BFI Polanski Season – Chinatown (1974)
‘Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown’ may just be one of the all time great closing lines, encompassing as it does a resigned acquiescence in the face of overwhelming horror and corruption at the pinnacle of Roman Polanski’s dissection of the history of his then adopted Los Angeles, a loathly poisoned valentine to the brooding, eternal malevolence of Hollywood film noir. I initially resisted going to see Chinatown as part of the BFI’s newly commenced and exhaustive Polanski season for the simple reason that I’d already caught the film at their facilities back in 2001, but then it occurred to me that such an immortal classic deserves a revisit every decade or so, and although I’m just getting started on a trio of projects for the new year I’d be doing myself a disservice if I didn’t pay lip service to one of the most psychological dense and malignantly mysterious directors who continues to produce provocative cinema, whilst the theatrical staging of Carnage left me cold I did enjoy some of the thrilling, Hitchcockian designs of The Ghost Writer from a couple of years back, and as someone whom is not particularly enamoured with Dickens in book or film form I heartily enjoyed his Oliver Twist back in 2005. Pushing aside his still controversial personal life – let’s not get too sidetracked by his horrendous sexual history or indeed his horrific early life and the notorious murder of his wife and unborn child – I’ve decided to take a look at a trio of his films divorced from the media construct, nothing too left field or obscure, just perhaps the three films most likely to spring to mind when someone mentions ‘Polanski’…..
Los Angeles, 1937, and the sun drenched coast of California is suffering a major drought. Irascible private eye J.J. ‘Jake’ Gittis (Jack Nicholson) is running a prosperous investigative agency and reluctantly accepts a commission from Evelyn Mulray (Diane Ladd) to follow her husband who she suspects of infidelity. Trailing his mark Jake makes a curious discovery, Hollis Mulray (Darrell Zwerling) isn’t just playing away from home with a much younger woman he visits but he also repeatedly visits the overflow pipes and reservoir installations of the city which are quietly discharging water during the evening, as Los Angeles Chief Water & Power engineer it appears that he and by osmosis Jake have uncovered a damp deceit. The next day Jake receives a surprising new client – the real Evelyn Mulray (Faye Dunaway) – armed with a lawsuit now that the story of her philandering husband has hit the press and ruined his credibility in publicly opposing the construction of a vast new reservoir in the north of the city. With the tenacity of a terrier Jake refuses to let the case slip as his honour has been smeared in this plot to manipulate him by unknown forces, but when Hollis turns up drowned he realises he might be out of his depth as a vast conspiracy may obscure even deeper and more terrible secrets…..
Robert Towne’s magnificent script is the icy foundation of the films daunting prestige, frequently studied from an academic perspective as a perfect mélange of tone, place, structure and motif, not to mention its unswerving ear for period dialogue and argot. It’s simply such a treat to wallow in a movie which doesn’t treat its audience like a barely literate dullard, sign-posting all the major plot points, interrelations and occurrences to the barely conscious, this is very much a film you need to meet half-way as Gittes slowly unravels the layers of the formidable and intertwined dual mysteries without any exposition emitting speeches or sequences. Chinatown is a masterpiece of narrative construction with disturbing elemental forces coursing through the picture like the storm drains churning under the unsuspecting feet of the Los Angeles denizens, it is a film about secrets and corruption on both a personal and political level, both birthing some of the worst and most heinous behaviour of the human animal. Detective stories can be an extremely potent narrative method to draw an audience into their orbit as the private eye or cop or FBI agent becomes our avatar into the tale, unearthing the plot points and turns as the audience becomes simultaneously devours them, with danger lurking around every corner for nosy private dicks;
As usual with the classics it’s the perfect mix of ingredients that aromotise the pungent elixir of a genuine classic. John Alonzo’s moody, sun bleached Panavision framed cinematography, Jerry Goldsmith’s sleazy saxophone siren score, and of course Richard Sylbert’s effortless and impeccable period design are all wonderful, providing the film with a timeless aura located at sa midpoint between the first cycle of noir of the fortes and fifties and more recent revisits to the period which resurfaced in the nineties and nougties. As for the cast Nicholson was in the throes of his unbreakable string of pictures from 1968’s Easy Rider to The Shining in 1980, arguably one of the most accomplished series of performances in cinema history. The resourceful Jake Gittes is one of his more restrained roles, a dedicated and jaded man with a core decency uncorrupted by the failings and anguish he witnesses on the streets, with unresolved secrets of his own that the movie never feels the urge to explain, exactly what did happen when he was a serving officer in the Chinatown district? Faye Dunaway isn’t an actress I’ve ever had much time for (and frankly she’s something of a screeching prima donna in real life) but with the benefit of hindsight you can detect a smart, nervous performance from her in the movie, her skin crawling with even a passing mention of her father, a twisted ball of impacted grief and not the usual double-crossing femme fatale that noir films frequently employ. She and Polanski loathed each other, a famous on set encounter occurring with a close-up which Polanski was growing increasingly frustrated with, calling cut and marching over to the set before violently plucking an errant strand of her hair which was displacing his perfect shot – she went ballistic and it took hours to coax her back out of her trailer to complete the scene.
The towering, Mephistophelian Noah Cross is one of the screens most quietly horrifying wicked monsters, played to perfection by the indomitable John Huston, the final scene where his dark goals are achieved and he shields the gaze of his new prize from her slain mother is frankly squirm inducing, there is simply no stomach for such pessimistic finales these days with the possible exception of Se7en and that is approaching twenty years of age. The closest style of film I can approximate to Chinatown is of course LA Confidential but even by the nineties the appetite for bleak, defeated endings had been exorcised, as much as I enjoyed that film and its well orchestrated final shoot out the happy, sunlit ending really jarred with the rest of the picture, a concession to audience relief that prevents the picture from approaching a masterpiece status in my manically scrawled book. Like LA Confidential the period perforations of Chinatown also harbours a Russian doll structure of secrets within secrets, riddles amongst enigmas, all obfustcating the whodunnits of the forties with a ‘why not do it’ in the subsequent decades.
The pint-sized prince of perversion is a natural when it comes to the definitions, maps and inherent gloom of film noir, Polanski’s work is infected with neurotic flayings and felicitous fractures, and like all decent noir the film has a contemporary edge, it mirrors the disgrace of an immediate post-Nixon Washington which drips with an ichorous despair at the industrialists and authority figures that run our societies, definitions and declarations which ensure that the film maintains relevance some forty years since its original release. So my next visit is programmed toward the end of next week, it could be tricky to achieve this given the screening time and my proximity to central London given my new employment status, we’ll just have to see how it goes. For serious neo-noir fans I should mention that the film has a sequel called The Two Jakes which I remember as being distinctly average despite the return of Robert Towne and Nicholson to the same milieu and character, Jack also directed but the poor critical and financial performance ensured that the final part in a projected trilogy was never completed – best to stick to the original;