Tuesday, April 4

Good 70s Films: Chinatown

1974 Film Noir
From Paramount Pictures
Directed by Roman Polanski

Jack Nicholson
Faye Dunaway
John Huston
Perry Lopez
John Hillerman
Roy Jenson
Diane Ladd
Joe Mantell
Bruce Glover

In 1974, when everyone thought film noir was strictly a product from the 1940s and 1950s, along came Chinatown to not only breath some fresh air into the genre (some call it neo-noir) but to do it as well as anyone ever did it in any decade.  And to take it all to an even higher plane, this homage to noir is not of the camp variety. And when one thinks of those accomplished actors of noir, we must make room for Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston who are all at the top of their form.

One of the best things about this film is the ultra-smart, shadowy screenplay by Robert Towne.  Of course that should be the best thing about all films, but sadly we know that isn't the case. Before writing Chinatown, Towne's only credited screenplays were a Vincent Price horror flick in 1963, Villa Rides (1968) and The Last Detail (1973). He would go on to write The Yakuza (1974), Shampoo (1975) and The Firm (1993).  He seems to have been hired often as a script doctor and received no credit on a lengthy list of films, starting with Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

Former Paramount head honcho and C actor, Robert Evans, now stepping up with his first independent producing gig, wanted Towne to write a treatment of The Great Gatsby and offered him $175,000 to do it. Towne, however, didn't want to adapt anyone's work.  He asked Evans for $25,000 to write his own story and the producer agreed.  Towne only knew a few things for sure... it was to be a period detective story, it would deal with Los Angeles and his buddy Jack Nicholson was interested.

Towne began looking for something in L.A.'s history to bring some realism to what would turn out as a murder mystery.  Searching around in old newspapers he came across a Department of Water and Power scheme perpetuated by superintendent and chief engineer, William Mulholland.  The superintendent apparently diverted water from the lush Owens Valley to Los Angeles, which was little more than a get-rich-quick scheme, and to hell with Owens Valley and its inhabitants.

There's a notion afoot that Towne's story is a truthful version of what actually occurred with the L.A. water and that is not so.  For one thing, the time frame got moved to the 1930s for the film, and for another, many details are changed to render Towne's screenplay as nearly complete fiction.  His finished product would make Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and others proud.  Towne briefly considered Water and Power as his title but quickly changed it to the more exotic Chinatown.  Why the very word reeks of mystery.  

Towne's detective, Jake Gittes, loves his job. And he's doing well. He shares a snazzy office with his young, efficient secretary, Sophie, and two capable legmen (I can't be everywhere, he tells a client).  Jake wears three-piece suits and matching fedoras, likely gets shoe-shines at the corner, spends $20 on a bi-weekly haircut, probably jingles the change in his pockets as he jauntily makes his way along the streets of the city he adores.  He could never live anywhere else.  He loves the sunshine, the smell of orange blossoms, the carefree attitudes, living in the movie capital of the world, hobnobbing with more upscale folks all the time.

He's a bit nosy (more on that soon) which likely makes him good at his job and his specialty is divorce or at least trailing the marrieds who are suspected of straying. With this in mind, Evelyn Mulwray sashays into his office. She wants him to verify that her husband, the head of the Water and Power, is cheating.  Good enough for Gittes.  It's what he does.

In trailing Mulwray, he discovers a water-diverting scheme, although he's not so sure what he knows.  And somehow all he knows get in the papers and it brings another Evelyn Mulwray into his office. She is pissed that he has made a spectacle of her life. Despite the fact that Jake and his cohorts now realize they were duped into something by an imposter and are apologetic, the real Evelyn threatens to sue.

Gittes gets mad that he has been set-up and vows to get to the bottom of it.  As he prowls around, two things happen.  One is a couple of thugs approach him and one of them slices his nose giving Gittes a bandaged look for a number of scenes.  The other is that Mulwray has been murdered.

Polanski directs himself as the nose-slasher

Now Evelyn wants to actually hire Gittes to investigate who killed her husband.  Gittes isn't sure, of course, that Evelyn didn't do the job herself and is simply hiring him to throw off suspicion, but he's hooked now anyway. Interestingly, when originally written, Gittes was going to narrate the story (very film noir, of course) but then it was decided the audience would learn as Gittes does.  To aid in that effort, the camera is often looking over Nicholson's shoulder so we see what he sees.

The story gets more entangled as we learn of and meet Noah Cross, a wealthy ex-partner of the late Mr. Mulwray, and in the what-a-small-world sort of way, Evelyn's estranged father.  Gittes and we agree on at least one thing... there's some sinister business going on here.  It will involve deception, murder, incest and double-crossing and ending a place we never seen until the finale... Chinatown. The mayhem ends with a somewhat confusing but memorable line... forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown

Polanski was hired, perhaps, for the European sensibility he would bring to the film.  And while he certainly brought a certain stylishness to the whole affair, I have wondered if he watched some of the old film noirs... Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Out of the Past, Double Indemnity, Laura, Murder My Sweet, Crossfire... or in general, any crime dramas with Bogart, Mitchum, Powell or Mature.  This would be Polanski's last film made in America... or at least to date.

His work was so magnificent in this film that I tried to catch all of his subsequent European productions.  He certainly knows his way around murky... and I mean this as a compliment.  Not all moviemakers know their ways around a good mystery and unfortunately some of them proceed anyway. Polanski knows what he's doing in this genre.

Although I expect he wasn't always easy to get on with, others had their own issues, too. While he and Nicholson were friends and would remain so, they clashed to the extent that Polanski kicked in Nicholson's on-set trailer TV because the actor was too consumed with watching Lakers Games instead of emoting.

The director had a few rounds with producer Evans as well over their vision of how things were going.  Polanski and Towne had a difference over the ending.  Towne wanted a happy ending and Polanski didn't.  The director won and we got not only an unhappy ending but a deeply troubling one as well. And it's just as it should have been, too.  To turn this sordid tale into a gooey, typically American ending would have been so wrong and misinterpreted all that came before it. 

Polanski's biggest problems, and ones that were garnering a lot of media coverage, was his ongoing ruckus with Dunaway.  His first line after meeting her was apparently I hear you can be difficult.  A good start. Dunaway was famous for wanting to know what the motivation was.  She required of her directors their knowledge and opinions on every aspect of her characters. Noir anti-heroines could easily require some understanding, too, because they, like noir itself, are given to behavior one would want to question. Polanski apparently told her her salary is her motivation. She became highly agitated when he yanked a piece of hair from her head that wouldn't stay in place during filming.

I'm not out to defend either director or actress but I think this is an actress who has always been so full of herself and so many of her characters are oddballs, if not neurotic. But her best work comes when she plays characters who are just as odd as she appears to be. Evelyn Mulwray is one of those characters and this is one of the actress' best roles.

It is also one of Nicholson's best roles as well.  Some would say his very best.  Jake Gittes fit Nicholson like a glove.  He wore the clothes so well, he left his Nicholsonisms at home... that is to say all those funny asides and exaggerated facial expressions for which he would become famous... and just played Jake.  I adore the actor and think he has 10 or so performances that are simply brilliant and I'm not so sure that his touch of smarminess isn't what he brings to his best roles.  Nicholson doing a 1930s private dick seems pretty inspired to me.

His portrayal was worthy of an Oscar and it is good to note that he was nominated for one for this film and gross, gross, gross that 
Art Carney won for Harry and Tonto.  This is one of Oscar's forever-ongoing embarrassing moments.  If you think you might disagree, just watch Chinatown and Harry and Tonto back-to-back and send me a note.

Huston actually has a rather small part considering how important his character is to this story.  I dearly loved him as an actor. Who brought honey-coated, whiskey-throated, aristocratic courtliness to the screen better than John Huston?   His Noah Cross is the personification of evil and yet delivered with Huston's impeccable underplaying.  I love his rich voice but if he'd played Cross as a deaf-mute, I would have understood what he was saying.  He could have had a great career as an actor if he hadn't been so busy having a career as one of the greatest directors.

It didn't escape my attention that Huston came to appear in a noir-ish film as late as 1974 when in 1941 he directed and adapted the screenplay for what is generally considered to be the first-ever noir, The Maltese Falcon

Here's a cute one:  Cross/Huston says to Gittes/Nicholson at a cat-and-mouse luncheon (no, not on the plate, Siwy)... do you sleep with my daughter?  In real life, Nicholson, in fact, had just begun doing that very thing.

Hats off to Jerry Goldsmith for his now-legendary score.  It so perfectly complemented the time-frame of the story.  I swear that music could have been written in the 30s.  I could also never forget those squealing trumpets... what a great touch. Goldsmith managed to do it all in a mind-numbing 10 days after the original score was scrapped.  And to all those who worked on giving this film its look, a great hurrah... the cars... the clothes... the mood... the attitude... and Los Angeles.  Ya'll got her just right. 

One thing this story had that most noirs didn't is an ending that is sensible.  In most noirs the storyline is not always understandable and the complications often carry over to the finale. One starts watching Chinatown and thinking oh here we go with the confusion but then it just gets tidier and tidier... until that ending, that perfectly sad ending.

You might have guessed that I would consider this movie to be well beyond just a good 70s movie.  This is a great film... no matter the decade.  It's lovely to see how many best film lists Chinatown inhabits. 

Early in the writing process, Towne thought he would write a trilogy,  Because Chinatown was so critically-lauded and adored by a healthy chunk of the public, the second installment would be written and filmed as The Two Jakes (1990).  Nicholson not only reprised his nosy detective but he directed as well.  Unfortunately, it didn't fare so well and as a result, the third in the series was never done.  The Two Jakes often stands as an example of why sequels usually just don't work and certainly come nowhere close to the glitter bestowed upon the original.

Next posting:
She was destined for the 70s


  1. Much as I love CHINATOWN (isn't that Jerry Goldsmith score fantastic) I never wanted to see THE TWO JAKES. CHINATOWN though is as much Faye's film as Jack's - her Evelyn Mulwray is the heart of the film, and was John Huston ever more malignant - as an actor. Its a movie one has to savour every couple of years. I would have given Faye the Oscar for this and not for NETWORK.

  2. Hey, nice hearing from you again! I do agree her character was the heart of the film... one way or the other, it's all about Evelyn. Savoring the film every couple of years is a fine idea indeed.