A rare true work of motion picture art, Roman Polanski's CHINATOWN (1974) exists, as art must, on several levels: its surface, its shape, the colors it carries, its elements, its psychology, its balance; then in retrospect, its personal statement, its social commentary, its place in the development of cinematic art, and its historical significance. The former elements always serve the latter.
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On the surface, CHINATOWN is a conventional private detective story, the tale of a man whose job it is to discover the truth and protect his clients. In the mid 1930's, Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), owner of a small private investigation agency in LA, is hired by Mrs Evelyn Mulwray (Diane Ladd), wife of the City Engineer, to trace the typically suspicious actions of her husband, who is meeting another woman.
CHINATOWN's shape, of course, is that nothing is as it appears. We soon discover that there is another Mrs Mulwray, the real one (Faye Dunaway). The "other woman" is a step-daughter. The "false Mrs Mulwray" is not actually hiring Gittes, but the real Mrs Mulwray's father, Noah Cross (John Huston), is. The film proves to be not simply about banal adultery and money -- but also about murder, rape, power, the ravishment of the environment, the sprawling development of LA (which gave a sorry model to the nation), and something vaster, deeper, less definable.
CHINATOWN recreates Los Angeles in a time before the orange groves had been displaced beyond Anaheim to accommodate the presumably insatiable growth of the City. Water flows through the film from wash hand basins to the magnificent bowl of the blue Pacific; and Cinematographer John A. Alonzo contrasts the light, the blues, the greens of water, with greys and browns and blacks, like the smoke and smog which would soon blight LA.
In CHINATOWN, all the characters are balanced against each other. We are in a world of doppelgangers. A good private eye and a bad private eye, both ex-cops. A story of adultery among the rich in the main plot has a subplot of adultery among the poor. There are two Mrs Mulwrays, the real one and the false one, and they both die for it. There are, in a sense, two Mr Mulwrays, the honest crusader and another -- more ambiguous. There are two daughters, one legitimate and one less so. There are two sisters, both to each other, and not to each other. The real Mrs Mulwray debauches her daughter in order to protect her. Jake Gittes, the seedy private investigator, is a frustrated idealist. The LA Police are serving the ruthless and evil. We learn that Gittes, like Scottie Ferguson in VERTIGO (1958), attempts to save two women and is responsible for the death of both.
Good. You were meant to be.
For at heart, CHINATOWN is about how power in the corrupt forms of greed, sexism, and racism confuse good and evil in American Society.
In the first great conventional film noir, THE MALTESE FALCON (Huston, 1941), Private Eye Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) attempts to find "The Black Bird," fabled prize of The Knight Templars, symbol of all Western Wealth, for Casper Guttmann (Sidney Greenstreet) and his gang. In CHINATOWN, the first great neo-film noir in color, PI Jake Gittes tries to find a mysterious "Blonde Beauty" for John Huston's Noah Cross. These two great objects, "the thing[s] dreams are made of," one material, one human, symbolically link respectable society with criminal society in America.
It would not surprise me, though I see no evidence to prove it, that someone connected with the production showed Robert Townes' screen play for CHINATOWN to Writer/Director John Huston for a few suggestions.
In Huston's seminal 1950 "caper" film noir, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, based on a novel by W. R. Burnett, a noted criminal lawyer named Emmerich (Louis Calhern), cheating on his invalid wife, fences a jewel heist to restore the fortune he has spent on his blonde mistress (Marilyn Monroe, in her first important role). He calls his mistress at one point "kid" and "daughter," and according to co-writer Ben Madow, Huston came up with a line he was proud of for Emmerich to explain, in general, the concept of crime. Emmerich sits on his wife's bed, playing cards with her, thinking of "daughter," and says, "You know, my dear, crime is only a left handed form of human endeavor."
In her review of CHINATOWN, the Epinionator "kmhiman" points out many references to things "left handed" in CHINATOWN. A thug (Director Roman Polanski) slashes Jake Gittes' left nostril with a stiletto. Gittes observes Mr Mulwray's curious explorations of unincorporated property on the outskirts of LA through a left sideview mirror. There is the cold left eye of a trout on Gittes' plate when he lunches with Noah Cross. Gittes notices a flaw in Evelyn Mulwray's left eye just before they make love. He finds a pair of bifocals with a crazed left lens in the salt water pond of Evelyn's garden. In fact, in CHINATOWN -- all the lenses (psychological home of soul and sex) -- are on the left.
Perhaps I go too far, but it has been remarked that classic private eyes, like Spade and Phillip Marlowe, were "rightwingers," in competition with the police for solutions and money. Jake Gittes appears to be an exception. He wants to be for the little guy. He is a private eye of the Left, and he does enormous harm to those he wishes to shield.
Certainly, the contribution of Director Roman Polanski is important to these matters. He was a man who had known loss. A graduate of Communist film schools in his native Poland, he had in 1974 lingering memories of his mother, who died at Auschwitz, after he was sent as a child to safety in the countryside; and fresh memories of his beautiful young blonde star/wife, Sharon Tate, newly slaughtered by the Charlie Manson gang, while Polanski was in England putting finishing touches on FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS (1967). The principals of CHINATOWN were already set when Producer Robert Evans brought him on board late. However, Polanski is credited for his insistence on detail and demanding the unconventional ending which leaves Jake Gittes defeated and powerless.
Gittes demonstrates the sense of guilt a man like Polanski must have carried.
The most important performance in CHINATOWN, and the one I most admire, is that of Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray, for she is the tortured, pulsing heart of the film. The more often one sees the film, the more there is to admire. Set to Jerry Goldsmith's hypnotic score, her cool delivery, nervous gestures, glances -- lit cigarettes left forgotten -- wordlessly convey her desperate hope and her fatalistic resignation: the untenable state of her soul.
I especially like the scene between her and Gittes in bed, after making love, when she listens to him tell her how he inadvertently betrayed a woman he was sworn to protect in the LAPD Chinatown Division. She turns her head away and then toward him. "Dead?" she asks and, waits for his answer. The phone rings; the fatal moment for her is lost.
And in addition to Dunaway's torn rendering of Evelyn's most shameful secret, we have her perfect throwaway of the most chilling line in this truly shocking film, when she tells Gittes of the ways she tried to repay her husband for "all he has put up with" from her.
For Jack Nicholson's part, he observed: "There was a kind of triangular offstage situation." Nicholson had just begun a long affair with Huston's daughter, Anjelica. The only time she was on the set, according to Director Polanski, was the day her father, as Noah Cross, said to Nicholson: "Mr Gittes . . . do you sleep with my daughter?"
Anjelica said she was a bit embarrassed.
John Huston provides the climactic historical explanation for CHINATOWN when Gittes asks him what more a man with tens of millions like himself can want. "The Future," Noah Cross replies vehemently. "The Future, Mr Gittes!" He wants to control the growth of Los Angeles and a lot more.
For a man like Noah Cross, his daughter is also the future.
CHINATOWN is set in the 1930's before the influx of black people, who came for work to LA in the War; and before the later escape by Latinos from political or economic strife south of the border. And so, Asian characters are the metaphor in the film for Racism, which is the counterpart of the sexual abuse and sexism central to the main plot. Gittes, a failed cop, once worked in Chinatown, heart of the "Yellow Peril" warned of in the Hearst papers of the period, where everyone Asian "looked alike." That kind of casual reference is the essence of racism.
I can remember driving out to Disneyland in the late 1950's. We passed mile after mile of houses, then block after block of partially completed structures, then just foundations, cleared ground, and finally we came on backhoes furiously tearing out orange groves and piling the trees still hung with fruit by the side of the Freeway.
I had a similar experience last year, when I paid a visit to the new Epinions Headquarters in once sleepy Brisbane, California, except that the crews were PLANTING palm trees and frantically creating a monolithic business center of The New World Order.
Have I covered it all?
We now all live in CHINATOWN.
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