Friday, 24 September 2021

Chinatown (1974)

 


Chinatown

I am a big fan of film-noir. Those 1940’ies noir are just awesome, even if some of the private-eye themes are bordering cliché. The neo-noir genre tries to reanimate the look and feel of the original noirs, usually with a twist, and few does it better than “Chinatown”.

“Chinatown” is a Roman Polanski movie, the last he made in Hollywood. It recreates a 1930’ies private eye scenario in Los Angeles where the former cop, now private investigator, specializing in extramarital affairs, Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by Mrs. Mulwray to look into her husband’s infidelities. Gittes and his team tails him and shoots some nice pictures of Hollis Mulwray with a girl. The pictures get publicized and Mulwray is publicly crucified.

Immediately after, Gittes is approached by another woman (Faye Dunawaye) who claims she is the real Mrs. Mulwray. Gittes realizes he has been duped, but before he can find Mr. Mulwray, he has been murdered. Something very fishy is going on.

Hollis Mulwray was the Chief Engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and clearly this goes a lot deeper than infidelities. Gittes is a character straight out of a Hammett or Chandler novel and insist on digging into it only to find out that nothing is what it looks like, and nobody are straight.

Polanski took special pains to make this look like the 30’ies and with the saturated colors and almost stylized sets there is almost a cartoonish texture to the cinematography. This is underscored by an almost perfect moody jazz score. The layered and convoluted plot where we are always caught off-balance and not entirely certain what is going on, also harks back to the noir originals.

Where Chinatown deviates from this formula are in two particular elements.

Gittes may look as if he is in control and he certainly wants to make that impression, but he is not. Everything he learns tells him how wrong he was before and though he has the audacity to get into places and obtain information others would not get, it is often too late or too little because he is missing information. He may be two steps ahead of us, like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, but he is also two steps behind the events unfolding. He is not an antihero, but an insufficient hero.

Secondly, the catastrophic ending. Without spoiling too much, I can say we get a spectacular ending, but not in the way you would expect. This ties in with the first exception. Gittes is insufficient and the case is bigger than him. The bad guys are overwhelmingly strong and there really is no stopping them. This moves “Chinatown” very much from the 40’ies to the 70’ies. It is a breaking of illusions and a political statement, really. Chinatown here is a metaphor for lawless corruption. Gittes tried to get out of Chinatown, but Chinatown caught up with him.

The combination of the 30-40’ies pastiche and the political implications of the conclusion makes for a strong and unique combo. I was totally sucked in, experiencing that combination of love and horror and I have to say this is one of the best neo-noirs ever. This is powerful stuff and extremely well crafted. Polanski has made a lot of great movies, and this is among his best, seriously.

Chinatown won one Academy Award (Best Original Screenplay) and was nominated in another 10 categories, including all the big ones. In a year without “The Godfather II”, it could have swept the table.

Strongly recommended.

 


12 comments:

  1. Godfather II or not, this is my pick for Best Picture of 1974. It's pretty close to flawless.

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    1. I have not watched Godfather II yet, but it will have to knock my socks off to beat Chinatown. I suspect it will not.

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  2. I too am an enormous noir fan and this is one of the best, neo-noir or whatever you could call it the film is noir through and through.

    I'm not always the biggest Nicholson fan, especially as he got older and settled into that annoying "Just Jack" persona but he's fantastic here as is Faye Dunaway. She and Polanski DID NOT get along during filming to the degree that they practically came to blows but somehow it never shows in either her work or the film, both are seamlessly.

    The story is seedy and ultimately unpleasant and the ending does have echoes of 70's grit, but it is also a very noir ending that echoes the blackest classics like Out of the Past and Too Late for Tears.

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    1. True enough about noir, flawed characters and bleak endings, but I still think there is a particular seventies statement with the insufficient hero. He is sort of a Dirty Harry missing the train.

      I did read about the fiery relation between Polanski and Dunaway, though I did not catch the details. Something about that she claimed she was abused by him?

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    2. According to Faye's autobiography they differed on her interpretation of Evelyn from the start so things were thorny. She rattled along because she respected his work and loved the script but then during a set-up he reached in and plucked a hair out of her head that he said was in the way and it was full on knives out from that point on.

      Now Faye is famously mercurial and notoriously difficult to work with so you have to take that with a grain of salt. However Polanski is also known to be autocratic on his sets at times and the hair yanking incident has been commented on by others. Aside from that it seems a case of two strong personalities that didn't meld well but turned out a great piece of work.

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  3. I think this movie be watched with great pleasure 50 years from now. A genuine classic.

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    1. It is not so rooted in the seventies that it feel aged. It is in fact remarkably timeless.
      I hope you are doing well, Bea. I have not seen much from you for a while.

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    2. I am doing fine. My husband and brother have both been hospitalized while I’ve been gone. I hope to be back soon.

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    4. That is good to hear, though sorry about your husband and brother. I hope it is not serious.

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