Film Reviews | June 25, 2008 | Comments ()
It’s remarkable to observe some of the talents that came out of the 1970s today. The truth is, many of the actors and directors who are still renowned 30+ years later were at the top of their games in the 70s. Two perfect examples of this are director Roman Polanski and actor Jack Nicholson. Certainly, both of them went on to later successes, although in the case of Polanski, never again on U.S. soil - Chinatown was the last American movie he would make before his personal/legal troubles would lead to his exile from the United States. Yet the argument could easily be made that Chinatown, released in 1974, is a demonstration of two iconic artists at the heights of their careers.
Chinatown is many things. It’s the story of Jake Gittes (Nicholson), a prosperous private investigator who becomes a pawn in a larger game that he doesn’t know the rules of. It’s a loving, articulate homage to the works of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain. It’s a throwback to the detective pictures of the earlier decades — if it weren’t in color and if it starred Humphrey Bogart instead of Jack Nicholson, you’d swear it was a product of those eras. However, to simply pass it off as homage would fail to give it its due credit. Chinatown is also a wickedly clever tale of the blurred lines between right and wrong, the dark things that good men do and the good things that evil men are capable of. In the middle of all of that, it’s the tale of a man trying to balance all of these issues out and escape with his life and his conscience intact.
Jake Gittes is a private detective in 1930s Los Angeles who specializes in divorce work, in cheating husbands and wives; he’s a man who spends his time watching the sins of other people. It’s made him wealthy and of some repute, and perhaps even a little smarmy, yet he manages to keep his conscience relatively clean. When a woman named Evelyn Mulwray comes to see him with suspicions of her husband’s infidelities, he first suggests that she simply let it go, that her ignorance is preferable to the torture that could come with knowledge. She insists, and thus Jake begins to follow her husband, Hollis. After observing Hollis Mulwray spending his time in some unusual places (a dried-up riverbed, a drainage pipe by the beach), he finally catches him in what appears to be a compromising situation. The press catches wind of it and Mulwray, who we learn is the chief of the Water and Power Department (the film is loosely plotted around the California Water Wars), is disgraced and Jake’s minor celebrity status is boosted.
However, nothing is as it seems. We soon learn that the woman who hired him is not the real Evelyn Mulwray when the real one (a luminous Faye Dunaway) turns up, full of icy anger at Gittes. When Hollis Mulwray turns up dead, Gittes ends up working for Evelyn (the real one) to find his killer, and along the way deals with crooked public officials, a scam to steal water for a new development, knife-wielding thugs and more dead bodies. In the end, he must find his way out of a tangled skein of betrayal, revenge, love, lust, incest, political corruption and the dark histories that curse each character.
Chinatown is one of those murky, sad morality tales where no one is 100% guilty, nor is anyone 100% innocent. As the tale unravels, we see that everyone in the film, with a couple of minor exceptions, has done something that led them to the bleak place where the film concludes. Make no mistake - Chinatown is no happy tale, nor is it a tale of redemption and hope, and that’s part of what makes it so fascinating. It’s got all the hallmarks of a big Hollywood pictures — big names, gorgeous sets, big budget, glitzy production — yet at its heart it’s a melancholy film about broken families, broken trusts and human weakness in general.
Layered on top of that wounded heart is an absolutely beautiful picture, a veritable love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood. With sets ranging from stunning old mansions to spectacular beach vistas, Chinatown is lovely to look at. Watching it 34 years later, it still sparkles with the kind of vibrant life that makes its content all the more jarring. The production is brilliant and meticulous. All of the costumes, cars, and sets are perfect for the era it portrays, embracing the viewer in the smooth, slick feel of the 1930s — the beginnings of Hollywood’s glamour, but a little bit tarnished and dirty. Gittes wears sharp-looking suits, the women all look like a million bucks, and there’s never a moment where you don’t believe that you’ve been transported back to 1930s L.A. The sense of authenticity shows in the tiniest details — the leather cover on a pair of binoculars, a cigarette case, the walls on the barbershop — director Polanski and the production team didn’t let a single detail slip by them.
This dedication to detail shows itself in more than just the backgrounds and sets; it’s in every action and movement, every frame of the film. The characters are real, both in their words and their actions, and it makes the film somehow both leisurely and gripping at the same time. Chinatown is not a fast-paced film — the script (by Robert Towne of Shampoo and The Last Detail) is slow, deliberate and contemplative. This is a good thing, for it’s so densely plotted that its pace gives you a chance to consider the events as they occur, allowing you to reach the conclusions at the same time as the protagonist. In fact, apparently the original cut had a voice-over recorded by Nicholson — a common narrative device in earlier detective/noir films — that Polanski eventually removed, instead choosing to let the audience solve the riddle at their own speed, to draw their own conclusions. It was an excellent decision, and the film is riveting as a result. You don’t know what motivates Gittes other than the fact that there is something in his past that drives him forward, and despite his suggestion to leave well enough alone, he himself is incapable of doing so. As a result, the slow buildup imbues Chinatown with a feeling of dread — you, like Gittes, are dying to know what the answers are, but you suspect from the onset that both the road and the destination are going to be unpleasant.
Our younger readers may find this difficult to believe, but there was a time when Jack Nicholson could give a nuanced, subtle performance. Jake Gittes is no squinty-eyed, down-on-his-luck, derivatively written PI. He doesn’t carry a gun, nor does he work in the clichéd seedy underbelly of the big city. He’s well-dressed, well-known and sharp as a tack. Nicholson’s portrayal is spot-on — a dry, intelligent performance that garnered him a well-deserved Oscar nomination (one of the 11 nominations the film earned). There is none of the bombastic bullshit that pervades so many of his performances these days, none of that rote, oft-impersonated one-note characterization that has effectively made him a caricature of himself. Instead, Gittes is a quick, clever, difficult man, driven by his own demons to solve a mystery that no one wants solved — not the cops, not the criminals, not even his own client.
Speaking of which, Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray is an excellent compliment to Nicholson. While the script allows her to avoid the conventional femme fatale role, she is the driving force behind the story. And make no mistake, Dunaway is a force in this — her carefully enunciated dialogue gives her an air of royalty, a sense of entitlement that is very much at odds with her portrayal of such a tragic figure. Only an actress as gifted as Dunaway could carry off such a complex, painful character — how do you play someone whose innocence has been destroyed so thoroughly, yet still has a sense of naiveté about her? Someone who, despite the beating life has given her, still has the ability to appear confident, even arrogant, at times? The rest of the cast succeeds in supporting the two stars, while managing not to wither in their shadow. John Houston in particular, as Evelyn’s father, gives a wry, vaguely sinister shade to an already colorful character, adding a subtle sense of menace to his scenes. It casts a shadow over the character’s attempt to appear as a somewhat sad, addled older gentlemen. But as with all things in Chinatown, nothing is as it appears.
Chinatown is one of the few, rare perfect entries in its genre. With the exception of the likes of L.A. Confidential, few films have even come close to reaching its heights in recent history. On the surface, Chinatown seems a peculiar choice for Polanski — after all, this is the man who brought us Rosemary’s Baby, Dance of the Vampires and Bitter Moon. But if you peel back the skin, you’ll quickly see that it is more than a detective story, more than an homage, more than a mystery. It’s a multi-layered, grim examination of human frailty. When the film reaches its climax in the titular Chinatown and we see things come full circle, the answers are not what you expect. When the demons inside everyone are brought to light, they aren’t necessarily banished away — like the political corruption that helps drive the story, they instead simply become part of the landscape, for better or for worse.
TK can be found wandering aimlessly through suburban Massachusetts, wondering how the hell he got there while yelling at the kids on his lawn. You can find him raising the dead in preparation for world domination at Uncooked Meat.