Hot Movie Takes – “Chinatown”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
Languid has never felt as sexy or as menacing as it does in “Chinatown,” the great 1974 film noir classic that hasn’t been topped since. Not even close. Robert Towne wrote a script that many feel is as perfect a screenplay as has ever been written. Roman Polanski’s interpretation of that script is so fully developed that he creates as evocative a work of expressionistic screen drama as I’ve seen. The photography by John Alonzo, the editing by Sam O’Steen and the music by Jerry Goldsmith are in perfect sync with the redolent rhythms and moods of this hard-boiled period piece set in Depression-era Los Angeles. The locations and sound stage sets all complement the out-of-his-element, bigger-than-he-can-handle mystery that private eye J.J. “Jake” Gittes gets lured into. He’s an urban man used to working the streets yet he finds himself unraveling a mystery over water rights that plays out in city hall offices, courtrooms, desert wastelands, fruit-growing groves and ocean-side docks. He’s out of his comfort zone and his depth but he’s smart and dogged enough to put most of the puzzle pieces together. Faye Dunaway puts her spin on the femme fatale role with a performance as Evelyn Cross Mulwray that is intoxicating and heartbreaking. John Huston as her depraved father is the epitome of corrupt power. Several other character turns are worth noting, including: Perry Lopez as Jake’s cynical old partner on the police force; Diane Ladd as the scared shill who gets Jake involved in the case; Burt Young as the abusive client who owes Jake a favor; Bruce Glover as an associate concernd for Jake’s well-being and Polanski as the hep-cat enforcer who slices Jake’s nose.
Even though they tell very different stories in very different settings, I’ve always thought of “Chinatown” as a companion film to “Casablanca.” Start with the fact that they’re both studio projects made within the conventions of genre filmmaking that rise far above the average production because of a wonderful alchemy of talent and vision that made art of potboiler material. The two films share a number of other things in common as well. They’re both period pieces. The chief anti-hero protagonist of each, Rick in “Casablanca” and Jake in “Chinatown,” is a cynical, embittered man haunted by the past and the woman he lost. That past comes back to plague Rick and Jake. They are are also part of ill-fated love triangles. Rick and Ilsa can never be together because of Victor. Jake and Evelyn can never be together because of Noah. When Ilsa shows up at Rick’s club in Casablanca, he’s catapulted right back into the pain of her abandoning him in Paris. When Jake attempts to make things right with Evelyn and her daughter, he’s brought right back to where things went astray for him years earlier in Chinatown. The multi-layered story-lines are interlaced with themes of loyalty, betrayal, honor and deception. Mystery and danger lurk behind seemingly benign facades. Dark currents of irony, sarcasm and fatalism run through these dramas populated by characters who are desperate or duplicitous or both.
And perhaps most significantly Rick and Jake get caught up in events beyond their control. In “Casablanca” it’s the evil Nazi threat forcing people to flee their homelands and to barter for their freedom. In “Chinatown” it’s greedy monied interests stopping at nothing to steal property from people in order to gain control over land and natural resources and thus line their own pockets. Rick must confront a formidable foe in Major Heinrich Strasser. He’s aided in that risky effort by Captain Louis Renault. Jake must contend with his own considerable nemesis in the person of Noah Cross. In the end, Jake’s one ally, Escobar, isn’t there for him. In each scenario, the anti-hero has an uneasy relationship with authority and challenges the unlawful wielding of power. In the more romantic “Casablanca” Rick succeeds against Strasser and in the less sentimental “Chinatown” Jake fails against Cross. Though the film’s have very different endings, both Rick and Jake are faced with impossible ethical and moral decisions and they each do the right thing. It’s just that in “Casablanca” right prevails and in “Chinatown” it doesn’t. That’s because the earlier picture is at its heart a romance while the later picture is a film noir. It also has to do with the fact Casablanca” director Michael Curtiz was not about to deny us a bittersweet but happy ending as a contract studio hand and dreammaker in 1942 Hollywood while “Chinatown” director Roman Polanski was all about ambiguous, even despairing endings as a New Hollywood auteur and survivor of Nazi atrocities. If Polanski had made “Casablanca” it would have been a bleaker, less linear work, just as if Curtiz had made “Chinatown” it would have been a sunnier, faster-paced film. Each project was best served though by the filmmakers who made them and as audiences we are the beneficiaries.
Finally, I need to comment on a few more things about “Chinatown” and its creators. I think Nicholson gives his best performance in the film. He’s only made a few crime films and he’s excellent in all of them. He’d earlier established himself in the line of great rebel screen personas with his turns in “Easy Rider” and “Five Easy Pieces”. With “Chinatown,” “The Last Detail” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” he put himself right there with Cagney, Bogart, Garfield, Clift, Brando, Dean, Newman and McQueen. And he followed an equally long tradition of actors who made their marks as hardbitten anti-hero private eyes, cops or low life lifes and he showed he belonged with Mitchum, Powell, O’Keefe and all the rest. He and Dunaway show great chemistry in “Chinatown” and it’s a shame they never worked together again. With “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown” Polanski went from being a rising international director known for his Eastern Europe art films to being a superstar Hollywood director of artfully done but mass appeal movies,
Former actor Robert Evans was the head of production at Paramount in the late 1960s-early 1970s when that studio made some of the era’s most compelling works:
“Harold and Maude”
“Save the Tiger”
He was also the producer on “Chinatown,” “Marathon Man,” “Black Sunday” and “Urban Cowboy.”
Evans and Polanski both ran afoul of the law, with the former now remaking himself a Player n the game and the latter working in exile the last few decades. Neither Nicholson nor Dunaway worked again with Polanski.
Hot Movie Takes Saturday – FIVE CAME BACK
©by Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
Five Legendary Filmmakers went to war:
Five Contemporary Filmmakers take their measure:
Guillermo del Toro
Francis Ford Coppola
When the United States entered World War II these five great Hollywood filmmakers were asked by the government to apply their cinema tools to aid the war effort. They put their lucrative careers on hold to make very different documentaries covering various aspects and theaters of the war. They were all masters of the moving picture medium before their experiences in uniform capturing the war for home-front audiences, but arguably they all came out of this service even better, and certainly more mature, filmmakers than before. Their understanding of the world and of human nature grew as they encountered the best and worst angels of mankind on display.
The story of their individual odysseys making these U.S, government films is told in a new documentary series, “Five Came Back,” now showing on Netflix. The series is adapted from a book by the same title authored by Mark Harris. The documentary is structured so that five contemporary filmmakers tell the stories of the legendary filmmakers’ war work. The five contemporary filmmakers are all great admirers of their subjects. Paul Greengrass kneels at the altar of John Ford; Steven Spielberg expresses his awe of William Wyler; Guillermo del Toro rhapsodizes on Frank Capra; Lawrence Kasdan gushes about George Stevens; and Francis Ford Coppola shares his man crush on John Huston. More than admiration though, the filmmaker narrators educate us so that we can have more context for these late filmmakers and appreciate more fully where they came from, what informed their work and why they were such important artists and storytellers.
The Mission Begins
As World War II begins, five of Hollywood’s top directors leave success and homes behind to join the armed forces and make films for the war effort.
Now in active service, each director learns his cinematic vision isn’t always attainable within government bureaucracy and the variables of war.
The Price of Victory
At the war’s end, the five come back to Hollywood to re-establish their careers, but what they’ve seen will haunt and change them forever.
Ford was a patriot first and foremost and his “The Battle of Midway” doc fit right into his work portraying the American experience. For Wyler, a European Jew, the Nazi menace was all too personal for his family and he was eager to do his part with propaganda. For Capra, an Italian emigre, the Axis threat was another example of powerful forces repressing the liberty of people. The “Why He Fight” series he produced and directed gave him a forum to sound the alarm. A searcher yearning to break free from the constraints of light entertainment, Stevens used the searing things he documented during the war, including the liberation of death camps, as his evolution into becoming a dramatist. Huston made perhaps the most artful of the documentaries. His “Let There Be Light” captured in stark terms the debilitating effects of PTSD or what was called shell shock then. His “Report from the Aleutians” portrays the harsh conditions and isolation of the troops stationed in Arctic. And his “The Battle of San Pietro” is a visceral, cinema verite masterpiece of ground war.
The most cantankerous of the bunch, John Ford, was a conservative who held dear his dark Irish moods and anti-authoritarian sentiments. Yet, he also loved anything to do with the military and rather fancied being an officer. He could be a real SOB on his sets and famously picked on certain cast and crew members to receive the brunt of his withering sarcasm and pure cussedness. His greatest star John Wayne was not immune from this mean-spiritedness and even got the brunt of it, in part because Wayne didn’t serve during the war when Ford and many of his screen peers did.
Decades before he was enlisted to make films during the Second World War, he made a film, “Four Sons,” about the First World War, in which he did not serve.
Following his WWII stint, Ford made several great films, one of which, “They Were Expendable,” stands as one of the best war films ever made. His deepest, richest Westerns also followed in this post-war era, including “Rio Grande,” “Fort Apache,” “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” “The Searchers,” “The Horse Soldiers” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Another war film he made in this period, “The Wings of Eagles,” is another powerful work singular for its focus on a real-life character (played by Wayne) who endures great sacrifices and disappointments to serve his country in war.
Even before the war Ford injected dark stirrings of world events in “The Long Voyage Home.”
William Wyler had already established himself as a great interpreter of literature and stage works prior to the war. His subjects were steeped in high drama. Before the U.S. went to war but was already aiding our ally Great Britain, he made an important film about the conflict, “Mrs. Miniver,” that brought the high stakes involved down to a very intimate level. The drama portrays the war’s effects on one British family in quite personal terms. After WWII, Wyler took this same closely observed human approach to his masterpiece, “The Best Years of Our Lives,” which makes its focus the hard adjustment that returning servicemen faced in resuming civilian life after having seen combat. This same humanism informs Wyler’s subsequent films, including “The Heiress,” “Roman Holiday,” “Carrie,” “The Big Country” and “Ben-Hur.”
Wyler, famous for his many takes and inability to articulate what he wanted (he knew it when he saw it), was revered for extracting great performances. He didn’t much work with Method actors and I think some of his later films would have benefited from the likes of Brando and Dean and all the rest. One of the few times he did work with a Method player resulted in a great supporting performance in a great film – Montgomery Clift in “The Heiress.” Indeed, it’s Clift we remember more than the stars, Olivia de Havilland and Ralph Richardson.
Frank Capra was the great populist director of the Five Who Came Back and while he became most famous for making what are now called dramedies. he took a darker path entering and exiting WWII, first with “Meet John Doe” in 1941 and then with “It’s a Wonderful Life” in 1946 and “State of the Union” in 1948. While serious satire was a big part of his work before these, Capra’s bite was even sharper and his cautionary tales of personal and societal corruption even bleaker than before. Then he seemed to lose his touch with the times in his final handful of films. But for sheer entertainment and impact, his best works rank with anyone’s and for my tastes anyway those three feature films from ’41 through ’48 are unmatched for social-emotional import.
Before the war George Stevens made his name directing romantic and screwball comedies, even an Astaire-Rogers musical, and he came out of the war a socially conscious driven filmmaker. His great post-war films all tackle universal human desires and big ideas: “A Place in the Sun,” “Shane,” “Giant,” “The Diary of Anne Frank.” For my tastes anyway his films mostly lack the really nuanced writing and acting of his Five Came Back peers, and that’s why I don’t see him in the same category as the others. In my opinion Stevens was a very good but not great director. He reminds me a lot of Robert Wise in that way.
That brings us to John Huston. He was the youngest and most unheralded of the five directors who went off to war. After years of being a top screenwriter, he had only just started directing before the U.S. joined the conflict. His one big critical and commercial success before he made his war-effort documentaries was “The Maltese Falcon.” But in my opinion he ended up being the best of the Five Who Came Back directors. Let this list of films he made from the conclusion of WWII through his death sink in to get a grasp of just what a significant body of work he produced:
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Asphalt Jungle
The Red Badge of Courage
Heaven Knows Mr. Allison
Beat the Devil
The List of Adrian Messenger
The Night of the Iguana
Reflections in a Golden Eye
The Man Who Would Be King
Under the Volcano
That list includes two war films, “The Red Badge of Courage” and “Heaven Knows Mr. Allison,” that are intensely personal perspectives on the struggle to survive when danger and death are all around you. Many of his other films are dark, sarcastic ruminations on how human frailties and the fates sabotage our desires, schemes and quests.
I believe Huston made the most intelligent, literate and best-acted films of the five directors who went to war. At least in terms of their post-war films. The others may have made films with more feeling, but not with more insight. Huston also took more risks than they did both in terms of subject matter and techniques. Since the other directors’ careers started a full decade or more before his, they only had a couple decades left of work in them while Huston went on making really good films through the 1970s and ’80s.
Clearly, all five directors were changed by what they saw and did during the war and their work reflected it. We are the ultimate beneficiaries of what they put themselves on the line for because those experiences led them to inject their post-war work with greater truth and fidelity about the world we live in. And that’s really all we can ask for from any filmmaker.
Hot Movie Takes
By Leo Adam Biga, author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
When I originally posted about the subject of this Hot Movie Take, the late John Huston, I forgot to note that his work, though very different in tone, shares a penchant for unvarnished truth with that of Alexander Payne. Huston was a writer-director just like Payne is and he was extremely well-read and well-versed in many art forms, again just as Payne is. The screenplays for Huston’s films were mostly adaptations of novels, short stories and plays, including some famous ones by iconic writers, and the scripts for Payne’s films are mostly adaptations as well. Huston also collaborated with a lot of famous writers on his films, including Truma Capote and Arthur Miller. The work of both filmmakers shares an affinity for ambiguous endings. I think at his best Huston was more of a classic storyteller than Payne and his films more literate. Where Huston mostly made straight dramas, he showed a real flair for comedy the few times he ventured that way (“The African Queen,” “Beat the Devil,” “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” and “Prizzi’s Honor”). Payne insists that he makes comedies, though most would say he makes dramedies, a terrible descriptor that’s gained currency. More accurately, Payne’s comedy-dramas are satires. I think he’s more than capable of making a straight drama if he chose to, but so far he’s stayed true to himself and his strengths. If Payne is the ultimate cinema satirist of our tme, and I think he is, then Huston stands as the great film ironist of all time. With one using satire and the other using irony to great effect, their films get right to the bone and marrow of characters without a lot of facade. Just as it was for Huston, story and character is everything for Payne. And their allegiance to story and character is always in service to revealing truth.
Of all the great film directors to some out of the old studio system, only one, that craggy, gangly, hard angle of a man, John Huston, continued to thrive in the New Hollywood and well beyond.
It’s important to note Huston was a writer-director who asserted great independence even under contract. He began as a screenwriter at Universal and learned his craft there before going to work at Warner Brothers. But Huston was an accomplished writer long before he ever got to Hollywood. As a young man he found success as a journalist and short story writer, getting published in some of the leading magazines and newspapers of the day. Indeed, he did a lot things before he landed in Tinsel Town. He boxed, he painted, he became a horseman and cavalry officer in the Mexican uprisings, he hunted big gamma he acted and he caroused. His father Walter Huston was an actor in vaudeville before making it on the legitimate stage and then in films.
What he most loved though was reading. His respect for great writing formed early and it never left him. Having grown up the son of a formidable actor, he also respected the acting craft and the power and magic of translating words on a page into dramatic characters and incidents that engage and move us.
He admired his father’s talent and got to study his process up close. Before ever working in Hollywood, John Huston also made it his business to observe how movies were made.
But like most of the great filmmakers of that era, Huston lived a very full life before he ever embarked on a screen career. It’s one of the reasons why I think the movies made by filmmakers like Huston and his contemporaries seem more informed by life than even the best movies today. There’s a well lived-in weight to them that comes from having seen and done some things rather than rehashing things from books or film classes or television viewings.
Because of his diverse passions, Huston films are an interesting mix of the masculinity and fatalistic of, say. a Hemingway, and the ambiguity and darkness of, say, an F. Scott Fitzgerald or Eugene O’Neill. I use literature references because Huston’s work is so steeped in those traditions and influences. In film terms, I suppose the closest artists his work shares some kinship with are Wyler and John Ford, though Huston’s films are freer in form than Wyler’s and devoid of the sentimentality of Ford. As brilliantly composed as Wyler’s films are, they’re rather stiff compared to Huston’s. As poetic as Ford’s films are, they are rather intellectually light compared to Huston’s.
At Warners Huston developed into one of the industry’s top screenwriters with an expressed interest in one day directing his own scripts. Of all the Hollywood writers that transitioned to directing, he arguably emerged as the most complete filmmaker. While he never developed a signature visual style, he brought a keen intelligence to his work that emphasized character development and relationship between character and place. He made his directing invisible so as to better serve the story. When I think of Huston, I think of lean and spare. He perfected the art of cutting in the camera. He was precise in what he wanted in the frame and he got as close to what he had on the page and in his head as perhaps anyone who’s made feature-length narrative films. He did it all very efficiently and professionally but aesthetic choices came before any commercial considerations. He was known to be open to actors and their needs and opinions, but he was not easily persuaded to change course because he was a strong-willed artist who knew exactly what he wanted, which is to say he knew exactly what the script demanded.
His films are among the most literate of their or any era, yet they rarely feel stagy or artificial. From the start, Huston revealed a gift for getting nitty gritty reality on screen. He was also very big on location shooting when that was still more a rarity than not and he sometimes went to extreme lengths to capture the real thing, such as encamping in the Congo for “The African Queen.” Look at his “The Man Who Would Be King” and you’ll find it’s one of the last great epic adventure stories and Huston and Co.really did go to harsh, remote places to get its settings right.
The realism of his work is often balanced by a lyrical romanticism. But there are some notable exceptions to this in films like “Fat City.”
He sometimes pushed technical conventions with color experiments in “Moulin Rouge,” “Moby Dick” and “Reflections in a Golden Eye.”
As a young man learning the ropes, he reportedly was influenced by William Wyler and other masters and clearly Huston was a good student because right out of the gate with his first film as director, “The Maltese Falcon,” his work was fully formed.
In his first two decades as a writer-director, Huston made at least a half dozen classics. His best work from this period includes:
The Maltese Falcon
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Asphalt Jungle
The Red Badge of Courage
Heaven Knows Mr. Allison
Beat the Devil
Huston remained a relevant director through the 1960s with such films as:
The List of Adrian Messenger
The Night of the Iguana
Reflections in a Golden Eye
But his greatest work was still ahead of him in the 1970s and 1980s when all but a handful of the old studio filmmakers were long since retired or dead or well past their prime. Huston’s later works are his most complex and refined:
The Man Who Would Be King
Under the Volcano
I have seen all these films, some of them numerous times, so I can personally vouch for them. There are a few others I’ve seen that might belong on his best efforts list, including “The Roots of Heaven.” Even a near miss like “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” is worth your time. And there are a handful of ’70s era Huston films with good to excellent reputations I’ve never gotten around to seeing, notably “The Kremlin Letter” and “The Mackintosh Man,” that I endeavor to see and judge for myself one day.
Three star-crossed iconic actors with Huston, Arthur Miller, Eli Wallach and Co. on the set of “The Misfits”
It would be easy for me to discuss any number of his films but I elect to explore his final and, to my tastes anyway, his very best film, “The Dead” (1987). For me, it is a masterpiece that distills everything Huston learned about literature, film, art, music, life, you name it, into an extraordinary mood piece that is profound in its subtleties and observations. For much of his career, Huston portrayed outward adventures of characters in search of some ill-fated quest. These adventures often played out against distinct, harsh urban or natural landscapes. By the end of his career, he turned more and more to exploring inward adventures. “The Dead” is an intimate examination of grief, love, longing and nostalgia. Based on a James Joyce short story, it takes place almost entirely within a private home during a Christmas gathering that on the surface is filled with merriment but lurking just below is bittersweet melancholia, particularly for a married couple stuck in the loss of their child. It is a tender tone poem whose powerful evocation of time, place and emotion is made all the more potent because it is so closely, carefully observed. Much of the inherent drama and feeling resides in the subtext behind the context. Discovering these hidden meaning sin measured parts is one of the many pleasures of this subdued film that has more feeling in one frame than any blockbuster does in its entirety. “The Dead” is as moving a meditation on the end of things, including human life, that I have ever seen.
Huston made the film while a very sick and physically feeble old man. He was in fact dying. But it might as well be the work of a young stallon because it’s that vital and rigorous. The fact that he was near death though gives his interpretation and expression of the story added depth and poignancy. He knew well the autumnal notes it was playing. The film starts his daughter Angelica Huston. It was their third and final collaboraton.
If you don’t know Huston the writer-director I urge you to seek out his work and even if you do you may discover he made films you didn’t associate with him. Just like we often don’t pay attention to the bylines of writers who author pieces we read and even enjoy, some of us don’t pay strict attention to who the directors of films are, even if we enjoy them. Some of you may even be more familiar with Huston’s acting than his directing. His turn in “Chinatown” is a superb example of character acting. My point is, whatever Huston means or doesn’t meant to you, seek out his work and put the pieces together of the many classics he made that you’ve seen and will make a point to see.