Murder, mystery, betrayal, love, abuse, obsession, incest, power, corruption, bribery, conspiracy; that’s Chinatown.
What starts out as a simple adultery case for worldly-wise private detective Jake Gittes soon turns into a grand conspiracy that threatens to drown him in its wake. And what starts out as just another hardboiled pulp detective thriller proves to be one of the all-time classic film noir detective mysteries; a movie which not only defines the very genre which it comes from but also transcends it to become one of the greatest movies of all time.
There’s a reason why it sits proudly at #19 in the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Movies, and why it is number 2 in the American Film Institute’s Top 10 list of Best Mystery Films (behind only Hitchcock’s Vertigo); why it was Nominated for Oscars across the board (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Editing, Cinematography and Score – the last of which secured it a number 9 slot in the AFI’s Top 100 Film Scores) and why it won Best Screenplay for Robert Towne’s masterfully intricate and eminently quotable dialogue.
“He’s honest, as far as it goes. Of course he has to swim in the same water that we all do.”
If you haven’t yet experienced the sordid underbelly of the 1974 crime classic Chinatown then it is high time you fixed that – you won’t regret it. What follows is both an exploration of what makes this film so great and a fond reflection for those proudly familiar with the film and, as such, only those who have seen the movie may wish to continue along this path – all others should make this their next blind buy.
You may not instantly recognise the name of Robert Towne, and those that do may remember him solely for his standout work on Chinatown, but he’s not only the man behind the scripts for some other pretty famous movies – like Mission: Impossible and The Firm – but also an uncredited script doctor for a whole litany of Hollywood productions, including the ever-quotable The Rock and even The Godfather.
He wrote Chinatown off the back of a string of simple elements that he found whilst conducting research – including the seeming ambivalence towards crime in the LA district of the same name (a real LA vice cop explained that the cross-cultural melange of Chinatown made it impossible to know whether police intervention was actually helping the victims and their families, or merely furthering their exploitation, and so, consequently, the general attitude of the police there was to do “as little as possible”) and also the controversial power-plays involving LA water rights in the 1930s, which involved William Mulholland, the chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Mulholland was at once one of the visionary pioneers for the future of LA and also an aggressive, bullish oligarch who was famously quoted as saying in response to the protests against his plans for water diversion “I half-regretted the demise of so many of the valley’s orchard trees, because there are no longer enough trees to hang all the troublemakers who live there”, and was embodied in Towne’s screenplay by dual personas – a good and bad side, if you like. From these ideas Towne crafted a grand vision for a murder mystery conspiracy set in 30s LA, one that would define the detective genre for almost four decades.
Of course Towne wrote the story with one man in mind: Jack Nicholson, imbuing his lead private detective character with all the wit, intelligence, determination and unforgettable lines to give Nicholson not only his breakthrough star vehicle but also one of the best roles of his entire career. Indeed the story was the first of a planned trilogy about Nicholson’s inimitable detective J. J. Gittes, but only the second movie would get made (directed by Nicholson himself, it would focus on oil wars in the 40s rather than water wars in the 30s), with the third – a film about an ageing Gittes battling in his own divorce action, set against a land-dispute backdrop that involved the enigmatic Howard Hughes – left shelved after the disappointing failure of Nicholson’s flawed sequel, The Two Jakes.
The most nominated actor of all time, and two-time Best Actor winner, Jack Nicholson had already made his mark in a couple of smaller movies (including a cameo in Easy Rider), but was effectively catapulted into stardom by his starring duties in Chinatown. Honing his now-trademark wit and attitude into a perfectly oiled vehicle, Nicholson’s protagonist, Gittes, is perhaps one of the most endearing of all noir detectives. Rather than displaying the outright cynicism and world-weariness that seems commonplace within the genre, Gittes boasts a wonderful drive and energy matched only by his interminable wit.
“How’d you find out they shut off the water? You don’t drink it; you don’t take a bath in it... Ah, they wrote you a letter! But then you’d have to be able to read...”
Indeed his past may well be as haunted as the next person (after the corruption he experienced working in Chinatown, which is beautifully revealed, piecemeal, over the course of the narrative through some wonderful anti-exposition lines of almost-throwaway dialogue) but he genuinely appears to have moved on and found a new purpose. And whilst others may question the ethics of his work, we soon learn – from first-hand experience – that he is as principled and moral as the next person, if not even more so. The first new client that we meet, the faux Mrs. Mulwray, seeks to hire him to uncover the purportedly adulterous behaviour of her husband, and his first response is not to grab his camera and request an advance of monies, but indeed to recommend that she just forget the whole thing; “have you heard the expression, ‘let sleeping dogs lie’?”.
He’s embarrassed when he gets caught telling a dirty joke in front of a lady, and similarly apologises when he makes a crude remark in front of her, and, despite the number of people that want him to be bought off and walk away from the whole investigation, he refuses to do so, effectively becoming the reluctant hero that is also now so commonplace in movies, but, here, was so well and so fully realised that it made the character more fresh and unusual than we have ever had, before, or since.
“Somebody’s been dumping thousands of gallons of water from the city’s reservoir and we’re supposed to be in the middle of a drought. It seems like half the city is trying to cover it all up, which is fine by me, but I goddamned near lost my nose. And I like it. I like breathing through it.”
Of course we most remember Jake Gittes for his trademark smile, and quickfire wit; he never picks up a gun once in this movie – the closest he gets is when he kicks one away from an assailant – and yet his intelligent and cutting remarks are just as effective at disarming (and frequently antagonising) his opponents. Nicholson was young, fresh and brimming with energy and eagerness; his charming assuredness not quite evolved into the almost arrogance that permeates some of his later roles – we would never get another shot at Jake (as was proven when Jack returned to do the flawed sequel), or anybody quite like him.
For every great detective you need two other equally superior characters – a solid femme fatale, and a worthy opponent. Chinatown provides numerous wonderful supporting roles – including a delicious cameo from the director himself – but excels itself in these two casting decisions. As much as the script was reportedly written specifically for Jack Nicholson, he’s brilliantly partnered by Faye Dunaway (Bonnie and Clyde) and utterly matched by the perfect casting of none other than director John Huston as the ageing tycoon Noah Cross.
Dunaway comes across as the solid femme fatale – alluring, mysterious, deceptive, seductive and unpredictable – but her overall character arc gives this movie a fantastic psychological edge which makes her character far from what you might expect from a staple role in the genre. She’s the ultimate victim of the tale, and yet manages to be dutifully self-sacrificing right until the end (an ending which wasn’t in the original screenplay, and which Polanski dictated at the last minute, only to the betterment of not only the film but also the character itself). For my money it’s one of the unconventionally beautiful Dunaway’s best performances, as is subtly exemplified by every single moment in the movie where her character’s father’s name is mentioned in conversation. Her visible reluctance – often fumbling and stuttering out her next words – palpably brims with the pain of her torturous memories, and, in one memorable scene, Jake picks up on the reaction as she frantically lights a second cigarette; her emotional distress making her forget that she had already just lit one, and it was sitting, barely touched, in the ashtray.
Then there’s John Huston, a man who is infinitely more famous for his directorial work (perhaps most notably his work with Bogart on classics like Key Largo, The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) than he was for his acting contributions, yet in the movies that he did participate in, he truly made his mark. You see a man with Huston’s sheer presence doesn’t steal scenes, he owns them, his commanding voice demanding your attention; his deep, resonant tones dominating the conversations that he has. In Chinatown he gets to play a character who practically thinks he’s a God, above all the rest of the mere mortals, and able to do anything he so wishes – and Huston’s performance would have you thinking that he actually believed it. He’s a formidable opponent for Nicholson’s Jake (who Huston’s Noah Cross perpetually – and purposefully – refers to as ‘Mr Gits’, refusing to pronounce his name properly despite being repeatedly corrected), and one of the greatest – and most purely evil – screen villains to have ever been believably brought to life on screen.
“Most people never have to face the fact that, at the right time; the right place, they’re capable of anything.”
Yet I always found it perversely ironic that the movie demonises (quite rightly) the abusive actions of Cross, and, at the same time, was directed by a man who would go on to be accused – and plead guilty to – very similar behaviour as perpetrated not long after the shoot of the film itself. It was in Jack Nicholson’s home that Roman Polanski would get into the trouble that would result in his guilty plea of unlawful sex with a minor, and would see him fleeing those charges for well over three decades (and to this day). Sure, perhaps unlawful sex with a minor is a degree different from unlawful sex with a minor who is your daughter, but I’m certain an element of the disgust that we feel for Cross’s character lies in the fact that he abuses young girls, and not just in the added perversion that they happen to also be his children (it should be made clear that I’m not arguing about the consent issue – the point is that underage girls cannot give consent – as is further illustrated in the movie when Dunaway’s character painfully admits that she had never actually been raped, at least not in the conventional sense).
Still, controversies aside, with Chinatown Polanski crafted the standout masterpiece that would go on to be the beacon in his hit-and-miss career. Sure, he’d done classics like Knife in the Water, Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, and would go on do the exceptional Oscar-winner, The Pianist, but only with a litany of half-baked thrillers, psychological duds and psycho-sexual fizzlers in between. Sure, a couple are good, but none of them were great. And even good, bad, or great, Chinatown still towers above them all.
“He passed away two weeks ago and one week ago he bought the land. That’s unusual.”
Bringing with him Scarface’s John A. Alonzo to do some masterful work as cinematographer (there are some fantastic – and surprisingly long – tracking shots, like when Jake talks to Lou down by the reservoir, and several epic-scale scene-setting moments as would be later expanded on in Scarface), his Rosemary’s Baby editor Sam O’Steen (who would later work with him on Frantic), and the late-great composer Jerry Goldsmith (Alien, Star Trek) – who would be nominated for an Oscar for his stunning scoring here – Polanski wrestled producer Robert Evans for control of the piece (who had fired the first composer, rejected Polanski’s original choice of cinematographer and lobbied to retain the movie’s original happy ending), and thankfully won, for the movie would surely have been considerably worse off as a result of further Studio interference.
At the end of the day, though, this is more than just a Polanski masterpiece, and its greatest elements are trifold – the director’s work; Nicholson’s lead; and Robert Towne’s legendary screenplay, which is often hailed by critics as being one of the best screenplays ever written.
Masterfully intricate, Chinatown’s detective tale perfects the multi-layered approach to storytelling in this genre, seamlessly fusing murder mystery elements with a dark psychological subplot and standing out amidst even the best of the rest. Even ignoring the suggested symbolism – the rape of the LA valley and its orchards by a group of wealthy, powerful, corrupt and immoral oligarchs paralleling the actual sexual abuse sub-plot – the screenplay is a masterwork, and, coupled with a career-high Polanski, a star-in-the-making Jack Nicholson and a perfectly-chosen selection of supporting cast and filmmakers, the end result is a resounding masterpiece.
“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
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