Thursday, February 2, 2012

Film #72: Chinatown (1974)

Director: Roman Polanski

Initial Release Country: United States 

Times Previously Seen: two (last viewing about 7 or 8 years ago)

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Cunning, 1930s L.A. private eye gets wrapped up in a knotted case of small- and grand-scale corruption. Shoots his mouth off plenty.

Extended Summary (A slightly lengthier plot synopsis, spoilers included. Fair warning.) 

*Note: this will be a relatively short summary. For a fully detailed recounting, you can check out this one at Internet Movie Database.* 

In 1937 Los Angeles, private investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by a woman, Evelyn Mulwray, to tail her husband, Hollis. Jake is to find proof of an extra-marital affair. In following him, Jake soon learns that Hollis is a chief engineer on the city’s water and power commission and that he spends nearly all of his time inspecting the lands around the city’s reservoirs. Eventually, Jake manages to witness and take photos of Hollis meeting with a young woman with whom he seems very close. The photos soon go public in the newspapers.

Jake and the real Evelyn Mulwray. Like any good noir film, many a cigarette is smoked by both hero and heroine. 

No sooner is Hollis Mulwray’s seeming infidelity made public than another woman turns up in Jake’s office. This woman is the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), who threatens to sue Gittes over defamation. It is now clear that the woman who had hired Gittes was not, in fact, Hollis’s real wife. With his own investigator’s license on the line, Jake later makes an appeal to Evelyn and begins to investigate the case further. Evelyn agrees (suspiciously quickly) to drop any legal action against Jake, and Jake soon after discovers Hollis dead at one of the reservoirs that he would routinely inspect.

Over the course of the next several days, Gittes digs more and more deeply. Through his own ingenuity and brass, he figures out that Hollis was murdered by Evelyn’s father, Noah Cross (John Huston). The elderly Cross is exceptionally rich, but has grander designs on expanding his empire much farther. His plot involves having the very natural drought, along with his own hired thugs, spoil farmers’ crops to the point that their land becomes virtually worthless. Cross has been buying the land up cheaply, through false fronts, and plans to have the city build a dam that would bring water to his new properties. With a water supply, the land’s worth would grow exponentially. Hollis Mulwray, however, once Noah Cross’s partner on the water commission, was going to block the plan to build the dam, claiming that it would be unsafe. Hollis was, therefore, murdered by Noah Cross himself and brought out to the reservoir, to make it seem an accident.

In an even more sordid twist, Jake learns that the young girl that Hollis had visited before his death was not a mistress of any sort. She is, in fact, Evelyn’s illegitimate sister/daughter, Katherine, the product of a rape at the hands of her own father, Noah Cross. By the time Jake puts all of this together, both the police and Noah Cross are searching for Evelyn and Katherine, and they are hot on the pair’s heels. Jake decides to help them both escape to Mexico, and sets up a brief rendezvous in Chinatown. Noah Cross gets to Jake first, though, and forces him to lead him and his goons to Chinatown. Upon arriving, the police also show up and arrest Jake, who tries to explain all that he has discovered about the nefarious Mr. Cross. Evelyn and Katherine show up, manage to hustle past Noah into their car, and begin to drive away. The police open fire on the car and kill Evelyn. A screaming Katherine, staring at her murdered mother/sister, is pulled out of the car and taken away by Noah Cross. Jake, dumbfounded by the turn of events, is released by the police and slowly escorted away from the scene by his employee Walsh, who says merely, “Forget it, Jake, It’s Chinatown.”

The now-battered and weary Jake and Evelyn find brief solace with each other, shortly before it all comes crashing down. 

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this recent viewing, before any further research.) 

I really enjoy this movie, and I appreciated it even more this time than the previous two times that I’ve watched it. It stands out as a haunting classic which takes a genre that had been established several decades prior, molds it into a slightly different shape, and results in a familiar yet novel finished product.

The technical aspects of Chinatown are easy to laud. The sets, camerawork, and general look to things are flawless. Director Roman Polanski lent an attractive symmetry to many of the visuals, something that film noir movies had shown through a few outstanding movies like the Billy Wilder-directed Double Indemnity. The bit of spice added to Chinatown is the element of color. Color was nothing new at this point in movies, of course, but the splendor of the art deco Los Angeles in the 1930s is far grander when not limited to the black and white of the past. It also lends a sharper contrast to the far darker, more sinister deeds being done amidst this vibrant wonderland.

The acting is also top-notch, as can be expected from a cast that includes Nicholson and Dunaway. Nicholson, in one of his least “Nicholson” roles, shows just the right balance of weariness, heroism, cynicism, impudence, intelligence, and rebellion. The “wild man” roles he would become best known for are far removed from this far more restrained and highly effective one as Jake Gittes. Dunaway is equally potent as the infuriatingly enigmatic Evelyn Mulwray. The little cracks that she shows in her poise and grace are subtle hints at the horrors that she is working so hard not to reveal. In his more minor role, even John Huston is tremendous. There’s something truly terrifying about this tall, stooped, craggy old man and his dead black eyes that make me believe that Noah Cross truly is the embodiment of evil and greed.

He may look like a kindly old coot, but Noah Cross may just be the embodiment of pure evil. And it doesn't take long for Jake to realize it. 

The tale that these characters are part of is 99% the stuff of noir. A knowing, jaded protagonist gets hooked into a labyrinthine plot by a gorgeous woman. Said protagonist uses his own skill and wits to fight his way through various obstacles and find the truth behind the knotted lies and deceit, only to find that he comes up short in the end. And yet, the central figure, in his fatalism, somehow knew that such an end was fated for him. All of these things can be found in noir stories, classic and obscure, alike. However, these familiar elements are where Chinatown makes highly effective alterations. Noir protagonists and characters were often too slick to be real. They always have great, witty one-liners for all occasions. Jake Gittes certainly pops off at the mouth (with great wryness), but his sardonic wit and worldview seem more fleshed out. This was essential for a 1970s movie redoing a 1930s/’40s style.

The final component that I notice Chinatown remolded was just how dark it gets, figuratively. Certainly, all noir crime movies explore the seedier side of humanity. Chinatown, though, gets farther into the depths than any that I’ve ever seen. Beyond murders fueled by base greed, Chinatown gives you a look into the gaze of the devil himself in the form of Noah Cross – a man whose insatiable greed and utter lack of remorse for deeds unspeakable are appalling. Cross’s evils not only destroy the lives of his daughter and former business partner, his actions not only slowly crush the livelihood away from thousands of farmers, but also he shows not the least ounce of guilt. On top of it all, he actually gets away with all of it. There’s a dreary fatalism to it that hits far harder than other noir classics, in which the protagonist and any remaining sinister characters go down in flames. In Chinatown, though, you’re left with a voided sense of emptiness at the end.

If you expect a happy ending, just look at this last shot at Gittes's face and think again. 

So why do I like it so much? I guess it’s because it’s simply an incredible piece of storytelling, and its artistry is clear for all to see. And to be honest, I often appreciate stories that don’t give me the happy ending. Sometimes, there’s a sad beauty in destruction, as much as we might not want to admit it. And it’s this beauty that’s summed up at the end of Chinatown, with a defeated Jake Gittes walking away from the scene of the crime and the lonely trumpet wailing, signaling the final fade-out.

 Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after some further research.) 

Unlike a few other films on the TIME list, there is really no mystery as to why Chinatown is considered a great movie. There really are no weak points to it, and it created a novel concoction from familiar and enjoyable ingredients.

A few interesting notes, though. One is the script. In thinking about it after watching a few interviews with script writer Robert Towne and director Roman Polanski, it’s clear that Chinatown’s script is near perfect. I’m talking "Casablanca" perfect. Each line and scene flows smoothly into the next, burning the tale slowly into the conflagration in the end. Curious to learn two things about the original – one is that Towne wrote it with a happy ending, in which Gittes helps Evelyn Mulwray escape Noah Cross with her daughter. The movie studio was completely on board with this. Polanski, however, still in agony over the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, at the hands on the Manson family, insisted on having a bleak finale. Polanski won his argument, and even now, Towne himself admits that it was the right call. In a 1999 interview, Polanksi even said, “If it doesn’t end in tragedy, then what’s the point?” A really interesting question, and one that many viewers might ask in a contrary way: “If the hero and heroine don’t survive hardship and win in the end, then what’s the point?” It’s this conundrum that still has viewers mulling over Chinatown.

Another interesting observation was made clear to me by an earlier film critic. As I vaguely alluded to in my first take, Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray is very much an exotic species in film noir, though a deceptive one. On the surface and throughout much of Chinatown, she seems to be every inch the femme fatale – beautiful, deceitful, and seemingly luring the detective into some sort of trap. While all true, Mulwray is, actually, totally altruistic. She lies only to protect Katherine from the evils of her brutal father. The females in other noir films are always selfish in their motives, while Evelyn Mulwray is thoroughly selfless. This is one of the more prominent of several creative adaptations to the noir genre, and it adds spectacular depth. Chinatown is, almost 40 years later, still an outstanding movie that has lost none of its luster. Film noir may not be explored much any more, but Chinatown is a brilliant pillar of its strong past. If you haven’t seen it before, you’d do well to try it.

 That’s a wrap. 72 shows down. 33 to go.

 Coming Soon: The Godfather, Part II (1974):
I know that Christmas of 2011 has come and gone, but I couldn’t resist this poster. I can’t wait to re-watch this rarity – a sequel to an absolute classic that equals, and arguably bests, its predecessor. Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.