Friday, September 14, 2007

Chinatown (1974)

Editor's note: Chinatown from 1974 is structured much like a classic film noir detective story with some key difference. The protagonist J. J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is no Philip Marlowe. He's a tasteless, classless gumshoe that will do anything for a buck. Also, the story Gittes slowly unravels -- after a number of dead ends and beatings -- leads us to one darkly disturbing end. It's a film that sticks with you forever and is correctly considered a great film.

I asked writer David N. Meyer if we could use his excellent article on Chinatown from his book A Girl and a Gun: The Complete Guide to Film Noir on Video.Although the book is out of date when it comes to film noir released on home video (boy has the DVD revolution been good to noir fans), the book is filled with some excellent articles about classic and neo-noir. Published in 1998, the book is still a must read.

By David N. Meyer

Director: Roman Polanski; Camera: John A. Alonzo; Screenplay: Robert Towne
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, John Hillerman, Burt Young, Diane Ladd

Plot: A Private eye with a tragic past is hired to shadow a philandering husband. The job turns phony, and the husband ends up dead. The P.I. Falls into a web of intrigue as he falls in love with the dead guy's rich, smooth widow. Dealing with her sinister dad, the P.I. learns the conflicts of adult love and the high price of civic progress.

The perfect film?

Robert Towne's script is a puzzle-box of mystery and dread that slowly opens to reveal unsuspected, ever more disturbing vistas. A mystery becomes a love story that unveils a murder that fuels a tale of urban piracy that becomes a treatise on the endurance of evil. Among the many perfections of the script are the steady, suspenseful pacing and the careful layering of clues that, on first viewing, are unrecognizable as such. Indeed, the viewer never fully grasps what the interlocking threads conceal until the story's climax. We then experience the same helpless understanding as the hero.

Nicholson plays a would-be tough-ass, a half-bright guy who reinvents himself after a devastating experience in “Chinatown,” a physical and spiritual neighborhood of tragic ambiguity and futility. Bearing his smirking facade of world-weariness lake a shield, Nicholson considers himself a man who understands the city and his place therein. But his brittle shell of cynicism provides insufficient armor in the private clubs where the real power resides. Driven by memories of his previous failure, Nicholson finally abandons his pose, succumbs to sincerity, and acts from his heart. When he does, he's doomed.

Faye Dunaway at first appears to be a noir Black Widow. With her red lipstick, lace hat, and elegant cool, she seems the ultimate seducer-destroyer. In one of many superb twists, Towne reveals Dunaway to be an innocent, a victim. Her love scene with Nicholson suggests a woman more vulnerable and kind than Nicholson's cynical view of her.

Capable of kindness, yes, but in the end, far tougher than Nicholson. Just as her icy sophistication conceals her vulnerability, her vulnerability masks an iron will. When Dunaway finally reveals her secret, her contempt for Nicholson's shock and confusion is plain. Their roles reverse in an instant, and Nicholson finds her pity for him intolerable. Stung, he wrecks himself seeking her salvation.

The casting of John Huston - the director of The Asphalt Jungle and The Maltese Falcon - reflects Polanski's daring and his love of classic American movies. Huston's open-faced, garrulous malevolence symbolizes the city he rules. His smile equals the nonstop sunshine, and his sudden lurches into Lear-like dominance make him one of the scariest, most real and memorable villains in the subculture.

Polanski rejects the classic setting of looming cityscapes and rain-soaked streets. There isn't a single skyscraper, shadow, or dominant vertical line in the film. Polanski frames his story at eye level to remind us that the real menace lurks in the hearts and minds of characters. Polanski's Los Angeles is a flat plain parched by drought and baked by the merciless sunshine. John A. Alonzo shoots the city in tones of browns and washed-out yellows, the colors of too much sun and not enough water. Light saturates every face, but only makes the truth harder to discern. The sunlight blinds us, as it blinds Nicholson, into thinking that this shadowless city could be understood at a glance.

A cinema structuralist par excellence, a self-proclaimed disciple of Orson Welles, Polanski understands America's invisible class warfare as only a foreigner can. He determinedly depressive aesthetic provided the completely downbeat ending. Towne preferred a different close, one that offered a glimmer of hope and a more literal sense of history. Polanski knew better.



  1. wow i never heard of this movie before

  2. I'm going for one of the best films ever made. Also one of the best noirs made outside the classic period (and just one of my all-around favorite films). What a pleasure to read this!

  3. Let us not forget that the film bridges the gap between the classic film noir and the postmodern anti-detective formula.

  4. Excellent review of a masterpiece of neo-noir. Nicholson's Jake Gittes is in over his head, not the self-assured Bogart's Marlowe. The supporting cast is terrific- especially John Huston, who creates one of the most wicked villains in film history. This film never hits a wrong note.