The stylized elegance of social rot: “Chinatown” (1974)

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By Scott Ross

Chinatown is one of those movies of the last great period of American pictures that, while not wildly successful at the box office, has since accrued to itself the luster of a pop masterpiece, one that rewards repeated viewings as only the great works do.

The picture’s screenwriter, Robert Towne, based the background of his dark detective thriller on events and characters in early Los Angeles history that was bearing bitter fruit by the late 1930s, the time of Chinatown: The machinations that created the system bringing potable water to a desert city that probably should never have been built. (Although, curiously, Towne’s murder victim, Hollis Mulwray, is a bit of a populist, something his historical progenitor William Mulholland never was.) Towne, one of the era’s most prominent and respected script doctors (Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather, The Parallax View, The Missouri Breaks, Heaven Can Wait, Marathon Man, Reds) and sole author writer of striking adaptations (The Last Detail) and originals (Shampoo) used the hard-boiled detective format as a prism through which to refract some of the more sordid details of American public life, and as such Chinatown is very much a product of its post-Nixonian time. The basic, Chadleresque elements are there: The mysterious woman who may or may not be a femme fatale (in fact, the movie has two of them), the shadowy case that reveals itself as more complex and dangerous than the private dick at first surmises, the unexpected peril, and the deadly omnipresence of wealthy, powerful men. The cynical public overlay — the hoodwinking of a city’s citizens by murderous oligarchs — perfectly suited mid-’70s America (and may have limited the picture’s popularity) but should not be considered mere revisionist window-dressing; it’s at the rotten core of Towne’s vision, and that of the movie’s inspired director, Roman Polanski.

Chinatown - Huston, Nicholson

Take, for example, this exchange between the rich and powerful Noah Cross (John Huston) and the detective, J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), whose name Cross repeatedly mispronounces as “Gitts”:

Jake Gittes: How much are you worth?
Noah Cross: I have no idea. How much do you want?
Jake Gittes: I just wanna 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. Gitts! The future.

That sort of dialogue is a mainstay in the work of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Ross MacDonald, but until the collapse of the Production Code was seldom heard in an American movie. And there is more in that final statement of truth than is contained in a hundred “tough” detective pictures of the alleged “Golden Age.”

Towne and Polanski are also artful and canny in their recurrent motifs: Watches, binoculars, camera lenses and other reflective surfaces (most definitely including water) are continually, although not obtrusively, in evidence throughout Chinatown, and that many of these items are the useful appurtenances of the detective’s trade is not incidental. John A. Alonzo’s lustrous cinematography embraces both the dark and the light; indeed, his evocation of 1937 L.A. is cheerfully sun-drenched, the colors both muted and shiny. The picture is among the most beautifully shot and elegantly edited (by Sam O’Steen) of its time, and its evocative sets by Richard Sylbert and exquisite costumes by his sister-in-law Anthea Sylbert are beyond praise. Whatever may be said of Polanski personally — it was only four years after Chinatown‘s release that he infamously seduced a 13-year old girl (in Nicholson’s home) and fled the country to avoid a potential prison term — his value as a filmmaker has seldom been as strongly in evidence as in this characteristically troubling evocation of moral rot. (Ironic, that.) His control of the material, and his unerring eye for the small details that illuminate life, are total, and make their own strong argument in favor of that screenwriter’s despair, the ludicrously and ignorantly misapplied auteur theory.

Chinatown - Dunaway, Nicholson

Nicholson, whose hair loss was increasingly obvious during this period (and is accentuated by the center-parted, patent-leather style he sports as Gittes) has nevertheless seldom looked as beautiful on film as he does here, his physical allure interestingly at odds with the cruder aspects of the character. Gittes is a man less of contradictions than of surfaces (that word again): He affects a cool, suave urbanity with his clients and quarries, but it’s mere patina. The (deliberately un-explained) events of his past, and the loss he incurred through his own misguided chivalry, have both hardened and inflamed him; when he explodes in anger, you sense that passion as something he is at great pains to tamp down, and when it erupts, it’s terrifying.

Chinatown - Nicholson, Dunaway

“My sister… my daughter.”

As the thickly veiled maelstrom at Chinatown‘s center, Faye Dunaway is equally as taut, and as roiled, beneath a chilly exterior. Seldom has this problematic actress’s classical beauty been so pronounced, or so perfectly used. Dunaway uses the character’s reticence as both a shield and a tantalizing clue, such as with her intermittent stutter, most prominent when she says, “my f — my father.” When her manufactured stoicism cracks and her emotionalism breaks through, the effect is devastating. Far more than her award-winning turn in Paddy Chayefsky’s Network, in which she is both funny and frightening but is essentially embodying a satirical cartoon, Evelyn Mulwray is Dunaway’s master performance.

John Huston, still very much a working filmmaker at the time of Chinatown‘s release (he was soon to mount his splendid dream project, The Man Who Would Be King) was a marvelous presence in the right role, usually one that called upon both his near-legendary charm and his underlying dangerousness. Orson Welles, so astute in his opinions of actors, got it right I think when he told Peter Bogdanovich that Huston had a certain “loony” quality that was “great in the right part.” Noah Cross is certainly that part. He embodies the languid venality, casual brutality and elegant murderousness that underlies all great fortunes, especially in America, and when he tells Nicholson that, “under the right circumstances, a man is capable of… anything,” you more than believe him. (Towne also gives him a line I suspect Billy Wilder would have been happy to have written: “Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”)

The supporting cast is an exceptionally rich one, with a clutch of superb character actors embodying the many “types” on which the detective story traditionally depends but making them vital, intrinsic to the enterprise: Perry Lopez as Gittes’ police force nemesis and uneasy informant; John Hillerman as a notably oily bureaucrat; Diane Ladd as a paid imposter; Roy Jenson as a thug with a badge; Dick Bakalyan as another of Gittes’ police rivals; Joe Mantell and Bruce Glover as his detective agency confederates; James Hong as the Mulwray’s poker-faced butler; Burt Young as an over-emotional client (“You can’t eat the blinds, Curly. I just had them installed on Wednesday.”) who is not above a little wife-beating; and, especially, Polanski himself as the terrifying little hood who cuts Gittes’ nose at the city reservoir in the movie’s most intense and unsettling sequence.

Chinatown - knife

Polanski commissioned the interesting Phillip Lambro, who composed an eerie, disturbing score, but ended up being less than enamored with the results after Bronislau Kaper, who had attended a preview, convinced him it hurt the picture. Jerry Goldsmith was then hired to compose a new one. It’s fascinating to compare the two scores, which thanks to a release on the now-defunct Perseverance label (which at the insistence of Paramount Pictures was titled Los Angeles, 1937: The Unused Score of a Film by Roman Polanski) we now can. Lambro captures the picture’s pervasive sense of underlying dis-ease, elegant social rot and increasing menace, and if his approach was less rapturous than Goldsmith’s, many of the tracks are similar in structure to what Goldsmith delivered. This is not to suggest that Goldsmith was guilty of plagiarism, merely that the two composers used approaches that, while similar, were separated by their respective artistic palettes. That Goldsmith’s was the greater talent, and that his gifts for both creating excitement and applying a lush romanticism were superior to Lambro’s, is evident, and proof that he was, ultimately, the right choice for the movie. His sultry saxophone-driven main theme became something of an instant classic, familiar even to those who had never seen the picture. (Although you can hear a sample of Lambro’s compositions on the movie’s official trailer.)

Oddly, Chinatown is misunderstood even by its champions, many of whom slap it with the ludicrous (and vastly ignorant) imprimatur of film noir when it is no such thing. Noirs, so-called, were a product purely of their time — roughly the 1940s and early 1950s — and of the exigencies imposed on the people who made what were often, and with the exception of such possible early examples as The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity (or even, at a stretch, Citizen Kane), low budget quickies whose makers devised ingenious lighting patterns to disguise cheap sets and threadbare amenities. That the shadowy look of these pictures enhanced their dark contours was merely a happy by-product, now seized on by ignoramuses as proof of genius. Explaining this to people who don’t get it is not unlike trying to convince them that the sexual slang term “gunsel” does not mean a cheap hood, and is just as tiring.

And, interestingly, Chinatown‘s deservedly lauded screenplay has been used by others to support their agendas, sometimes in complete opposition, and contradiction. The odious Syd Field for one held it up as a model of the effective scenario even as, in his disastrously influential book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, he urges potential scenarists to eschew all of Chinatown‘s strengths: Its nihilism, its complexity and its avoidance of happy endings. On the other end of the spectrum, Harlan Ellison cited it as a prime example of a director’s meddlesome intrusions ruining(!) a screenwriter’s work, in Polanksi’s revising Towne’s original climax — the very aspect of the picture that everyone remembers, and that gives the movie its overlay of nearly unbearable despair. Towne wrote an ending in which the Huston character is shot by his daughter, who rides off into the night with Gittes. Polanski, whose childhood during the War as a Jewish refugee was said to be the basis of Jerzy Kosinki’s harrowing novel The Painted Bird and whose wife and unborn child were hacked up by maniacs, knew that life is not a movie, and both his ending, and the now-famous (Polanksi-written) words that end the picture (“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”) are, I would argue, intrinsic to the movie’s continuing fascination; they’re a large part of what makes it a classic.*

How a man as bright as Ellison could, in his otherwise understandable desire to defend the screenwriter against unwarranted directorial interference, get that one so stunningly wrong is one of one of the great mysteries of modern life.


* Dunaway claims that it was her idea to have the shot that kills Evelyn go through her eye, a metaphor for her own Oedipal state, and that her make-up man designed the gruesome prosthesis used in the scene out of a fake nose once worn by Kim Darby’s double. Knowing Polanski’s sensibilities, that first claim seems highly unlikely.

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross

Chinatown poster

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