Hot diggity, it’s already day five of the Decades Blogathon – 6 edition – hosted by myself and the awesome Tom from Digital Shortbread. That means we’re already half way through! The blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the sixth year of the decade. Tom and I will run a different entry each day (we’ll also reblog the other’s post); and I’m delighted to welcome Jordan from Epileptic Moondancer to present his views on Roman Polanski’s unnerving psychological drama The Tenant.
Years ago, I introduced myself to film by rifling through the filmographies of Kubrick and Gilliam. Once that was done, I wanted to find another director whose films I could work through.
Through a Google search using the phrase ‘mind-f**k movies’ I came across Repulsion, perhaps Polanski’s best film. The atmosphere and the camerawork instantly hyptonised me and after watching the film the next…
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
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.
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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Feeling in a bit of a paranoid mood? Then you’ll love what’s on offer for today’s Throwback Thursday segment! And you know what they say about paranoia, right? Well . . . actually, what . . . what do they say? I’m not sure if they say anything about it. Is there an expression that “they” say? Just who are “they,” anyway??! What the hell is going on? That’s a good question. So I’ll just cut right to the chase: gimme my baby back!
Today’s food for thought: Rosemary’s Baby.
Rocking the cradle since: June 12, 1968
My introduction to the filmography of one Roman Polanski has sent shivers down my spine. Fourteen hours later I’ve been able to get rid of them.
Rosemary’s Baby is a trip. Not a vacation; a trip. A veritable hallucinogenic as intoxicatingly cinematic as it is a tutorial on how to create atmospheric suspense and feelings of dread and paranoia by using real-world settings and little else. One of the most prolific filmmakers of all-time — having crafted works in Britain, France, Poland and the United States — Polanski’s psychological horror detailing a young housewife’s concerns about strange circumstances surrounding her pregnancy remains to this day a nightmarish descent into paranoia and paralyzing fear.
Though culture and tradition in the nearly 50 years since its release have certainly changed, the emotional core of the film harps on notes that ring true as ever. In this ridiculously effective thriller, a nightmare for the average pregnant woman is only the beginning. Mia Farrow is Rosemary Woodhouse, wife of struggling actor Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) who is at first reluctant to move into what was once a single-unit apartment now subdivided into thinly-walled quarters within a ramshackle building known as the Bramford. Rosemary so badly wants this apartment in Manhattan that he relents.
The ensuing weeks and months the Woodhouses are ingratiated by their next-door-neighbors, an elderly couple who take a very keen interest in Rosemary’s desire to have a child. Following what can only be described as a harrowing dream sequence you don’t really want to relive, she indeed becomes pregnant. She and Guy are congratulated by Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmur) and promptly given all kinds of advice on how to take care of the pregnancy.
The fascination begins when we see Guy and Rosemary’s reactions to the — er, hospitality start to diverge; while Guy forms a bond with the oddball Roman who has good stories to tell, Rosemary becomes increasingly off-put by the prying eyes of a very creepy Minnie. Clearly I wasn’t around back then, but I can still feel the impact of this supporting performance and would have to agree with the Oscar she received. Gordon is positively chilling and Blackmur supports more than significantly.
I would be lying if I said I was won over by Farrow’s performance, but on a strictly objective level (because that’s what we are all about here at Digital Shortbread. . . . . . ) she is a strong character whose determination and horrific circumstances render her irreplaceable. (To that end, I am looking forward to other performances from her.)
Rosemary’s Baby is ruthlessly tense and masterfully chopped up into segments that fuse together like the night into day. Natural transitions yield great expanses of time and we begin to learn the true scale of Rosemary’s problems. Put into simple terms, this is a poor woman’s descent into hell as her pregnancy consumes her very existence. In 2014 the confronting nature of this particular pregnancy still hits hard, without the film ever digressing into a tug-of-war for or against abortion. There are, however, whispers of those concerns buried deep within this truly haunting tale. The film happens to be capped off by one of the best and most unexpected endings I have ever seen.
For all the above reasons and a few more, I find this to be a true masterpiece of cinema.
Recommendation: Roman Polanski’s psychological thriller is brilliantly directed, beautifully and eerily shot, incredibly scored and tremendously effective as well as engrossing. Clocking in at well over two hours, it’s a substantial horror installment. But the elite-level performances — in particular, Farrow and Gordon — coupled with an alarmingly convincing story make the time fly by. I highly, highly recommend getting your mitts on this one if you have the thing sitting there right in front of you on Netflix like I did. I am so thrilled I checked this out. Also, let me recommend Netflix.
Running Time: 136 mins.
TBTrivia: Mia Farrow was actually eating raw liver in that scene. Mmm, bon appétit!
All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.
This hobby blog is dedicated to movie nerdom, nostalgia, and the occasional escape. In the late 90s, I worked at Blockbuster Video, where they let me take home two free movies a day. I caught up on the classics and reviewed theatrical releases for Denver 'burbs newspapers and magazines. When time is free between teaching high school music and being a dad, movies are standard. Comments and dialogue encouraged!