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.