Wednesday, July 27, 2011


AFI Top 100 Ranking: 21
Year: 1974
Writer: Robert Towne
Director: Roman Polanski
Star: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston

“You can’t eat the venetian blinds, I just had them installed on Wednesday” is the first thing Jake Gittes says in “Chinatown,” a knowing nod to the world the viewer is entering. We think we know the rules of noir…the black-and-white, the femme fatale, the dirty city see mostly at night…but writer Robert Towne and director Roman Polanski have other plans. The film is shot in lush colors that depict Los Angeles and its surrounding hills and valleys as a damn nice place to be. And the femme fatale? Turns out there’s more to her than there appears to be. The movie is still one of the most dark and twisted noirs ever produced but, like any great film, it plays with your expectations of the genre all along the ride.

Gittes is played by Jack Nicholson, who supplies the character with a seen-it-all attitude that can only mask inner pain. He’s a private detective who specializes in cheating spouses and says all the right things to his hurting clients even if his voice betrays a bit of tedium, as if he’s said this hundreds of times before. A woman who says she is Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray arrives at his office and hires him to investigate her husband, who is a big honcho in the Los Angeles water and power office. Days later, the husband is drowned, salt water in his lungs even though he didn’t die in the ocean, and the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) comes into play.

For my money this is one of the best screenplays ever written. If Raymond Chandler is considered the master of noir writing, one must agree that his work was all about mood and character over structure and story. His novels are a master’s course in style over substance (except perhaps in his screenplay to Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train,” where one could infer that Hitchcock demanded both), and I write that as a huge fan. What Towne does is bring all the style we expect from noir and connect it with a mystery story where everything ultimately connects in a surprising, fulfilling way. We get all the small noir flourishes, like Gittes using two watches and a tire to figure out when a character leaves a place, but also a big picture that can make sense when set apart from the shadows and double crosses.

And yet, to simply think of the movie as a mystery is missing the point. After all, none of the main characters really care about who is diverting water and, really, no one seems that shaken up about Mulwray’s death. The characters continue the investigation because they are fascinated with one another. Mrs. Mulwray shows up every reel or so for the first half of the film, as if she got bored at home and wanted to be entertained by Gittes. She didn’t have to come out to pick him up after he is beaten by orange growers, after all. Mrs. Mulwray is an enigma for both Gittes and the viewer; the more we learn about her, the more questions that are raised. Dunaway’s performance is masterful, keeping us at arm’s length enough so that we can still suspect she is a murderer but making us care enough about her to be devastated by the film’s final moments.

Towne and Polanski then begin to carefully layer on the details, always keeping them subtle. With water so important to the film, we begin to see fish everywhere—mounted on walls, sitting on plates with their head still attached, that salt-water fishpond that’s bad for the grass around it. Then there’s the fantastic, beautifully written scene where Gittes sees…something…in Mrs. Mulwray’s eye.

That isn’t to say that everything here is subtle. Nicholson’s furious slapping of an obviously horrified Dunaway in what is probably the best-remembered scene from the movie is wonderfully, purposefully, over the top. Gittes getting his nose sliced open (in a single long take that is excruciating to watch without wincing) is both a great way to make an impression and a great metaphor about the private dick in general.

Speaking of long shots, there are dozens in the movie, and almost none of them draw attention to themselves. They aren’t Brian De Palma-esque long shots—they seem simple (though I’m sure they were hell to light and set up) and are barely noticeable until you’ve seen the movie more than once. My favorite is the scene where Gittes faces off with Mrs. Mulwray’s father (a fantastic John Huston) that begins with Gittes waiting for the car to arrive and ends with the twosome in front of the sun setting in the distance.

The camera is often following Gittes (Nicholson is, as far as I can remember, in every scene of the movie), moving and angled just over his shoulder so that we discover things as he does. This is a great way to stage the scenes but, more than that, it adds a level of identification to the viewer’s relationship with Gittes. Since there’s rarely a reaction shot in these moments, we think how Gittes face would look and, in essence, become him.

Jerry Goldsmith’s score is one for the ages and, like the screenplay, probably one of the best ever written. It exists both with and outside of the action we see, sometimes contradicting it and sometimes gently supporting it.

And then there’s the ending. The question remains as to why Gittes took the baddies to Chinatown instead of taking them to Union Station and trying a getaway—not a flaw in the movie, just a question. It’s heartbreaking, but at the same time how could the movie have ended? What kind of happiness would the characters ever have had, even if they had escaped, and therein lies the real tragedy of the moment. And, even at the end, Towne and Polanski still manage to reverse our expectations. Honestly, has there ever been another film where someone can wildly shoot and manage to hit the driver from that distance? I don’t think so.

My Score (out of 5):

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