“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
Chinatown (1974); directed by Roman Polanski; written by Robert Towne; produced by Robert Evans; cinematography by John A. Alonzo; editing by Sam O’Steen; musical score by Jerry Goldsmith; distributed by Paramount Pictures; Awards: Academy Award for Best Screenplay; Nominations: Best Picture; Best Director; Best Editing; Best Cinematography; Best Costume Design (Anthea Sylbert); Best Art/Set Direction (Richard Sylbert, W. Stewart Campbell, Ruby R. Levitt); Best Sound (Charles Grenzbach, Larry Jost); Best Leading Actor (Jack Nicholson); Best Leading Actress (Faye Dunaway); for a full list of awards and nominations, go here.
I see a tendency forming: the heroes of the films on my list often fare badly. Oddly enough, Jeffrey, the hero of Blue Velvet, is the only one so far to find a happy ending—and that’s in one of the darker films on the list. Which is a way of noting that very dark films might need a lighter ending, while films that concentrate on character, and on revealing character through difficult situations, tend toward the revelation of failure. And that’s simply a way of noting that, in Robert Towne’s version, preferred by producer Robert Evans, Chinatown would’ve had a happy ending—the death of Noah Cross and the escape of Evelyn Mulray, I suppose—and that film might not have made my list. It was Polanski who insisted on, and even wrote, it’s said, the ending the film received, one of the more famous endings for this period of cinema.
And what period is that? It’s a period when Hollywood productions were becoming more and more like cotton candy—no substance, no purpose, all confectionery fluff. By 1974 the great film stars of the post-war period were all too old to be leading men and women, and it was high time a new crop emerged. But the crop that emerged were not as committed to starring in glamorous films, preferring things edgier, with a sense of on-location realism as opposed to studio wizardry. In 1977, a special effects space opera would cause great changes again, but for the early Seventies the best directors and actors were working in a brave new world drawn from Nouvelle Vague and cinema verité and other French symptoms. There were exceptions, of course, and what Chinatown shares with another classic of the era like The Godfather (about which more later) is a combination of the production values of the “period piece” with the realist feel of the unglamorized film-making of the auteur era. Polanski is a good case in point, since Rosemary’s Baby, his previous big Hollywood film, was set in New York and filled with many of his characteristic touches.
The question: can an individual film stylist find happiness in a big Hollywood project? Yes, if he can prevail against the producer and the screenwriter. It helps to be pals with the up-and-coming and soon-to-be quite powerful star, Jack Nicholson. In fact, this is the film that broke things wide open for Nicholson; it’s the role of the early Nicholson that most deserves to be seen. His turn as Randall Patrick MacMurphy, the following year, is more crowd-pleasing but is also so perfect for him it permits him to be Jack with a vengeance—and Jack with a vengeance is pretty much what he would become famous for. In Chinatown, he has to be more of an ensemble-player, somewhat at least. And he has to lose, somewhat less than heroically. Maybe that’s just a way of saying that I test actors by the degree of skill they bring to playing losers. J. J. “Jake” Gittes is, largely because of Nicholson, one of the most likeable losers in the history of cinema.
Except when he’s not. At a certain point, watching it after you know how it turns out, you feel like grabbing him by the lapels and slapping him around. He’s arrogant, smug, shrewd, and not too bright. And he’s way in over his head from the very start. But all that is ok, we think, so long as he gets his man—and if he gets the girl too, or at least has the girl too, along the way, well, all the better for us. Jake has the girl, and loses the girl because he doesn’t “get” the girl. And he gets the right man, but not at the right time. Too complicated? Yeah. Forget it, Jake…
As femme fatale Evelyn Mulray, Faye Dunaway is as good as she ever gets, and that’s pretty damn good. Her eyes alone are the requisite asset for the part, to say nothing of how well the style of the Thirties becomes her. It’s as if she were made for this period. It’s the icy vulnerability of her Evelyn, with the hint of maddening duplicity and even of mad histrionics—off-screen—that keeps us roped in, just as it does Jake. Jake thinks he’s going to be Bogie to her Bacall. But it’s not going to work out that way. Then there’s John Huston as her dastardly, incestuous dad, Noah Cross—importing a bit of Sydney Greenstreet charm (to say nothing of a voice as unmistakeable) and menace—and even a cameo by Polanski himself, in the part Huston would’ve given to Peter Lorre or Elisha Cook, of a short, nasty henchman. In other words, Chinatown pushes all the right buttons and looks great—Polanski seems to have studied Hitchcock’s playbook for how to use point of view to control access: the entire film is from Jake’s mostly cluelessly clue-finding POV and that means Polanski, like Hitch, can play cat-and-mouse with the viewer a bit, toying with the ways what we see doesn’t mean exactly what we expect it to. Which is a way of saying that the punched-in-the-gut feeling we should have at the end is precisely what Jake is feeling.
And the film sounds great too. Goldsmith’s jazzy score, full of fulsome trumpet, lets us keep believing we’re still inhabiting the glamorous Hollywood era of the actual Thirties or Forties (and those closeups of Dunaway, looking like Bette Davis-meets-Joan Crawford, help), a world where seething corruption can usually be turned aside—after a dark noir of the soul—with some barbed lines, a few fisticuffs, and a brandished weapon. The need for the unhappy ending becomes clearer once the film itself becomes an emblem of film history: this is the very year when the former governor of California—Richard Milhouse Nixon—would choose to resign his presidency rather than face impeachment, and the film wants us to see how California became the place to raise a favorite son like him.
It’s ultimately a tale of how the vested interests will always win, certainly against a middling private eye who doesn’t even know the names of some of the biggest players in Los Angeles until he gets roped into a can’t-win situation he’s foolish enough to think he can finesse—because he makes the mistake of thinking he only needs to outwit his old comrade/rival Lt. Lou Escobar (Perry Lopez), rather than outplay one of the more ruthless and powerful men he’s ever likely to meet. Chinatown—the name is synonymous with a place where forces of justice don’t quite get what’s going on, often making a bad situation worse—wants to remind us that the “evil men do” is always in pursuit of a worthy goal. Noah Cross has a vision for CA, and he’ll stop at nothing to achieve it. Much as with any other broker of American necessities—like oil, nuclear power, munitions, natural gas. . .
Towne is nothing if not steeped in his town—and it’s the very presence of all those Chinese workers that also sets a quizzical tone, much as the ever-present underclass of Hispanic workers does in the current version of L.A. tales: there’s always another world running in parallel to the one we like to think we all are part of. And in one sinister version of that world—which happens to be a place that Roman Polanski tends to inhabit—for white middle-class guys like Jake, all bets are off.
50 Since 1970