The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Chinatown (1974/USA/dir. Roman Polanski) appeared at #45 on my original list.
What it is • It opens with old-fashioned credits, title cards with a classical font over an abstract sepia-toned background. Though made in the seventies, the film immediately pulls us back to the forties, the era of film noir, or perhaps even further into the thirties, when Chinatown is set. Then the first shot reveals something we never could have seen in actual Golden Age Hollywood: fairly graphic black-and-white photos of an extramarital sexual tryst. Detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) carefully watches a cuckolded husband (Burt Young) flip through the sordid stills and immediately three important aims are achieved: we learn about Jake's dirty business, a relatively honest living in a crooked town; we meet a very minor character whose story purpose will pay off later; and we realize something important - this film will lure us in with nostalgia, but its outlook is clear-eyed and unsentimental. Like three of the last five films on the list, and like the film I am immersed in at the time of this writing (the not-so-unrelated O.J.: Made in America), Chinatown takes place in - and is very much about - Los Angeles. Screenwriter Robert Towne was eager to convey his view of William Mulholland's real-life water scheme via the fictionalized story of Noah Cross (John Huston), a charismatic, deeply corrupt businessman who may be involved in diverting water from farmland so that drought-affected L.A. will have to push outward to the Pacific. Some people stand to make a killing on real estate - even if a few other people have to be killed for getting in the way. As Gittes investigates, he falls in love with a mysterious, possibly dangerous young widow (Faye Dunaway) and discovers dark secrets both societal and personal.
Why I like it •
The first thing to note about Chinatown is how effectively it reels you in through sheer narrative grace. This is one of the most celebrated screenplays of all time, a masterclass of witty dialogue, clever plotting, convincing characterization, and gripping mystery. Yet it was Polanski who put the final stamp on the film, ensuring its haunting legacy when he changed the scripted ending to something far fouler. Towne complained for years about what he saw as unnecessary pessimism, but in addition to feeling right the ending does something quite honest and important. It foregrounds the brutality of the domestic trauma instead of reducing it to a metaphor for the "larger" tragedy of city corruption, as Towne originally intended. Like another film that appeared recently on this list, Chinatown initially presents its familial violations as subservient to a drama about the entire community, before pulling the rug out from under us with a shocking, stomach-churning twist, followed by an ending drenched in vicious, unredeemed violence. Both narrative pivots foreground the raw horror of the personal, transcending (if also illuminating) the political. Polanski, who within a few years would prove himself to be a monster much like Noah Cross, does not let his characters or viewers off the hook, in the process transforming this film from an excellent, polished production into a far more profound tragedy. The final minutes provide a necessary gut-punch, dragging the film's gloss through the gutter.
More from me • A clip from Chinatown appears at 2:26 in "Pray For Us Sinners", a chapter in my "32 Days of Movies" video clip series. I also reviewed the documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired in light of Polanski's (temporary) capture in 2009, including discussion of Chinatown and its relationship to the director's subsequent crime.
How you can see it • Chinatown is available on blu-ray/DVD from Netflix and for digital rental or purchase on these sites.
What do you think? • Among other neo-noirs - even among original noirs - how do you think Chinatown holds up? Do you think Towne or Polanski was correct in their assumptions about the ending? Have you seen the 1990 sequel The Two Jakes and if so, do you feel it adds anything to Chinatown's legacy?
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Yesterday: The Big Lebowski (#46)
Tomorrow: Out 1 (#44)