Thursday, September 7, 2023

Chinatown (1974)

I think of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown as the first true neo-noir. There are those who consider Point Blank (1967) to be a neo-noir but Chinatown is the first such movie that really feels like a film noir. Until the end of the 1960s nobody (outside of a handful of French critics) had even heard of the term film noir. Then suddenly it became an obsession with critics and film scholars and cinephiles.

Chinatown ticks almost all of the noir boxes. There’s the atmosphere of corruption. There’s a slightly morally ambiguous protagonist who is out of his depth and getting in deeper all the time. There’s the femme fatale. There are no flashbacks but the seeds of the mystery lie in the past. There’s the sense of impending doom. You may not be sure which of the characters is likely to be doomed but you just know that really bad things are going to happen. There’s an atmosphere of obsessive and unhealthy eroticism.

Even the opening credits are done in a 1940s style. Of course Chinatown is also very much a 1940s-style hardboiled private eye movie (film noir and hard boiled crime were not the same although they overlapped a great deal).

On the other hand it’s not quite an actual film noir because it’s in colour. Polanski and cinematographer John A. Alonzo understood that you cannot reproduce the film noir visual style in colour, so they adopted a visual style which would work in colour. Everything is bathed in sunlight. They manage to make the California sunshine noirish. As the movie progresses the colour palette becomes darker and more subdued and more obviously noirish.

is so much more successful than most neo-noirs because it’s totally lacking in fashionable irony. It isn’t trying to deconstruct film noir. It isn’t trying to play clever games with noir conventions. It isn’t interested in self-referential games. It’s not trying to mock the movies of the 40s. It stands in marked contrast to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, made around the same time, which is guilty of all of those things.

Polanski understands the conventions of film noir and the hardboiled PI movie and he respects those conventions. Chinatown isn’t so much a neo-noir as a classic noir that happened to be made in the early 70s. It’s a classic film noir and it’s a movie of the 70s and it doesn’t feel like a cynical contrivance or an exercise in nostalgia.

The story is told rigidly from the point of view of PI Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson). The viewer only knows what Jake knows. And Robert Towne’s script is littered with clever traps, with scenes that are going to mislead us. But Towne and Polanski never cheat. Everything we see is true, but both Jake and the audience are going to jump to obvious conclusions and in this movie those obvious conclusions will always turn out to be wrong.

It starts in the time-honoured fashion for private eye stories. Jake takes on a very routine case. Evelyn Mulwray hires him to find out if her husband is having an affair. Jake finds incontrovertible evidence that he is having an affair. Then comes the first twist. Things are not what they seem to be.

There are two mysteries to be solved but Jake doesn’t know that yet. What he does know is that something strange is going on at the reservoir. Lots of strange things are going on that are connected with water but none of these things make any sense.

Jake slowly becomes aware that there’s another mystery. Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) has hired him but there’s something she’s not telling him and it’s something very important. That’s all he knows. He doesn’t know why she is hiding something. He doesn’t know if he can trust her. Jake doesn’t like mysteries that he can’t solve. Somehow he is going to find the answers.

He does suspect that some of the answers lie in the past, and that Evelyn’s father Noah Cross (John Huston) is involved somehow. Noah Cross is very rich and very powerful and very ruthless.

Jake gradually uncovers some answers but they always lead to more questions and they’re usually the wrong answers anyway. Jake isn’t stupid. He is not a seedy down-at-heel PI eking out a living. He’s a very successful private eye. He knows his business. He just has no way of knowing what he’s stumbled into. He thinks he’s doing everything right but it all turns out wrong.

It’s like Chinatown all over again. Jake had been a cop in Chinatown where he’d learnt that it doesn’t matter how smart you are and how hard you try you’re not going to find the answers, your investigation will always lead nowhere and you might as well not bother trying. And when you to try to save someone, as Jake once tried, you end up dooming them instead. That’s why Jake isn’t a cop any more. Jake couldn’t take that sort of thing any longer.

Screenwriter Robert Towne saw Chinatown as a metaphor for the futility of good intentions.

He wrote the part of Jake Gittes specifically for Jack Nicholson and Nicholson gives his career-best performance. It’s a very Jack Nicholson performance but at the same time it’s a controlled disciplined performance. Faye Dunaway also gives a career-best performance as a woman so badly damaged that she’s close to falling apart and Dunaway makes her wholly believable and real. John Huston oozes evil and corruption from every pore.

It’s a movie in which everything comes together perfectly. Towne’s script unfolds beautifully. Polanski was the right choice as director and doesn’t put a foot wrong. The production design is superb. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is magnificent. It’s difficult to find a single flaw in this movie. It’s the most perfect Hollywood movie of the 70s. Very highly recommended.

The Blu-ray is packed with wonderful extras. There’s an audio commentary featuring Robert Towne and half a dozen documentaries covering every facet of the production.

1 comment:

  1. It's a brilliant movie, one I appreciate more every time I see it again.