Today’s cinema adventure: Chinatown, Roman Polanski’s 1974 noir-inspired mystery drama starring Jack Nicholson as thirties-era private detective Jake Gittes and Faye Dunaway as a mysterious widow whose secrets lead him into a complex web of deceit, corruption, and murder. Renowned, among other reasons, for its screenplay by Robert Towne, which has been hailed by many critics and film scholars as the greatest ever written, it became an instant classic on its release and is still widely regarded as one of the very best films of the seventies, and, indeed, of all time.
Towne’s acclaimed script takes inspiration from the circumstances surrounding early Los Angeles’ complicated acquisition of water rights, fictionalizing real-life figures- specifically William Mulholland, who engineered the importation of water from the north by way of the Los Angeles aqueduct- to create a background for the film’s mystery; though the events of Chinatown are entirely fictitious, this historical context provides a connection to reality that infuses the movie with a sense of authenticity and gives it a feeling on relevance beyond its dramatic narrative. Set in the L.A. of the early 1930s, the plot follows Gittes as he works what he thinks is a routine case. Hired by the wife of Hollis Mulwray, chief engineer for the city’s Department of Water and Power, to catch her husband in an extra-marital affair, he soon finds evidence not only of Mulwray’s supposed infidelity, but of mysterious diversions of water taking place under cover of night. When Mulwray turns up suspiciously drowned and Gittes discovers he was hired by an imposter, he decides to pursue the case in order to save his reputation. The trail begins with the real Mrs. Mulwray, who has a secret connection to her late husband’s “other woman,” and ultimately leads him into a game of clandestine politics, real estate fraud, and dark family secrets; with the police and hired thugs on his trail, he must try to find the key to this complex mystery before his time- or his luck- runs out.
On the surface, it sounds like a typical scenario that could be found in any of a hundred hard-boiled detective stories from the thirties or forties, loaded with the clichés and conceits of such fiction; the wisecracking dick, the deceitful femme fatale, the oily politicians, the psychotic gunsels- all of them are present and accounted for in Chinatown. Towne’s script, however, uses the trappings of the genre as a springboard from which to explore a myriad of deeper mysteries, allowing the unfolding story to take us from the larger arena of politics, power, and greed into the more inscrutable realm of the human heart; in the convoluted skein that lies at the center of the mystery, we find that the most intimate longings are ultimately responsible for the most momentous events, and actions with far-reaching consequences are motivated by simple flaws of character or personal dysfunction. As Gittes digs deeper, he uncovers a vein of corruption that runs from the top of the social order to the very root of the family structure, soiling everything it touches in between; it’s not a pretty discovery- the dirty little secrets he uncovers are very dirty indeed, and the glimpse we are offered into the inner workings of politics (both public and personal) among the rich and powerful is one which offers a very bleak picture, indeed, of the way things really are beneath the pretty surface of prosperity.
Woven into the tale is also an exploration of fate, dictated by the hopes and fears which motivate our actions and ultimately cause us to bring about the very results we wish to prevent; it’s a theme encapsulated in the very structure of the film, in which Gittes, who carries the emotional scars of his history as a policeman in L.A.’s Chinatown, vows never to return there, and yet the trail on which he is led by his case brings him right back into its heart for the film’s climax. An ironic twist, and one of many throughout the film; true to its film noir roots, Chinatown is a movie about irony. Gittes is as worldly and cynical as they come, and yet he finds himself betrayed at every turn by his naive assumptions, and his skeptical view of human nature leads him to repeatedly misjudge whether to doubt or trust the people around him. Not that he can be blamed- in Chinatown, nothing is what it seems, and the more you see of what goes on below the surface, the less you can be sure of how to proceed.
The screenplay for Chinatown is so thematically rich that volumes could be written about it; indeed, they have been. Much of the joy of the film, of course, is discovering the countless threads of meaning on your own, a process which continues throughout multiple repeated viewings. This is due to the contribution of its director, Polanski, whose European roots give him an outsider’s perspective on the quintessentially American milieu of the story. Instead of taking for granted the familiar conditions of the noir scenario, he turns everything inside out with his observations on the culture it portrays; his sophisticated take on the characters and their foibles, the machinations of the plot and the hidden truths it reveals, and the illusions inherent in the American psyche. After all, our seemingly savvy protagonist makes his living by tearing away illusions, but in the course of the film he ends up stripping away his own. Polanski carefully transfers our identification to Gittes, who has both the intelligence and integrity to make him an appealing representative for us, revealing information only as it becomes available to him, and making our journey of discovery synonymous with his. As he proceeds, it becomes increasingly apparent that he is trying to expose a secret everyone else already seems to know, and our illusions are shattered right alongside those of our hapless hero. This lends the film a uniquely contemporary viewpoint on the old-fashioned world it presents, and effectively converts the film noir form into a vehicle for modern ideas about the underlying moral structure of our society. Much of this may seem to be the result of Towne’s screenplay, but Polanski wielded considerable influence over the project, making important changes to the material (such as removing a planned voice-over narration and significantly changing the film’s ending) that altered its structure from a more overtly hard-boiled exercise in nostalgia to a subtle, multi-layered deconstruction of the genre. On a more technical level, the director exhibits his mastery of the medium in every frame, resisting the temptation to use cinematic methods associated with noir, relying on the script and the performances to convey those sensibilities, and instead telling the story with his own, decidedly modern, visual techniques; his use of light and shadow, his framing of shots, his incorporation of symbolic elements- all are reminiscent of the classic mode of these films without directly recreating it. He invokes the spirit of the past while constantly, and subtly, reminding us that we are watching a modern film. It’s an approach few filmmakers have successfully managed, though many have attempted it.
With Polanski utilizing his more current filmmaking style, the distinctive period feel which helps Chinatown evoke its air of old-fashioned intrigue is largely provided by its impeccable recreation of vintage Los Angeles, accomplished by the meticulous costumes, sets, and decor, as well as the carefully chosen locations- all captured by the crystalline, golden-hued cinematography of John A. Alonzo, which conjures the sun-drenched aura of the setting as well as giving a sepia-tinted nod to nostalgia. To complete the package, the lush musical score by Jerry Goldsmith adds a definitive, faintly exotic blend of romance and mystery, with magnificently haunting trumpet solos expressing the mournful longing at the heart of the movie; it’s an even more impressive accomplishment because Goldsmith was called in at the last minute to write music for the film when an already-finished score was rejected by producer Robert Evans. The veteran composer had only ten days to complete his work, but the resultant score stands with the many other elements of Chinatown that are held up among the finest ever produced for the screen.
There is a tendency in films by an auteur like Polanski for the cast to be overlooked, regardless of how superb their work may be; not so with Chinatown. Inseparable from the director’s vision is his star; Jack Nicholson’s unmistakable demeanor fits Jake Gittes to perfection, as much a natural extension of his own personality as such characters were for Humphrey Bogart. He embodies the archetypal private eye character while re-inventing it, giving us the expected image of a tough guy with a strategically hidden idealistic core, but adding yet another layer underneath which reflects the more realistic, contemporary viewpoint of the film. His Gittes seems plagued by self-doubt, a fear that he is setting himself up to repeat his past failure as a cop in Chinatown, and perhaps a suspicion that he is more of a sap than he wants to admit; its an endearing and humanizing weakness which undercuts his brashly confident air, a quality that is perhaps the essence of Nicholson’s screen persona, and it makes him the ideal factor for the audience in Polanski’s de-mystification of detective fiction. The burden of carrying the plot may be on Nicholson, but the bulk of its focus is on Faye Dunaway, as that other essential figure of the noir landscape, the femme fatale, and she is more than up to the scrutiny. As Evelyn Mulwray, she, like her co-star, brings a modern sensibility to the role, a character which runs much deeper than the usual dangerous dames in these hard-boiled tales. Dunaway gives us a well-put-together woman, used to the good life, who is haughty but candid, alluring but also intelligent, tender, vulnerable, and deeply scarred- but still full of warmth and far from broken. Though the character, true to the mold, is deceitful and manipulative, Dunaway lets us see that, in a sense, she’s not very good at it; her face betrays her true feelings at every turn, though she is practiced enough to play it off; in this way, like Nicholson, she creates a portrait of a real person trying to live up to an image she’s not quite sure she’s capable of. She is also beautiful- her smooth, alabaster skin and her faintly exotic eyes give her the perfect look to capture this mysterious, seemingly untouchable woman. As for the chemistry she has with her co-star, they make a perfect pair; their inevitable but unlikely coupling seems to come from nowhere, in terms of the script- there has been no flirtation, nor any overt indication of attraction. Yet when it happens, it feels absolutely right, a chance for both of them to let go of their jaded, protective façades and be human beings again, at least for a short time. They make a great pair, and they brilliantly capture the film’s sense of longing as they play out the story of two lonely souls whose union must ultimately be thwarted by fate, becoming one of the screen’s iconic couples in the process. The third brilliant performance, and one which is sometimes forgotten in discussions of Chinatown, comes from legendary director John Huston (a fitting addition to the cast, since his 1941 film, The Maltese Falcon, arguably gave birth to the entire film noir genre), as Noah Cross, Mulwray’s obscenely wealthy business partner, whose genteel courtliness does little to hide the arrogance and sense of entitlement that defines his character; a truly great villain, he dominates every scene he is in, and though he his screen time is relatively brief, he makes such an impression that it feels like he is in much more of the movie than he actually is. The remainder of the cast- including Burt Young as a client who becomes an ally, Perry Lopez as Jake’s former police partner who is now a high-ranking detective and an antagonist in the investigation, Diane Ladd as the phony Mrs. Mulwray, and director Polanski in a cameo as a deadly knife-wielding hoodlum- all bring their own considerable contributions to the table, fleshing out their smaller roles and providing even more texture to the already intricate tapestry of the movie’s multi-layered landscape.
Chinatown is one of those rare movies that seems to be impervious to the changing tastes of time; it captures not only the era of its setting but the savvy, anti-establishment zeitgeist of the “New Hollywood” seventies, yet it seems as fresh and up-to-the-minute today as it did nearly 40 years ago. Part of the reason for this lies in the timeless nature of its themes and its subject matter- the corruptibility of man and the inexorable workings of fate will never cease to be relevant topics, after all- but a great deal of credit goes to the delicate, deceptively simple handling given the film by Roman Polanski, and the self-assured, passionate work of its stars. There are several points of interest surrounding the movie for cinema historians- it was the first film shot in America by Polanski since the tragic murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, at the hands of the Manson “family,” and the last before he fled the country to avoid sentencing for his statutory rape conviction, a still-highly-controversial incident that sharply divides public opinion even today. None of these things matter, though, when watching Chinatown. It’s a movie that has something to offer for every audience, from the serious cinemaphile to the most casual viewer. The word “masterpiece” gets thrown around a lot, and I hesitate to use it, most of the time, at least in writing; but I suspect, in the final analysis of Polanski’s body of work when all is said and done, it is this movie that will stand as his crowning achievement- more accessible than his earlier, more directly artistic efforts, possibly his most universal film in scope and appeal, and less detached than his later, more meditative work. It’s the kind of movie that entices us with its entertaining surface and draws us into its complex, thought-provoking, revelatory world- a world where right and wrong are inextricably woven together and the only way to avoid trouble, in the words of more than one character, is to do “as little as possible.”