Sunday, April 7, 2013

Chinatown (1974)

Chinatown (1974)
Directed by: Roman Polanski
Written by: Robert Towne
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, Perry Lopez, John Hillerman, Roman Polanski, Diane Ladd, John Huston
(130 minutes, Color)

Roger Ebert once said that no good movie is ever too long.  That can certainly be said of Chinatown, a movie that draws you into its world slowly and engulfs you in its intrigue and tragedy to the point where filmgoers feel like they're residing in its world.  The corruption on display here is impenetrable and thick as molasses, and makes for one of the richest and most beloved movie mysteries of all time.  Chinatown is a perennial noir classic and is one of the best American films ever made. 

The term "film noir" is French for "black film" and is used to describe movies that are black in two primary ways: visually, due to the use of shadow and low-key B&W style in filming, and thematically, due to their dark and melodramatic nature, emphasized by inherent cynicism and frequent sexual motivations.  Chinatown came in a time when film noir had crested years before and re-instituted it as a genre just as applicable for contemporary film as classic film.  Roman Polanski doesn't exactly copy the patterns of 1940s and 50s noir, but instead pays homage to them while updating them for a new age of film.  Chinatown and its contemporaries cemented the presence of the neo-noir genre, which we see almost constantly today, from lesser imitations along the lines of Basic Instinct to acclaimed thrillers like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

It's easy to forget while watching Chinatown that we're not viewing an old classic.  From the faded, jazzy opening titles to the melancholy ending accompanied by the immortal one-liner ("Forget it Jake.  It's Chinatown"), Polanski utilizes the tools of his predecessors to build something unique.  The film takes place in Los Angeles back when it was barren and full of wasted potential.  The cinematography ensures that the city is another character in the film: the shadows off the buildings obscure the characters faces and with them their murky intentions, the wide streets glare with sunlight as cars race across them, and the memories contained in Chinatown are just as grim and bleak as the camera's capture of the city itself.

The plot revolves around private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), who is hired by Evelyn Mulwray to discover whether or not her husband Hollis is having an affair.  Over the course of his investigation into Hollis's conduct, Gittes learns that his subject, president of the city's water company, opposes the building of a dam to bring L.A. out of its current draught.  When Gittes catches Hollis in the act, the latter's infidelities end up on the front page of the L.A. Newspaper, and Gittes is again contacted by Mrs. Mulwray...only to discover that this Mrs. Mulwray is not the same woman who hired him.  The real Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) bitterly discards Gittes's discoveries and threatens a law suit.  All of that become irrelevant, however, when Hollis turns up dead, drowned in his own reservoir.  Evelyn wants to know the true cause of her husband's death, and Gittes is desperate to restore his reputation as a reliable detective.  The two become unlikely allies, but the journey to discover the truth takes them both to unexpected places.

In Chinatown, Faye Dunaway gives the most ravishing performance of her career, and creates one of the most famous femme fatales in American film.  Evelyn is the most complex character in the movie, and I can't imagine anyone but Dunaway giving her life.  My first time viewing Chinatown I found Evelyn nearly impossible to read.  The audience never knows what to expect from this woman who is alternately esoteric and truthful, who is generally callous but shows moments of heartwrenching vulnerability.  Upon subsequent viewings, it's apparent how much passion Dunaway had for her character and performance; every gaze and syllable uttered is finely tuned to lead the audience along a similar path to the one Gittes is led down by Evelyn.  Here is a woman with dark secrets, and when they're finally revealed to the audience, it becomes clear to us that Chinatown is as much Evelyn's tragedy as it is Jake's.

Nicholson, for his part, used Chinatown to cement his reputation as America's go-to leading man for pretty much every type of movie, a reputation that he thankfully has yet to move out of.  Let's hope he never will.  Nicholson's career has the good fortune of being one of the most distinguished and long-running in contemporary American film.  Think of all the titles he has headlined: The Shining, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Terms of Endearment, Batman, A Few Good Men, As Good as It Gets, and well-recieved recent movie likes The Bucket List and Something's Gotta Give.  Nicholson is an undeniably versatile actor, but Jake Gittes established what would become the "Nicholson" persona, utilized in most of his roles: protagonists who are tough, confident, and sardonic ("you're dumber than you think I think you are") yet identifiable for the audience.  Gittes's past haunts him throughout the film: we learn that he was a police officer stationed in Chinatown when a tragedy occured that drove him from the force.  "I tried to keep someone from being hurt," he tells Evelyn.  "And I ended up making sure she was hurt."
"What did you do in Chinatown?" she asks him.

"As little as possible."

Towne, the screenwriter, was actually told this line by a Hungarian cop he interviewed. The cop told him that, in Chinatown, the web of gangs and dialects kept police from knowing whether or not their action helped potential victims or only furthered in their exploitation by criminals. So, the obvious solution is to keep away from potentially harmful action. This is the powerful precipice on which Jake teeters over the course of the movie. He knows nothing about the complicated conspiracies running about L.A. at the film's start, but as the action progresses and the plot becomes clearer, he's stuck putting himself and those he cares for on the line in a situation completely above his pay-grade. He's the quintessential '70s American protagonist: one man against the system, reeling in a sea of harm for what he knows is right. In order for Jake's story to be as impactful as it is, it can only have one end. It's about the time the audience realizes this that Chinatown takes on its deepest dimension: that of the human condition in the face of unbeatable odds. Here's where it moves past entertainment. Why the hell does Jake try when he knows he can't win?  Arthur Miller, the great dramatist, once wrote in his essay "Tragedy and the Common Man" that "the possibility of victory must be there in tragedy. Where pathos rules, where pathos is finally derived, a character has fought a battle he could not possibly have won.  And it is curious, although edifying, that the plays we revere, century after century, are the tragedies. In them, and in them alone, lies the belief-optimistic, if you will, in the perfectibility of man."  Where is Jake's victory?  Ask him at the film's end, and he wouldn't be able to tell you.  It's a fundamental call that can't be spoken, that leads simultaneously to deep honor and lingering despair. 

Chinatown is one of the most artistically flawless movies I've had the pleasure of viewing. There's not a blemish to be found in this masterpiece. Jerry Goldsmith's score perfectly underscores all of the film's action and slowly works its way into your subconscious as you watch the movie, until his yearning melodies are synonymous, in your head, to the emotions of the film. Try watching this movie and then, a few days later, looking up the score on the internet. You'll instantly be transported back to 1930s L.A., circa Roman Polanski. The supporting performances are also uniformly excellent: legendary director John Huston, especially, creates one of the vilest creatures I've seen on the silver screen. Additionally, Polanski, after this film, was set up to be one of the preeminent directors of his generation, until his infamous sex scandal sent him fleeing to Europe. His films after Chinatown are satisfying and occasionally brilliant, but it's interesting to think how his career would be different if he had had the option to stay in mainstream Hollywood.

Chinatown is a great entertainment. The actors inhabit their parts, the screenplay absolutely sizzles with wit and zeal, and the direction is unique and pioneering. But what sets it apart from its contemporaries? What secures its place as a head above the rest? Its soul. Audiences can't help but see a little of themselves in Jake Gittes and Evelyn Mulwray. Near the film's end, one character despicably remarks that "most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and right place they're capable of anything." Polanski made this movie soon after his wife's brutal slaughter as part of Manson's "helter skelter." Perhaps Gittes is Polanski's way of showing audiences just how torn apart and beaten down a man can be by society. In that sense, Chinatown's cynicism is hard-won. It's deserved.

"Forget about it, Jake," he's told. "It's Chinatown."

But Polanski knows Jake shouldn't forget. Not ever. And neither should we.

Chinatown is rated R by the MPAA for unspecified reasons. It's definitely a movie for adults due to its complex plot and very mature thematic material. Violence against and the sexual exploitation of women are big plot points. Racism against Asian-Americans, albeit part of the plot and not condoned by the filmmakers, rears its head infrequently. Several people are shot, sometimes with quite a bit of blood. Jake gets his nose cut open with a knife, and we see the bloody wound throughout the movie. Bare breasts are briefly shown non-sexually in a post-coital scene, and infrequent but strong profanity also makes an appearance.

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