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The Devil In The Detail: Thoughts On ‘Chinatown’ On Its 40th Anniversary

The Devil In The Detail: Thoughts On 'Chinatown' On Its 40th Anniversary

I still remember the first time I ever saw a two-dollar bill. It was in a wallet, on a TV screen in the living room of my childhood home. The wallet belonged to a dead woman called Ida Sessions, and it was Jack Nicholson who was riffling through it: Social Security Card; Screen Actors Guild Membership; two-dollar bill. I was maybe 12 or 13 and had never even set foot in America, but like anyone in the English-speaking world who watched way too many movies, I felt I knew the country like the back of my hand. Certainly its currency, which seemed more like real money than the colorful, monopoly notes we used, so often had I seen it brimming out of briefcases, left contemptuously on nightstands or fluttering down like green confetti after an explosion. But I had never seen a two-dollar bill, so that, of all things, was the detail that snagged my attention the first time I watched Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown.”

The intoxicating, rotten, brilliant “Chinatown” turns 40 this week. It’s been the subject of many panegyrics in the four decades since its release—in addition to books and numerous essays from critics and film historians, David Fincher provides the commentary for the Paramount Centennial Collection Blu-Ray edition, along with screenwriter Robert Towne (who won the film’s only Oscar out of its 11 nominations), Steven Soderbergh wrote just a few months ago: “I’m going to call attention to a classic that, in my opinion, is as good—or even better—than we all think it is: Chinatown.” 

It is a handy quote, because while it may seem pretty uncontroversial to write about how great inarguable masterpiece “Chinatown” is, here’s the point I want to make: as much of a masterpiece as I have always thought it is, it’s better. And so I’m not going to attempt another one of those essays, about its thematic depth or formal brilliance (what’s the point when there’s stuff like Michael Eaton’s BFI Classics book to do that?) because the film is such a fact of my life now that I’m not even sure I could possibly see the forest for the trees enough to do that. Instead, I just want to wonder, in writing, why every time I watch it, it’s better than the last, and why, every time that scene rolls by, with Ida Sessions (Diane Ladd) lying dead on the floor in a mess of spilled groceries and melting ice cream, I look out for the two-dollar bill.

You see, what makes “Chinatown” so unique in my life is that it’s not just a film I love, it’s a film I endlessly fetishize. I’m not sure that’s a particularly healthy thing to do but it’s the truth, and the film lends itself to it, by being so layered, so complex, so infinitely detailed and so devastatingly smart, at the same time as being itself about obsession, about fetish and perversion and the tiny flaw in Evelyn Mulwray’s iris. For me now, having seen it so many times, its greatness no longer resides in the macro, the broad sweep of its themes, the enormity of the corruption, the scope of the perversity—all of that I take as read—but in the micro: the way Faye Dunaway’s crimson lipstick is applied; how the camera is usually silky smooth but switches to handheld when Gittes is improvising; how Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic score is so cleverly used and so anachronistically inflected. (Interesting facts: there are only 23 minutes of score in the whole 2 hour 11m film; Goldsmith had just ten days to write the replacement for the “abomination”—according to Towne—of original composer Philip Lambro’s score). 

The film represents a dizzying concatenation of the talents of an all-star 1970s team: the unparalleled visual storytelling talent of Polanski as director being merely the nexus of a group also made up of superproducer Robert Evans, Towne, Goldsmith, production designers Richard and Anthea Sylbert (oh those venetian blinds, those Packards, those cigarette cases!), the startlingly assured camerawork of DP John A. Alonzo and the outstanding editing of Sam O’Steen. But furthermore, the minute perfection of it on a moment-to-moment basis suggests that not one of the team (and think of the statistical improbability of this) not one of them let their laser sights slip for a second. In fact, almost every scene feels like a microcosm of the whole, and no matter how small a sliver you examine, you’d practically be able to clone the whole film back out of its trace DNA. “Movie first, scene second, moment third” was apparently the mantra of editing genius O’Steen, but in “Chinatown,” it’s a three-way tie at every point.

Some years after that first, accidental viewing, we got the film on VHS. I’d written off the the two-dollar bill as me misremembering something that had flashed by once on TV and I’d never been able to reexamine, but now, here it was again, on an endlessly re-checkable tape. Of course this time, or these next times, I should say, I also noticed a hundred other things: Nicholson’s gradually healing nose wound; the glove compartment full of pocket watches to set behind the tires of parked cars; the way he sneaks out to break one of Evelyn’s taillights to make it easier to follow her car; such lovely, intricate, lived-in bits of business. 

I also started to see Dunaway’s performance for what it was, brittle and mannered and shimmering and quite, quite brilliant. Nervous as a flame, her pencil eyebrows and sharp red lipstick make her very face a foreshadowing of doom—a beautiful skull. And how her Evelyn starts as the epitome of the femme fatale/black widow only for the layer upon layer of secret shame to be peeled away from her, to reveal her as the film’s most tragic victim.

And of course I started to see the film’s symbolism, the recurrent water motifs—why does Cross serve Gittes fish? Why is he called “Noah”? (Of course, John Huston also played Noah in his own film “The Bible”) Why is there a swordfish hanging on the wall? Why are those glasses of water out of focus in the foreground? Why is there the noise of the dripping tap in Ida’s kitchen? Why do we hear running water offscreen? And aside from the water, why the hell had someone—Polanski? Sylbert?—put that two-dollar bill in Ida’s wallet? I started to realize something that’s as patently obvious now as to be embarrassing, but this was back then and I was a kid: everything that is in a film, any film, has been chosen to be there. I’d started to study film, and that film was “Chinatown.”

And then I got to see it on the big screen.

I’m going to say it was around then that my love for this film flared into all-out obsession. I don’t think I’d ever really noticed just how immense John Huston’s performance was before I saw how he physically dominates the frame when the screen is twenty foot tall. And by this time I was in college actually studying film and I (thought I) knew a few things: I wasn’t the first to note the similarities between “Chinatown” and Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” not just in the mood of perversity and obsession but even in the many following scenes, not to mention the parallel endings in which the protagonists each lose their lady loves for the second time, in a way that ironically echoes the first.

I was all hopped up on voyeur theory and gender representation and “Chinatown” rewards academic readings on just about any -ist level you care to apply. And don’t even get me started on its use and subversion of genre conventions! You know, how we sometimes know more than Gittes purely because of the genre (like we know, if we’ve ever seen a movie before, that Ida will be dead when he arrives at the house) but sometimes he knows more than us and delights us with his resourcefulness like when he turns up at Curly’s house (Burt Young) and gives his police escort the slip? 

And even still, more details lodged themselves in my brain: silly things like that it’s Ron Howard’s dad who is the “Irate Farmer” in the orange grove and did you know the film was co-funded by Penthouse? And smart things too, like how Goldsmith’s score, that sleazy trumpet (apparently trumpeter Uan Rasey was instructed to “play it sexy—but like it’s not good sex”) is only used sparingly, sometimes almost jarringly, and how different that was to the films of the ’80s and ’90s which seldom trusted their audience to know how to feel without an orchestra telling them. And how much Polanski plays with foreshadowing: the white car retreating into the night is shot at once before its fateful last journey; Dunaway strikes the car horn accidentally a long time before that magnificent, dumb-luck downbeat ending.

I decided, for a while, that the height of sophistication was to order a Tom Collins.

After university “Chinatown” settled into being one of those films that itself worked its way through my life like a recurring motif. Whenever I stumbled across it on TV I’d watch and marvel at it all over again, and bit by bit I found out more of its backstory. Like the meta-relevance of Noah Cross asking Gittes “Are you sleeping with my daughter?” when at the time they were shooting, Nicholson had started a long-term on-off relationship with Huston’s daughter Anjelica. Like that the character of Noah Cross had originally been earmarked for another director, William Wellman, so clearly Polanski had always envisaged Cross’ manner as being akin to a director’s—he’s the one orchestrating the moving parts; the only man with the whole picture in his mind. Like the way that it seems now so magnificently unlikely that the film, even during the temporary ceasefire of the art vs commerce war that happened in the early to mid seventies, could have gotten made at all: If Ali McGraw hadn’t had her affair with Steve McQueen would Robert Evans have pushed for her as the lead instead of Dunaway? (The mind boggles). If Polanski had decided that he could not, after all, have faced returning to LA, who would have stepped in? Or how about if Towne himself had been more attracted by the $175,000 that Evans originally offered him to adapt “The Great Gatsby”?

During this period of my close personal relationship with “Chinatown” as well as realizing the near-miraculous nature of its coming into being, I started to properly notice the dialogue too, and the jokes. “Chinatown” is a deeply, deliciously cynical film, heavy with history and fatal flaws and Greek-style epic familial tragedy, but you can still watch it for the pure hell of enjoyment after a hard day at the coalface, largely because of the wit and dexterity of the script. The lighter moments are mostly given to Gittes, but from the brilliant use of the stupid Chinaman joke (that cut from the near-fight in the barber shop to Gittes walking into his office in high good spirits just bursting to tell his dumb, ribald, racist joke to his friends is maybe my favorite single cut in the whole movie, and reminds me of a similar callback joke-telling in “Some Like It Hot”) to the occasional wisecrack he delivers in his lazy but understated way, this is some of the most hardboiled, characterful quipping you can ever hear. “Are you alone?” asks Ida on the phone. “Isn’t everyone?” drawls Gittes back at her. “What happened to your nose, someone shut a window on it?” snickers Loach, “Naw, your wife got a little excited and crossed her legs too quick” is his reply. Or take even Nicholson’s faux-naif delivery of “Gee, Lou, I’m doing the best I can!” when he’s found at the scene that Evelyn has fled like a kid discovered with his hand in the cookie jar—for a film about incest, perversion, murder, corruption and tragic, senseless death, it’s very funny at times.

So now here we are, all those years after the release of “Chinatown,” and all those years after I first thought the two-dollar bill was a mistake or a red herring or an extra clue, and I have to admit defeat: I will never stop getting to the bottom of all the things I love about this movie. I will go to my grave obsessing over the expression on Huston’s face when he wails “Oh Lord!” over the dead daughter he raped, or the monstrous wheedling, cajoling tone in which he asks Evelyn to “Be reeeeasonable.” I’ll continue, with every new watch to find something else that hooks me. This time round, call it topicality, I was struck by the accusatory exchange between Gittes and the banker in the barber shop (“Foreclosed on many families today?”), followed up later by Gittes asking Cross the question that every ordinary, “little guy” wants to ask of the hugely wealthy as they plunder the poor, “Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can’t already afford?”

Cross’s answer? “The future.” And in “Chinatown,’ the quintessential Los Angeles film, the future is water. As Towne said “instead of a jewel-encrusted falcon, make it something as prevalent as water faucets, and make a conspiracy out of that” —there’s nothing more banal, and nothing more elemental. Oil, in “The Two Jakes” was such a disappointment, among other disappointments, and who knows what the third mooted installment “Gittes Vs Gittes” would have been about—gold? Diamonds? Uranium? A huge part of the greatness of “Chinatown” is that its walks the line between banality (water, corporate corruption) and the seedy glamor of murder and private eyes and skeletons in closets with such incredible grace. It is an extraordinary film, about the ordinariest thing on earth.

The two-dollar bill does, of course, still exist and is legal tender, but the notes are rare–the rarest of all banknotes in fact: overall they account for less than 1% of all U.S. currency printed (I got one once on a trip to New York and thought I’d won some sort of lottery). However, at the time the film was shot, the note was out of circulation: it was discontinued in 1966 and only reintroduced in 1976, two years after the release of “Chinatown.” So yes, someone had to go and search one out, a 1937-era one at that, to put in that wallet. Why? Simple. Like everything else in the film, it was put there for me to obsess over.

Maybe it sounds like hubris, to claim a film, and a hallowed masterpiece at that, so much for myself. But that is the beauty of certain movies, certain albums too, certain books or paintings or any art really–sometimes they chime with you on such a personal level that they become a part of you that no one can take away, and no one can question your right to keep them close to you, to own them, just a little bit. Somewhere along the way, this film became one of those very rare movies for me.

“Chinatown” is my two-dollar bill, and it is priceless.

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