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.
More Hot Movie Takes
©by Leo Adam Biga
Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
These riffs are about some very different cinema currents but they’re all inspired by recent screen discoveries I made once I put my movie snobbery in check.
My first riff concerns an actor from Old Hollywood I was almost entirely unfamiliar with and therefore I never thought to seek out his work: Dennis O’Keefe. I discovered O’Keefe only because I finally made an effort to watch some of Anthony Mann’s stellar film noirs from the 1940s. O’Keefe stars in two of them – T-Men” (1947) and “Raw Deal” (1948). Neither is a great film but the former has a very strong script and the latter is like an encyclopedia of noir and they both feature great cinematography by John Alton and good performances across the board. These are riveting films that stand up well against better known noirs, crime and police pics.
Whatever restrictions the filmmakers faced making these movies for small poverty eow studios they more than made up for with their inventiveness and passion.
As wildly atmospheric and evocative as Alton’s use of darkness, light and shadow is in these works, it’s O’Keefe’s ability to carry these films that’s the real revelation for me. I find him to be every bit as charismatic and complex as Humphrey Bogart. James Cagney, Robert Mitchum and other bigger name tough guys of the era were, and I’m certain he would have carried the best noirs they helped make famous. O’Keefe reminds me of a blend between Bogart and Cagney, with a touch of another noir stalwart, William Holden, thrown in. Until seeing him in these two pictures along with another even better pic, “Chicago Syndicate” (1955) directed by the underrated Fred F. Sears, who is yet another of the discoveries I’m opining about here, I had no idea O’Keefe delivered performances on par with the most iconic names from the classic studio system era. It just goes to show you that you don’t know what you don’t know. Before seeing it for myself – if you’d tried to tell me that O’Keefe was in these other actors’ league I would have scoffed at the notion because I would have assumed if this were so he’d have come to my attention by now. Why O’Keefe never broke through from B movies to A movies I’ll never know, but as any film buff will tell you those categories don’t mean much when it comes to quality or staying power. For example, the great noir film by Orson Welles Touch of Evil was a B movie all the way in terms of budget, source material, theme and perception but in reality it was a bold work of art by a master at the top of his game. It even won an international film prize in its time, though it took years for it to get the respect it deserved in America.
Like all good actors, O’Keefe emphatically yet subtly projects on screen what he’s thinking and feeling at any given moment. He embodies that winning combination of intelligence and intuition that makes you feel like he’s the smartest guy in the room, even if he’s in a bad fix.
My admittedly simplistic theory about acting for the screen is that the best film/TV actors convey an uncanny and unwavering confidence and veracity to the camera that we as the audience connect to and invest in with our own intellect and emotion. That doesn’t mean the actor is personally confident or needs to play someone confident in order to hook us, only that within the confines of playing characters they make it seem as though they believe every word they say and every emotion they express. Well, O’Keefe had this in spades.
Now that O’Keefe is squarely on my radar, I will search for of his work. I recommend you do the same.
By the way, another fine noir photographed by John Alton, “He Walks by Night,” starring Richard Basehart, may have been directed, at least in part, by Mann. Alton’s work here may be even more impressive than in the other films. The climactic scene is reminiscent of “The Third Man,” only instead of the post-war Vienna streets and canals, the action takes place in the Los Angeles streets and sewers. I must admit I was not familiar with Alton’s name even though I’d seen movies he photographed before I ever come upon the Mann trilogy. For example, Alton’s last major feature credit is “Elmer Gantry,” a film I’ve seen a few times and always admired. He also did the great noir pic “The Big Combo” directed by Joseph E. Lewis. And he lit the great dream sequence ballet in “”An American in Paris,” for which he won an Oscar. Now I will look at those films even more closely with respect to the photography, though I actually do remember being impressed by the photography in “Big Combo” and, of course, the dream sequence in “Paris.”
Alton was an outlier in going against prevailing studio practices of over-lighting sets. He believed in under-lighting and letting the blacks and greasy help set mood. The films he did are much darker, especially the night scenes, than any Hollywood films of that time. He studied the work of master painters to learn how they controlled light and he applied his lessons to the screen.
It turns out that Alton left Hollywood at the peak of his powers because he got fed up with the long hours and the many fights he had with producers and directors, many of whom insisted on more light and brighter exposures. Alton usually got his way because he knew his stuff, he worked very fast and he produced images that stood out from the pack. Apparently he just walked away from his very fine career sometime in the early 1960s to lead a completely distant but fulfilling life away from the movies.
Alton setting up a shot in “Raw Deal”
With actress Leslie Caron – “An American In Paris
Regarding the aforementioned “Chicago Syndicate,” it’s a surprisingly ambitious and labyrinthian story told with great verve and conviction by Fred Sears. It’s a neat bridge film between the very composed studio bound tradition and the freer practical location tradition. Sears was another in a long line of B movie directors with great skill who worked across genres in the 1930s through 1950s period. I watched a bit of a western he did and it too featured a real flair for framing and storytelling. His work has some of the great energy and dynamic tension of Sam Fuller and Budd Boetticher from that same period. I can’t wait to discover more films by Sears.
Donald the Imperious is now the President. For some, this movie-movie moment of a real estate tycoon and reality TV star reaching the Oval Office despite losing the popular vote in an unusally divisive election marked by his ugly rehtoric casts a dark pall over the land. This melancholic sentiment, combined with the grey, misty, foggy weather in Omaha, got me to thinking that Trump bears many of the characteristics of heavies in my favorite cinema genre – film noir. That cinema of dark intents, moods, goings-on and settings usually has as its villainous center a suave mastermind or crass boss. You decide which Trump is. The protagonist is generally an anti-hero private eye, cop, attorney or newspaperman going up against steep odds and powerful, sinister forces to expose an underbelly of misdeeds. My screen-fired imagination can easily see this playing out in a real way. Would Trump and his gang get away with it, whatever it is, or would he take the fall and get his comeuppance? Who knows? But the speculation is fun. As for me, I content myself with the thought that we’ll likely to have Trump for only four years. Even if his time in office should play out like a film noir and take us down some shadowy paths, I take faith in the notion that a trench-coated tough guy with a five o’clock shadow and a crooked nose for the truth will make Trump heel and, if need be, bring lawbeakers to justice, even if that means the chief executive himself. Of course, nothing like this may happen at all, but it sure would make a good movie. However this dark art-imitating-life or life-imitating-art episode in American history plays out, it should never be boring and like any good film noir story it should be filled with some interesting plot twists and turns.
Film noir, Donald Trump and art imitating life (or is it the other way around?)
©by Leo Adam Biga
Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
The grey, misty, foggy gloom that’s settled over Omaha, combined with the United States presidential inauguration and transfer of executive power taking place today, has me in a film noir state of mind. The dark, ill-fated world of that cinema genre contains a certain beauty in its interplay of light and shadow, stark cityscapes, back alley brawls, smoky back room dealings, white hot neon seduction and cold betrayal. it is a dog-eat-dog, predatory world of nihilism and existenialism, of bald avarice, greed and lust. The genre grew out of German Expressionism and took root in a World War Ii America of waning innocence and idealism and had its heyday from about 1941 through 1959. The genre reflected the undercurrent of anxieties of those times: economic depression, hot war, cold war, the bomb, racial strife, organized crime and corruption, et cetera. Every once in a while film noir gets an update or homage when the genre seems a good template for a particulalry troubling period, and so “The Long Goodbye,” “Chinatown” and “Body Heat” spoke to their time. Even the most famous American film about a Whte House occupant brought down by an investigation, “All the President’s Men,” is at its heart a film noir.
Film noir is as apt a metaphor as I can find for the tenor that the new Commander in Chief and his henchmen are asserting as the new gang in town in this time of division and uncertainity.
Viewed in a certain noirish, fatalistic light, our nation’s capitol is a battleground between opposing mobs, syndicates and special interests that we just happen to call administrations, political parties, departments, think tanks, consultants and lobbyists. None may meet the technical or legal definition of crooks or criminal enterprises, but the corruption, under-handed dealings, budgetary overruns, hush money, slush funds, scandals, threats and vendettas are real. They certainly come with the territory. Some of our elected officials navigate this underworld with some subtlety. Others are more brazen about it.
Donald Trump is a lot like some of the heavies in classic noir. He doesn’t pose to be anyone than who he is – a rich, powerful man who will stop at nothing to get his way. Think of the character Noah Cross (John Huston) in “Chinatown” or – and how’s this for irony? – Ronald Reagan as Jack Browning in the 1964 made-for-TV adaptation of Hemingway’s “The Killers.” Yes. Trump has the part down pat. Calculating when it serves him and impulsive when things get tight. Ruthless, vindictive, self-centered, vain. A misogynist with a decorative dumb blonde on his arm. Always scheming to get what he sees as his. You cross him at your own risk. He’s right out front in his I’m-above-the-law attitudes and actions. Smug in his confidence that nothing, not even the rule of law, can touch him.
Where before Trump had only partners and shareholders to answer to, he now has a nation, a party, a congress and an administration to hold him accountable. But will we? Will the office and responsibility he now holds change him? Will he grow emotionally and intellectually into the position? Will the system of oversight work to reign him in when necessary? Or will this rank opportunist find ways and loopholes to get around every modulating check and balance to feed his ego and greed?
What about his agenda? Is there really anything more to it than his nationalistic appeal to make America great again, whatever that means? Isn’t it just all about lining the pockets of rich people like himself? Will small business people and low to middle class workers really see any benefits, especially if they have to pay for health care themselves and if inflation spikes and interest rates go up? Won’t average homeowners and taxpayers pay the brunt of his plan?
Won’t Trump be just another CEO or Boss in this economic political landscape that puts the interests of corporations above the greater good? If he gets his way and follows through on his promises to deport the undocumented, to close borders, to crack down on undesirables, to force loyalty oaths and to cut the safety net for the vulnerable, won’t he be a capo or despot by any other name?
So, in this scenario who is the film noir equivalent of the hardboiled character that will take on Trump and his gang? if it comes down to it, who will help expose him in a journalistic or criminal investigation that looks deep into the shadows of some wrongdoing rising to the level of impeachable offense? Might it be a grizzled reporter or cop or attorney or even senator who has the guts and I’ve-got-nothing-to-lose chutzpah to poke his nose where it’s not wanted and risk getting it broken or slashed? Would any traditional media or law enforcement officer or court or elected official have the will and courage to risk everything to expose such things? Or would it have to come from an outlier like an Edward Snowden?
Let’s hope it doesn’t come to needing a Sam Spade or Jake Gittes to haunt those dark streets in search of answers to secrets and lies, plots and scandals. But if it does, I will try to view the brooding, menacing, treacherous America of Trumpland as a sprawling film noir and hope that a femme fatale or false move undoes it all and humbles him before our eyes.