Friday, December 02, 2011

Chinatown (1974)

USA, 130 minutes
Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: Robert Towne, Roman Polanski
Photography: John A. Alonzo, Stanley Cortez
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Editor: Sam O'Steen
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, Perry Lopez, John Hillerman, Darrell Zwerling, Diane Ladd, Roy Jenson, James Hong

I've spent most of my adult life admiring Roman Polanski movies but I was surprised when I got another look at Chinatown recently. It had probably been decades (how the time does fly)—yet not only had I seen it enough to still practically be able to quote the dialogue verbatim right along with the cast, but the complexities of the story are now sufficiently clarified that I'm better able to understand the motivations and sense of each scene. That's no small thing in this densely plotted neo-noir (particularly for someone who has a hard time following a "Perry Mason" story). I would guess that screenwriter Robert Towne's most direct source within the tradition of hard-boiled detective fiction is Ross Macdonald, even more than Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. All three concocted similarly byzantine narratives, but Macdonald always rooted his in the reverberations of fractured families, which is the story at the heart of Chinatown.

In its details the story stands, in fact, as a very nearly perfect match for the kind of sensibilities Polanski has honed (even had thrust on him, as those who know his biography might argue) all his career—a dark, sexualized, twisted undercurrent of debauchery and malevolence, which acknowledges that unblemished innocence may exist in the world, but insists on seeing it only as opportunity. Indeed, Chinatown exists as another of those great collaborations where so many are operating at peak form and bringing so much to bear: Towne, Polanski, actors John Huston, Jack Nicholson, and Faye Dunaway. Richard Sylbert's production design is studded with scores of self-consciously authentic details. The gauzy orange/brown-filtered photography bursts with warm color and texture. Even the perennial pro Jerry Goldsmith chips in a terrific score, used sparingly and just right, guaranteed to rend hearts every time that trumpet swells again (R.I.P. Uan Rasey).

As a clockwork thriller, it's hard to see how this could be much better. Every element is in place in a story that hooks one immediately and proceeds inexorably from the luridly public to the heartachingly private. It moves quickly—by 10 minutes in it's already complicated with subterfuge and deceptions, puzzling behavior and menace. With Faye Dunaway's first appearance the floor opens beneath our feet, the mystery deepens, the stakes soar. Emerging naturally out of its basic elements it's almost hard to get a grip on what the actual mystery is. But it's already impossible to look away. Those are hallmarks of classic American detective fiction and here they are done to a tee.

But Polanski's determined focus broadens Chinatown well beyond a typical "down these mean streets" tale, finding any number of ways to signify the rot that is wrecking the world occupied by its severely flawed human beings, not just the political scandals associated with managing water in Los Angeles (which are faithful to the history of the region), but even seeping through a kind of fourth wall into the world of its viewers too, with one foot planted mockingly in the nostalgia continually hollowing out mainstream popular culture. All the details—those classy titles, the cars, the fedoras, the $2 bill and Social Security card glimpsed in a wallet, even the carefully calibrated argot and Goldsmith's soundtrack itself—it's all designed to evoke a past time calculated, in the moments we watch, to make us yearn to be there with them, in those simpler, better times, even though they are quite manifestly anything but.

As events proceed, one heartache and/or Machiavellian political maneuver leading inevitably to the next on a plunging roller-coaster of rancid behavior, Noah Cross (played by John Huston) grows into one of the great screen villains. The 68-year-old Huston memorably takes that home, playing it with a queasy-making gusto, the lined and pockmarked jowls along his jaw line moving and snapping as he eats and talks like a hungry reptile hunting insects. Even his adamant and deliberate habit of never correctly pronouncing the name of Jake Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson) is a subtle, effective, and nagging reminder of the power he wields within the world of Chinatown.

Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway are the stars here and they are just about perfect, their chemistry curdled to a precisely correct degree. Time has not been particularly good to either, but certainly a sense for how they earned and maintained their status as superstars of Hollywood is on display here. The central character of private eye Jake Gittes is a very good one for Nicholson, who clearly relished wading into playing this sardonic, sassy wiseacre who mocks everyone he sees and, typically enough for these kinds of stories, gets knocked around and beaten up time and again for his troubles.

Dunaway, for her part, manages her usual otherworldly, occasionally off-putting starchy woman of privilege with her usual style, relying as much on her cheekbones and the shape of her mouth and a throaty way of swallowing her words to bring it off. She strides through the part in a familiar bubble of perfectly groomed unattainability, but nowhere is it more appropriate and right perhaps than here as Evelyn Mulwray, the troubled daughter of Noah Cross.

Polanski's own appearance (as the otherwise unnamed "man with knife") is little more than a cameo, yet somehow so much more. It's one of the most unnerving moments in the whole picture. He is wearing a foppish white suit and hat, licking his thin lips and talking fast and nervous, calling his prey "kitty-cat" with a kind of beguiling affection. When Nicholson asks Polanski's companion, "Where'd you get the midget?" Polanski produces a knife and flicks it open with a sickening click, preparing to administer his lesson in what happens to nosy people.

With the closing sequence, set in the Chinatown of Los Angeles, the movie's long-game intentions—all of its squalor by now marched into plain view—suddenly begin to snap into focus. A feeling of dread falls over us as real as any experienced by the characters on screen. All through the picture we have seen one character after another talk about Chinatown with shuddering revulsion, a metaphor we can't quite understand but whose impact is apparent on Jake Gittes and the cops with whom he once worked, almost comically so at some points. And now here we are.

There's nothing comical about Chinatown in the end, coming to vivid life in a payoff that stands as one the great endings in movies. In fact, it's brought off with such flourishes of confidence and economy and powerful imagery that it somehow becomes extraordinarily beautiful in itself, bearing up nearly perfectly under the finality and weight of the great and famous last line, which tells the entire 130-minute story we have just witnessed in a brief handful of words: "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."

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