TBT: Chinatown (1974)

Back for more blasts from the past? You’ve come to the right place. This Thursday we find ourselves straying into dangerous territory, going places we’ve been warned to stay away from. Parts of town that remain mysterious and off-limits for good reason. Of course, I’m not talking about your local ghetto, or the part of New Orleans that’s still submerged in water. I’m talking about that part of Los Angeles that, once you’ve been there, you’ll never stop being haunted by it, just like Jack Nicholson’s character in 

Today’s food for thought: Chinatown.

Stylishly escaping gunfire since: January 1, 1974

[Netflix]

When praising a film the word stylish tends to make an appearance. Physical attraction is one of our base drives and so it only makes sense we’re drawn more to films that look good rather than to ones that don’t. We shouldn’t feel guilty for doing so though, even if there are times we’re conscious of how obvious our decisions are being driven by our desire to see good-looking people in a good-looking movie (after all, Focus isn’t the only fashion magazine posing as a movie released this year). There is of course some difference between the guilty pleasure of Will Smith’s film career and appreciating the facelift Casino Royale gave to the James Bond franchise.

In the case of Roman Polanski’s 1974 noir crime thriller Chinatown ‘stylish’ just doesn’t feel adequate. What’s more is the film does not rest on that laurel. Aside from being visually iconic and brought to life with a swankiness only a duo like Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway could provide, Chinatown offers a complex and cerebral mystery involving romance, seduction and copious amounts of danger. Equal parts mesmeric and paranoiac, this fictional world set during a period of severe drought in 1937 California was inspired by the Californian Water Wars, a series of conflicts beginning at the turn of the 20th Century between the city of Los Angeles and farmers and ranchers of the Owens Valley over ownership of the local water supply and its subsequent distribution.

It’s against this backdrop of environmental-political tension Polanski establishes his last American film, achieving a production overflowing in style and substance, one that simultaneously romanticizes and reviles the greater Los Angeles area. J.J. “Jake” Gittes (Nicholson) is a dedicated private eye who specializes in matrimonial affairs. When a mysterious woman named Evelyn Mulwray (Dunaway) employs his services, asking that he find out about the affair she knows her husband is having, Gittes is pulled unwittingly into a labyrinthian web of lies, deceit and corruption that ultimately will send him all the way back to the place he thought he would never return to: Chinatown.

Gittes (a name I keep wanting to misspell) is particularly good at what he does. That might be because he has little in the way of a personal life, dedicating most (if not all) of his time to his work. His latest assignment all but ensures this will be an ongoing pattern, as the husband in question is none other than Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), chief engineer of the L.A. Department of Water and Power. Naturally, Gittes has some questions for the man but before he can ask any of them, Mulwray’s body is being dragged out of a river, a river that has been bled dry thanks to the diversion of water behind a reservoir that’s being heavily guarded by the department’s security. Gittes turns to Mrs. Mulwray for some answers after he’s brutalized by said security (a cameo performance from Polanski himself as a henchman is somewhat amusing) and left with no substantial leads. He’s convinced she’s hiding some secret.

Her father, a powerful and dangerous man named Noah Cross (John Huston), holds sway over where the water is to be distributed. His plan is to incorporate the Owens Valley into the Los Angeles area as a way of controlling the resource and ultimately increasing his wealth. Gittes investigates Cross, who in turn requests Gittes’ help in finding the mistress of his daughter’s husband, claiming he will double the pay and even give him a bonus if he succeeds in retrieving her. It’s something of a leap of faith Gittes takes in his investigation. He leaves behind the simpler pleasures of solving mundane cases of infidelity for a much more challenging and personal case that will have serious implications for all involved; a case where the end game for Gittes isn’t made clear. What’s he getting out of all of this?

An easier question to answer: what does Nicholson get out of starring in this pervert’s film? If the pinstriped suit and fedora don’t make it obvious enough it’s an opportunity to demonstrate some sense of stability in a seductive and — at the risk of overusing the word — stylish cinematic environment in which he gradually loses said stability to the increasing pressures created by those around him. As a private investigator, the man is not someone we can afford to like at every turn, yet Nicholson imbues the guy with a personality that’s difficult to root against, even if his stubborn persistence ruffles more feathers than just those of the characters on screen. He has the trappings of a thoroughly unlikable individual — nosy, somewhat temperamental and unable to forego obsession for the sake of his own well-being — Gittes is somehow still deeply empathetic, while remaining vintage, enigmatic Jack Nicholson.

We need look no further than Dunaway’s eloquence and measured line delivery to find Chinatown‘s better half in terms of style and grace. Evelyn exudes beauty and desperation simultaneously, a combination which usually translates into ‘damsel in distress’ status for most leading females, yet Evelyn isn’t easily pushed over, despite the complicated circumstances of her personal affairs. Dunaway proves a sensational match for Nicholson, equaling him in terms of the intensity and strength of her own convictions. The pair make for a timeless cinematic couple, despite the atypical relationship. (Award another point to Chinatown for its blatant disregard for cinema’s blueprint for traditional romance.)

Chinatown‘s frequently mentioned in the classic cinema conversation and it’s not difficult to see why. Between John A. Alonzo’s stunning ability to bathe California in visual splendor while generating fear and anxiety from the same, and Polanski’s assured direction that slowly but surely entices viewers into the mystery, there’s little that the film does that proves otherwise. Running over two hours in length, time simply disappears and a new timeline emerges: where and when does Gittes get to the bottom of this investigation? What does he find? Was it all worth the effort? When it comes to conducting business around Chinatown, the answer isn’t likely to be what any of us are looking for.

“Forget it, Jack. It’s Hollywood.”

Recommendation: Despite my personal feelings towards Roman Polanski, I can’t deny his place in the grander cinematic picture. His work is distinctive, immersive and extraordinarily complex. Chinatown is one to go to if you’re looking for another legendary Jack Nicholson performance, but it’s also something to consider if you’re seeking out a quality crime noir. Robert Towne’s screenplay is frequently cited as one of the best ever created, and if that’s how you measure your enjoyment of movies, you might keep that in mind as well. In general though, I’ll call this one a must-see based on its effortless entertainment value. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 130 mins.

TBTrivia: You can take Jack Nicholson out of a basketball game but you can’t take the game out of Jack Nicholson. At one point, Roman Polanski and Nicholson got into such a heated argument that Polanski smashed Nicholson’s portable TV with a mop. Nicholson used the TV to watch L.A. Lakers basketball games and kept stalling shooting.

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Photo credits: http://www.adammcdaniel.com; http://www.imdb.com