Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Drunk on Foolish Pleasures: Chinatown

by JB
Want to know how much I love this movie? I named my son after the main character.

Oh, sure—there were other Jakes besides Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes in Chinatown, like Belushi’s Joliet Jake in The Blues Brothers, and Robert DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, and Body by Jake, a popular series of workout cassettes in the eighties, and of course, my wife’s beloved Uncle Jake. We decided that “Jake” had nothing but positive mojo behind it.

But I digress.

For decades, Hollywood has considered Robert Towne’s original screenplay for Chinatown one of the best screenplays ever written. It’s been held up as a shining example of the craft; it is still taught in screenwriting classes from sea to shining sea.  These accolades are certainly earned; Chinatown’s screenplay is one of the main reasons the film is a masterpiece.
In Chinatown, Robert Towne spins a yarn so potent that one of my most vivid childhood memories involves the film. I was not allowed to see Chinatown in a theatre; I was only twelve when it was released, and it was rated R. One afternoon, my teenaged cousin Joanne stopped by my house and quickly started an animated conversation with my mom. Joanne had just seen Chinatown and loved it SO MUCH that, over the course of the next hour, she summarized the whole plot for my mother, spoilers and all. I was in another room, but heard their entire (one-sided) conversation. So, even though I would not actually see Chinatown for another ten years or more, it had been effectively spoiled for me when I was only 12.

NOTE: Joanne’s plot summary turned out to be very, very accurate.

The Plot In Brief (well, briefer than Joanne): Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is a private investigator specializing in marriage cases. Spouses hire him to “get the goods” on their cheating partners and bring back pictures they can use in court. Turns out, Jake used to be on the L.A. Police force; some incident, it is darkly hinted, forced him to quit. Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) walks into his office one day and asks Gittes to investigate her husband, who she suspects of cheating. Gittes’ investigation leads to far more nefarious revelations than simple adultery. He also discovers that Mulwray, her husband, her father, and her daughter are not all who they pretend to be.
The film features one of the more famous (and tragic) twist endings, and I shall not spoil it here. Suffice it to say that Towne has not led the audience down a thorny primrose path for two hours merely to surprise them; he has devised a twist ending that, in its mercilessness and all it implies, stands as our most potent cinematic metaphor for the heart of evil in the center of every film noir.  The conclusion of Chinatown is formed not only of tragedy, but of unspeakable acts and unspeakable evil. This is a film that one cannot simply brush away once one leaves the theater.

Like Joanne, for instance, who clearly needing to expunge herself of the tale by spilling it to someone else. (In retrospect, this may have been why my mother did not enter a movie theatre AT ALL between 1974 and 2011.)

The performances in Chinatown are uniformly excellent. Some think Jack Nicholson is the whole show. I disagree, but I can see why people are blown away by his performance; it is among Nicholson’s best. (This was well before Nicholson’s performances became impossibly mannered, as if he was somehow impersonating the thousand mediocre stand-up comedians doing shitty impressions of him in their shitty, hacky acts. I used to think these problematic performances began with The Shining, but that movie is so terrific, I’m now convinced it was probably Batman.) The fact that Nicholson gets his nose cut open about thirty minutes in, and goes through the rest of the film bandaged up, is still considered the height of seventies method acting and proves Jack had a refreshing lack of vanity.
I usually find Faye Dunaway to be the most impossibly mannered performer, but as with her performance in Network, her character here plays into those mannerisms and gives them some context. There’s a good reason Evelyn Mulwray acts crazy, and it’s not just because Dunaway is playing her. Director Roman Polanksi also scored a coup in casting John Huston as the film’s villain; is it hard to imagine anyone else playing the part (or giving his dialogue the wheezy/sleazy/slick quality that Huston provides). Huston’s presence also provides a link to “old Hollywood” and the very noir tradition that Houston himself helped set in motion by directing The Maltese Falcon.

Chinatown‘s dialogue makes the film deliciously re-watchable. How great is Robert Towne’s ear for dialogue, you ask? Well, he was one of the uncredited writers on The Godfather, and wrote the final scene between Pacino and Brando. Here are some choice snippets of dialogue from Chinatown:

Noah Cross
'Course I'm respectable. I'm old. Politicians, ugly buildings,
and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.

Jake Gittes
So there's this guy […] He's tired of screwing his wife... So his friend says to him, "Hey, why don't you do it like the Chinese do?" So he says, "How do the Chinese do it?" And the guy says, "Well, the Chinese, first they screw a little bit, then they stop, then they go and read a little Confucius, come back, screw a little bit more, then they stop again, go and they screw a little bit... then they go back and they screw a little bit more and then they go out and they contemplate the moon or something like that. Makes it more exciting." So now, the guy goes home and he starts screwing his own wife, see. So he screws her for a little bit and then he stops, and he goes out of the room and reads Life magazine. Then he goes back in, he starts screwing again. He says, "Excuse me for a minute, honey." He goes out and he smokes a cigarette. Now his wife is getting sore as hell. He comes back in the room; he starts screwing again. He gets up to start to leave again to look at the moon. She looks at him and says, "Hey, what’s the matter with you?
You're screwing just like a Chinaman!" [Laughs hysterically]

Man With Knife (Roman Polanski)
You're a very nosy fellow, Kitty Cat. Huh? You know what happens to nosy fellows? Huh? No? Wanna guess? Huh? No? Okay. They lose their noses.

Jake Gittes
But, Mrs. Mulwray, I goddamn near lost my nose. And I like it.
I like breathing through it. And I still think you're hiding something.

Jake Gittes
I just want to know what you're worth—more than 10 million?

Noah Cross
Oh my, yes!

Jake Gittes
Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat?
What could you buy that you can't already afford?

Noah Cross
The future, Mr. Gittes! The future. Now, where's the girl? I want the only daughter I've got left. As you found out, Evelyn was lost to me a long time ago.

Jake Gittes
Who do you blame for that? Her?

Noah Cross
I don't blame myself. You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they're capable of ANYTHING.

Director Roman Polanski deserves a lot of credit for the film’s ultimate success. Much has been made of Polanski’s decision to film a noir in the daylight, to eschew film noir’s usual chiaroscuro/German expressionist lighting in favor of bright whiteness and a color palette that runs to yellow and gold.

This has been written about ad nauseam, but I think Polanski’s directorial decisions here go far beyond mere photographic filigree; Polanski’s real triumph is making a film that is oddly contemporary and yet rooted in the past. It has all the trappings of classic 1940s noir, and yet speaks to issues and concerns of the early 1970s in a big, loud voice.

This reminds me of something I focused on while watching the recent HBO True Detective series, and something that I think speaks to the essence of all film noir. In one episode, Matthew McConaughey’s character muses about an unspeakable crime he once witnessed:

Russ Cole
I don't want to know anything anymore. This is a world where nothing is solved. Someone once told me, “Time is a flat circle.” Everything we've ever done or will do, we're going to do over and over and over again. And that little boy and that little girl, they're going to be in that room again and again and again forever.

The Western genre allows us to pat ourselves on the back by explaining why, as a culture, we decided to put down roots and build houses, churches, and schools. The Horror genre allows us to witness violent death without any of its consequences and reminds us of how great it feels to be alive. Film Noir goes somewhat deeper: it forces us to simultaneously approach and flee the worst parts of ourselves. Film Noir imparts revelations that are not so easy to shrug off once we leave the theater.

Film Noirs are certainly cathartic in that most of our lives are nowhere near as screwed up and twisted as the characters’ in the films. Yet something sticks with us whenever we watch Chinatown. (Is it our conscience? A tacit acknowledgment of the sheer banality of evil?) The tragic ending of Polanski’s film (indeed the various tragedies that lie at the core of all film noirs) cannot be stopped, can never be stopped. Tragedies—as inevitable as rain—just keep happening again and again, from generation to generation.

That is how it goes and goes. “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”


  1. Great review! Much as I hate to admit it, but there's no doubt in my mind that Polanski deserves a lot of the credit for how Chinatown turned out. I had a big problem with that for awhile, until I realized I also loved the music of Wagner - and NOBODY is a bigger bastard than that son-of-a-bitch. If I'm remembering my readings about Chinatown correctly, it was Polanski who changed the ending to what it is today, and which I would argue is essential to the film's ultimate message. I won't spoil it by getting into things deeply here, but the Nicholson character in this film has a lot in common with the Nicholson character in The Pledge. Both have a moment where they can make the right, correct choice - and they both blow it because they desire the big dramatic confrontation. Chinatown is a critique of the whole private-eye genre, which wants to believe that the lone hero can stand up to corruption and fix everything.

    1. Yes that is a great point. In a way Noir is that critique in itself, there will always be corruption it states. Our leading man can't change that. I love the way J.B. stated it at the end of this review that Noir helps us wrestle with the darker side of our conciousness. This film is so fantastic, another film I want to re-watch (again) after reading this column!

    2. I would argue that most noir movies still give us a "victory" of sorts, where the bad guy is either killed or arrested at the end. Indeed, the Hayes Code insisted that crime cannot pay, and wrongdoers must be punished in some fashion. Thus, even if there is tragedy along the way (such as in The Big Heat), the audience still feels some satisfaction that a measure of justice has been done, albeit imperfectly. Polanski boldly gave us an ending where there is NO justice whatsoever. However, I disagree with those who would argue this is simply Polanski being nihilistic. Jake has an opportunity in this movie to achieve a small victory - he can potentially deliver Evelyn and her daughter to safety. But he makes the critical error of confronting Noah Cross, in the vain belief that he (and he alone) can somehow "defeat" him. Of course he cannot, and Cross then makes Jake take him right to Evelyn. The tragedy that ensues was not "fated," it was the result of hubris.

    3. While I wholeheartedly agree about the Hayes Code's ubiquity during that time period, the majority of the noirs that I have been watching lately (The Killing, Plunder Road, etc) have endings in which everyone is punished. While I do agree Chinatown's concluding tragedy could have been avoided in the manner you indicate, I'm just noticing that's the case in most noirs, that something could have been done or done differently, but things never work out and that compounds the tragedy...

  2. Terrific review. I haven't seen "Chinatown" often enough (two or three times, the last well over a decade ago) so it would be like seeing it again for the first time. Somehow even though its not noir I always think of "The Sting" and "Chinatown" as being of a piece, mostly because they're both daylight-set movies recreating a B&W era even though it seems the plots would benefit from nighttime photography. Rewatching both might be in order.

  3. Thank you JB for perfectly summarizing why I love Chinatown so much! I'm not that much of a Polanski fan but I have an enormous amount of appreciation for this film, it is in my top 5 movies of all time. After watching Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde when I was teen, I didn't care for her acting. After seeing her in Chinatown and Network for the first time this year, she has that 70's style of acting that I am drawn to again and again.