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Criticwire Classic of the Week: Roman Polanski’s ‘Chinatown’

Criticwire Classic of the Week: Roman Polanski's 'Chinatown'

Every now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled out for attention. This is the Criticwire Classic of the Week.

“Chinatown”
Dir: Roman Polanski
Criticwire Average: A+

There are many different schools of thought on what constitutes a “perfect film,” but you know one when you see one. Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” is a perfect film, but its perfection lies in its craftsmanship. There isn’t a wasted shot in “Chinatown”; every frame of the film communicates something essential and is masterfully conceived, and “Chinatown” wants you to know this. Thus, some people believe “Chinatown” is antiseptically cold, a film to be looked at and admired, like paintings in a dusty museum, rather than felt or experienced. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. “Chinatown” excites and enthralls not just in its formal beauty, but in its stunning performances and its thematic depth. Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway have arguably never been better than in “Chinatown;” the former plays the Private Eye who believes in capital-T Truth even though he knows it’s foolish, conveying hard-bitten cynicism and righteous decency in the same breath, and the latter embodies the mystery and elegance of a classic Femme Fatale who’s one step ahead of her man, but infused with a distinctly modern sensibility. Ultimately, “Chinatown” is about the perniciousness of evil, how it infects the homestead before it turns its sights on the larger culture, and how good men, though they do exist, are ultimately unable to stop it, a New Hollywood update on a Classical Hollywood tale.

J. J. “Jake” Gittes (Nicholson) works as a private investigator in L.A. best known for “matrimonial work.” One day, he’s contacted by a woman identifying herself as Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray who believes her husband, Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), chief engineer for the L.A. Department of Water, is having an affair. Though Gittes initially believes Hollis only has “water on the brain” after seeing him publicly oppose a new reservoir, an unpopular opinion to hold during a drought, but he eventually finds him in the arms of a young woman. After the scoop is published on the front page the next day, a mysterious woman (Dunaway) waits for Gittes at his office, and after establishing the two have never me, introduces herself as the real Evelyn Mulwray and threatens a lawsuit against Gittes. Gittes investigates his set up and not only discovers that Hollis has been murdered, but also a well of corruption that extends to Evelyn Mulwray, her father Noah Cross (John Huston), and the entire city of Los Angeles.

Though “Chinatown” is very much a Polanski film (mainly in tone), it’s also a classically collaborative effort, with different inputs adding something crucial to the end result: John A. Alonzo’s warm, yet haunting photography; John Goldsmith’s pitch-perfect score, laden with just the right amount of eerie nostalgia; and Sam O’Steen’s precise editing that keeps a layered, complex film brisk, taut, and thrilling. But “Chinatown’s” greatness begins with Robert Towne’s script, a fictionalization of the California Water Wars that parallels personal and political destruction via a classic detective noir narrative. Though much has been made about Polanski’s edits to Towne’s script — including removing a voiceover, reordering scenes, and changing the original upbeat ending to its famous downer one — Towne’s macro structure and unique ear for dialogue remain in tact. Towne’s script manages to align every minor detail or throwaway moment into an astonishingly constructed whole that feels both tight and purposeful even when it languishes in quiet moments or extended stretches of dialogue. Plus, even though Polanski and O’Steen cut Towne’s script to the bone, it’s still populated with characters that make long-lasting impressions even in brief scenes, such as Curly (Burt Young), a cuckold who repays a favor to Gittes at a crucial moment, Claude Mulvihill (Roy Jensen), an oafish tough, or even the knife-wielding henchman (Polanski himself) who famously slashes Gittes’ nose. But the legacy of Towne’s script lies in the small moments that are entirely inborn, like Gittes’ monologue about Mulvihill’s corrupt days during Prohibition ending with, “He oughta be able to hold on to your water for ya,” or the post-pillow talk between Gittes and Mulwray that shines a light on the film’s title. It’s Towne’s ability to channel palpable empathy and bracing antiauthoritarianism into his scripts that earned him the Oscar.

But Polanski’s touch on “Chinatown” is invaluable, and it’s his direction that ultimately elevates the film to perfection. It’s not just the deeply melancholic tone of the film, which reflects both the national mood at the time and his own personal history involving the murder of his wife Sharon Tate, but it’s also his precise framing and camera placement. Every shot in “Chinatown” feels deliberate and purposeful without once feeling labored. “Chinatown” is technically a neo-noir, operating as a throwback to the noirs of yore, assuming its aesthetic and archetypes and plot, but Polanski never hangs a lampshade on the proceedings or callously winks at the audience for “getting” the larger reference. It’s entirely itself, working within and updating the tradition without speaking down to it. That’s Polanski’s mark. It’s his ability to assume the genre and imbue it with his own point of view but only in subtle ways, adding an unidentifiable European texture to the proceedings. It’s recognizable, but foreign; comfortable, yet uneasy.

However, this is as much Nicholson and Dunaway’s show as it is Polanski’s, and their warmth and feeling is essential, not just because “Chinatown” is entirely from Gittes’ POV and hinges on our sympathies towards Evelyn Mulwray, but also because it adds a human element to an abstract story about the dangers of capitalism. Dunaway’s ghostly expression and mannered actions suggest trauma without lingering on it, and create a human mystery all on its own. However, it’s Nicholson who’s remarkable here, somehow playing a typically “Jack Nicholson” character (Towne wrote the script with him in mind) but adding unforeseen layers to it. Gittes is sarcastic and cynical, making “an honest living” off of heartbreak and devastation, but he’s also got a fiercely righteous streak from his time on the police force. He knows that what he does isn’t pretty, but he also knows that those in more “respectable” positions, such as bankers or police officers or engineers, are into way dirtier, more damaging stuff than him. Yet, it’s his time spent working for the District Attorney in Chinatown that has robbed him of anything resembling a rosy outlook. “What did you do in Chinatown?” Evelyn asks. “As little as possible,” Gittes replies. It’s a place to be avoided because nothing can be done about it; it’s a haven of corruption and negligence, a place where good intentions have ambiguous consequences. Though it’s technically a neighborhood, Chinatown is an ambiguous space where human decision and choice are worth nothing.

It’s why “Chinatown’s” ending still devastates after all of these years. Polanski and co. rightfully create the feeling that Gittes is really gonna save Mulwray and her sister, the product of incest at the hands of her father Noah Cross, and up until the last few minutes, it seems like the good guys are going to win and the bad guys are going to fail. But it all comes crashing down. Evelyn shoots Cross in the arm and drives away with her sister, but the cops kill her as she escapes. At first all we hear is the high pitch squeal of a car horn, but that’s just “Chinatown’s” way of signaling tragedy. Then there’s silence. Cross keeps his “daughter” and continues to rape the land of its resources. An innocent victim is dead. The world keeps on spinning. How could this have happened? Chances are you already know the answer to that question.

More thoughts from the web:

Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com

“Are you alone?” the private eye is asked in Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown.” “Isn’t everybody?” he replies. That loneliness is central to a lot of noir heroes, who plunder other people’s secrets while running from their own. The tone was set by Dashiel Hammett, and its greatest practitioner was Raymond Chandler. To observe Humphrey Bogart in Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” and Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” (1946) is to see a fundamental type of movie character being born — a kind of man who occupies human tragedy for a living. Yet the Bogart character is never merely cold. His detachment masks romanticism, which is why he’s able to idealize bad women. His characters have more education and sensitivity than they need for their line of work. He wrote the rules; later actors were able to slip into the role of noir detective like pulling on a comfortable sweater. But great actors don’t follow rules, they illustrate them. Jack Nicholson’s character J.J. Gittes, who is in every scene of “Chinatown” (1974), takes the Bogart line and gentles it down. He plays a nice, sad man. We remember the famous bandage plastered on Nicholson’s nose (after the Polanski character slices him), and think of him as a hard-boiled tough guy. Not at all. In one scene he beats a man almost to death, but during his working day he projects a courtly passivity. “I’m in matrimonial work,” he says, and adds, “it’s my metier.” His metier? What’s he doing with a word like that? And why does he answer the telephone so politely, instead of barking “Gittes!” into it? He can be raw, he can tell dirty jokes, he can accuse people of base motives, but all the time there’s a certain detached underlevel that makes his character sympathetic: Like all private eyes, he mud wrestles with pigs, but unlike most of them, he doesn’t like it. Read more.

Steven Soderbergh, Extension765

If you really analyze a great film, it can teach you how to make a film, and “Chinatown” is one of the best blueprints of all: a compelling and/or entertaining subject explored through a well-constructed narrative (Robert Towne brilliantly fictionalizes the real story of Los Angeles’ battle for water); a great cast doing career-defining work (Nicholson and Dunaway — in my opinion — both look and act better than they’ve ever looked or acted); an appropriately distinctive visual scheme (the sets, costumes, and photography are painfully evocative, and Polanski never puts the camera in the wrong place); and, most crucially, smart editing and scoring (the macro editing has just the right press and release, the micro editing is seamless except when it’s not supposed to be, and Goldsmith’s melancholy score — a last-minute addition — wraps the whole film in an intoxicating perfume of dread). Of course, it also follows that bad films contain the reverse DNA, showing you what not to do, but in general I like to watch good films, because bad films make me sad. Actually, “Chinatown” makes me sad too, mostly because it reminds me I started watching and making films at a time when the movies were as great as they seemed to be. Oh well. At least I wasn’t imagining things. Read more.

Jessica Winter, The Village Voice

“Los Angeles Is Dying of Thirst,” screams a flyer while Cross ambles about stealing the city’s water to irrigate his own land, a scheme Towne based on a 1908 scandal. Here the rainiest of movie wings relocates to a drought-stricken outpost stranded between an ocean and a desert. Jake, who favors the phrase “That’s not what it looks like,” cannot see beyond these cracked, sunbaked surfaces, but “Chinatown” itself rumbles with subtext. Nicholson was then beginning an affair with Huston’s actual daughter, and a few years later his home served as the scene of Polanski’s enduring crime: sex with a girl younger than Evelyn Mulwray when she bore her father’s child. Nihilist ironies collapse atop each other; preemptive excuses are proffered. “You see, Mr. Gits,” Cross explains, “most people never have face the fact that, at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.” As in “Chinatown”: the last gunshot you hear is the sound of the gate slamming on the Paramount lot of Evans’s halcyon reign, as as the camera rears back to catch Jake’s expression, the dolly lists and shivers — an almost imperceptible sob of grief and recognition, but not a tear is shed. Read more.

Don Drucker, Chicago Reader

A tribute to the detective thriller and all it represented in terms of notions of heroism and possibilities for action — and an elaboration of Roman Polanski’s black thoughts on the absurdity of it all. This stylish 1974 whodunit stars Jack Nicholson (never better) and Faye Dunaway (likewise). A bit abstract, though gorgeously shot (by John Alonzo) and cleverly plotted (by Robert Towne), Polanski’s film suggests that the rules of the game are written in some strange, untranslatable language, and that everyone’s an alien and, ultimately, a victim. Read more.

Odie Henderson, Movie Mezzanine

Gorgeously shot by the great John A. Alonzo, “Chinatown” basks in the bright L.A. sunshine and the darkest heart of its nights. On this viewing, I noticed the companion pieces Alonzo and director Roman Polanski visually stitch into the film. Some are used as foreshadowing, others as reminders. The bullet hole on the passenger side of the real Evelyn Mulwray’s windshield after she rescues Gittes from certain death, the broken bifocals in the pond, and Gittes’ “nosy” present from Polanski himself (in a memorable role) all hint at the gory injury in the film’s climax. Both Mr. Mulwray and Gittes lose a shoe in the Oaktown Reservoir, leading the latter to utter the ad-worthy phrase “Goddamn Florsheim Shoe!” And the Albacore Club fish logo sewn into Emma Dill’s quilt is a throwback to Gittes’ lunch with the film’s main villain, Noah Cross. “I hope you don’t mind,” says Cross about the entrée, “I believe they should be served with the head.” So one can stare the victim in the eye while the damage is done. Read more.

Andrew Sarris, The Village Voice

It has been said quite aptly that successful films have parents (or auteurs), whereas unsuccessful films are all orphans. As it happens, “Chinatown” has been successful enough to set a great many tongues wagging as to who actually contributed what. For Polanski, “Chinatown” is a very marginally creative exercise, like “Rosemary’s Baby,” rather than a personally fulfilling enterprise like “Cul-de-sac” and “What?” It is beginning to seem that Polanski himself is the kind of marginal artist who must be saved from himself in order for his personal flair to become apparent. The hundred-proof Polanski of “Cul-de-sac” and “What?” seems to dissolve in his absurdist acidity, but the relatively diluted Polanski of “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Macbeth,” and “Chinatown” seems capable of casting a dour shadow over the proceedings. He does not so much forge these films as tilt them in the direction of his raging unconscious. Left more or less to his own devices in a personal project like “What?” Polanski tends to render his own pessimism somewhat too giddily and too chaotically. His complete lack of illusions gives him nothing on which to build. His art, left to his own devices, becomes self-consuming. He is best employed when he is destroying the illusions of others. But it is Polanski’s decision to tilt “Chinatown” toward tragedy that ultimately redeems the enormous contribution of the others. Yet even Polanski’s intense feeling for tragedy could never have been realized without the vision of tragedy expressed in Nicholson’s star-crossed eyes. I say tragedy advisedly because it is in the Nicholson character’s misplaced faith in the power of truth to conquer corruption that he causes the death of his pale, guilt-ridden beloved. And only John Huston could plausibly embody the ultimate corruption of America since the 1930s. Read more.

Vincent Canby, The New York Times

In that far-off time — midway between the repeal of Prohibition and the inauguration of lend-lease — murderers, swindlers, and blackmailers acted according to carefully premeditated plans. These plans, in turn, were always there for the uncovering by a Sam Spade or a Philip Marlowe or, in this case, a J. J. Gittes, a man whose name is repeatedly mispronounced as Gibbs, which is one of the burdens he learns to live with, along with a vulnerable nose. This fixed order of things, of a cause for every effect, explains the enduring appeal of fiction like “Chinatown,” but it also is something of a test for the writer who comes after Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and who doesn’t hesitate to evoke their memories and thus to invite comparisons. Robert Towne, who adapted “The Last Detail” and wrote the original screenplay for “Chinatown,” is good but I’m not sure he’s good enough to compete with the big boys. When Robert Altman set out to make Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye,” he had the good sense to turn it into a contemporary film that was as much a comment on the form as an evocation of it. Mr. Polanski and Mr. Towne have attempted nothing so witty and entertaining, being content instead to make a competently stylish, more or less thirties-ish movie that continually made me wish I were back seeing “The Maltese Falcon” or “The Big Sleep.” Others may not be as finicky. Read more.

Pauline Kael, The New Yorker

Set in the ’30s, this nostalgic thriller, in the style of Hammett and Chandler, draws on the history of Los Angeles, specifically the water-rights and real-estate swindles. You can feel the conflict between the temperaments of the scriptwriter, Robert Towne, and the director, Roman Polanski. In Towne’s conception, the audience discovers the depth of the corruption along with the romantic-damn-fool detective J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson). Polanski, whose movies don’t leave you anything to hang on to, turns the material into an extension of his worldview: he makes the LA atmosphere gothic and creepy from the word go. The film holds you, in a suffocating way. Polanski never lets the story tell itself. It’s all over-deliberate, mauve, nightmarish; everyone is yellow-lacquered, and evil runs rampant. You don’t care who is hurt, since everything is blighted. And yet the nastiness has a look, and a fascination. There’s a celebrated background story to the film. The script had originally ended after Gittes realizes what horrors the woman he loved, the twitchy liar Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), had been through. And then she kills her incestuous, baronial father (John Huston) in order to save her daughter from him, and Gittes helps the young girl get to Mexico. But Polanski, an absurdist, seals the picture with his gargoyle grin. He ends it with the death of Evelyn Mulwray and the triumph of the Huston character, who had raped the land, raped his daughter, and would now proceed to corrupt the daughter’s daughter. Polanski’s temperament dominates (and he seems indifferent to some of the plot points). Read more.

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