have been released sometime in the late 1930s, early 1940s, but could such a disillusioned piece make it past the hit-seeking heads of studio executives?
With its callous ending, which is both devastating and integral to its overall impression, I hardly think so. It is very much a work of the 1970s, a decade I consider to be the best in cinema (it’s an explosion of all the masterworks prohibited by the Hays Code in previous years), but it simultaneously doesn’t seem to belong to any decade, any category, choosing the 1930s as its setting yet remaining timeless in its nihilism.
You can see the care that went into its making. Look at the way Towne so comprehensively elicits a forgotten era through the film’s dialogue and historical foundation, the way Polanski exhaustively captures every bit of period detail possible. Especially prestigious are Nicholson and Dunaway, two of the greatest performers of their peer group and certainly the best matched to the type of material presented. With his self-confident drawl and smarmy swagger, we expect Nicholson’s Jake Gittes to be a private eye even more confident than Mike Hammer. But his poise is only a masquerade for doubt, and Nicholson evokes that impossible connecting of outside discernment and sense of self with a subtlety one normally doesn’t associate the actor with.
And Dunaway, who battled with Polanski on set, is as pensively unblemished. With her milky white skin, penciled-in eyebrows, seductive way of speaking, and immediate glamour, she is a femme fatale of the highest caliber until the film betrays her and reveals her to be a victim of life, not a dame out to cause trouble. It’s the deflection of the character types Nicholson and Dunaway undergo that makes Chinatown all the more arresting of a movie — the turmoil they face is sweepingly real underneath the pristine sheen of period influence, and our empathy, and interest, seldom ceases.
But the best thing about Chinatown is how it can both work as grand entertainment and serious cinema. It bridges that gap between artistic intrigue and public accessibility, and that’s how a film should be, easy to be appreciated, to admire. It’s unparalleled and unyielding — that’s how it goes in Chinatown, anyway. A