Sunday, June 15, 2008

Don't Make a Scene: Chinatown

The Set-up: Clues are everywhere. "Applecore." Jasper Lamar Crabb. Midnight visits to timed run-off's in the middle of a drought. "Middle of a drought and the water commissioner drowns. Only in L.A., huh?" Clues are everywhere. But you have to pay attention to the time-line, too. And you have to trust your instincts, as Jake Gittes does. Trouble is, Gittes' instincts don't always produce results that are, shall we say, constructive. He's a private eye specializing in matrimonial work--that is, splitting up matrimony--and he does a respectable business with unrespectable clients using his unrespectable ethics. This time, Gittes has a big fish on the line, and he knows it's going to lead someplace real big. Now, he's interviewing the last link in the chain and the one with the most gold in it. Noah Cross has a biblical name (it's used a few times in other noirs, too) and he is a retired city-father for the Great City of Los Angeles. He used to own the water that feeds that oasis in the desert. And Gittes is trying to trap him in the only way he knows how--bluffing Cross into thinking he knows more than he does. But he's not seeing too well with all those dollar signs dancing in front of his eyes. Because clues abound in this conversation. There's the way Cross never gets Gittes' name right, and never apologizes for it when he's corrected. Because Noah Cross is powerful enough that he doesn't have to remember names or acknowledge his lessers.

And then there's the curious matter of the dog that barked in the night. Gittes holds this interview with a big hurking bandage on his nose, from when he got his left nostril slit for hanging around a water-dumping operation that nearly drowned him. But it's never mentioned in the entire conversation, nor in the movie by anyone but cops. Maybe it's because everybody assumes eveybody's got something to hide.

That's what this nice little lunch is about--both parties ask questions to find out what the other knows. Both parties play little games with each other--Cross making Gittes feel uncomfortable with the fish and the questions and the obfuscation and Gittes slamming Cross with little bits of information to cut through Cross' bull-shit. Cross even offers to hire Gittes to find the missing "element" to the story--that makes Gittes triple dipping on the same situation. Triple-dipping. Water again. It always comes back to water.

Director Polanski shoots this scene very sparely--never getting in the way of the actors, the camera movements following the players on the rare occasions that they move. Polanski only breaks up the two-shot on two occasions--to show the detail of the fish on Gittes' plate (I suspect that's a studio request), and when Cross offends Gittes by asking if he's sleeping with his daughter. At that point the two men become separated in their own singular frames, and for the first time, Gittes is dominant in the shot, being photographed from a low angle, Cross, looking up as if in supplication. Two-shots are the key. Even when Cross is being deliberately obtuse, and facing away from Gittes. The actors are the key to this, with their respective echoes to noir's past--Nicholson with his short Bogart stature, and Huston, who directed Bogart in one of the most famous noir "The Matese Falcon."* There's a lot of history going on in the background of this scene--both scenario-wise, and for the film-maker's.

Like Gittes, watch for clues. Don't be distracted--especially by that 1970's-era smog layer hanging off the horizon. You'll miss a big clue if you're looking at that.

The Story: Private Investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) has been following Hollis Mulwray, Los Angeles Head of Water and Power, for having an illicit affair at a time when he's opposing an important dam project. Then he turns up dead. His wife, Evelyn (Faye Dunaway), is not the same woman who hired Gittes to investigate the husband in the first place, and now threatens to sue him. Something's up, and Gittes doesn't like being played for a chump, or being threatened. He knows that there's a conspiracy to divert water in the middle of the night to play up Los Angeles' water shortage, and that Mulwray knew about it. Now, he's working for Evelyn to find out who murdered her husband, and his next stop is an interview with Noah Cross (John Huston), one of the city founders, and coincidentally, the father of his client and the former partner of the murdered man. Tight little family you got there. Things are gonna get tighter. Action!

Cross: Mr. Gits?
Gittes: Git-es.

Noah Cross: You've got a nasty reputation, Mr. Gits. I like that.
Jake Gittes (dubious): Thanks.
Cross: If you were a bank president that'd be one thing. But in your business, its admirable, and it's good advertising.
Gittes: It doesn't hurt.
Cross: It's why you attracted a client like my daughter.
Gittes: Probably.

Cross: But I'm surprised that you're still working for her--unless she's suddenly come up with another husband.
Gittes: No. She happens to think the last one was murdered.
Cross: How'd she get that idea?

Gittes: I think I gave it to her.

Cross: I hope you don't mind. I believe they should be served with the head.

Gittes: Fine. As long as you don't serve the chicken that way.
Cross: Tell me, what do the police say?
Gittes: They're calling it an accident.
Cross: Who's the investigating officer?
Gittes: Lou Escobar. He's a lieutenant.
Cross: You know him?
Gittes: Oh yeah.
Cross: Where from?
Gittes: We used to work together in Chinatown.
Cross: Would you call him a capable man?
Gittes: Very.
Cross: Honest?

Gittes: As far as it goes. 'Course he has to swim in the same water we all do.
Cross: 'Course, but you've no reason to think he's bungled the case.
Gittes: None.
Cross: That's too bad.
Gittes: Too bad?
Cross: Hmm. Disturbs me. Makes me think you're taking my daughter for a ride. Financially speaking, of course. What are you charging her?
Gittes (carefully): My usual fee. Plus a bonus if I get results.
Cross: Are you sleeping with her?

Cross: (Pause. Gittes gets annoyed.) Come, come, Mr. Gits, you don't have to think about that to remember, do ya?

Gittes: (getting up to leave) If you want an answer to that question, Mr. Cross, I'll put one of my men on the job. Good afternoon-- Cross: Mr. Gits...
Gittes: Git-tes.
Cross: Gittes. You're dealing with a disturbed woman who'd just lost her husband. I don't want her taken advantage of. Sit down.

Gittes: What for?
Cross: You may think you know what you're dealing with, but believe me, you don't. (This stops Gittes. He seems faintly amused by it.)

Cross: Why's that funny?

Gittes: It's what the district attorney used to tell me in Chinatown.
Cross: Yeah, Was he right? Exactly what do you know about me? Sit down.

Gittes: Mainly that you're rich and too respectable to want to get your name in the newspapers.

Cross: 'Course I'm respectable. I'm old. Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get repectable if they last long enough. I’ll double whatever your fee is, and pay $10,000 if you find Hollis’ girlfriend.
Gittes: Girlfriend?
Cross: Disappeared, hasn't she?

Gittes: Yeah?
Cross: Couldn't it be useful to talk to her?
Gittes: Maybe.
Cross: If Mulwray was murdered, she'd be one of the last to see him alive.
Gittes: When's the last time you saw Mulwray?

Cross starts to reply, then there's the sound of a mariachi band, and some men in formation clear the bluff about a hundred yards off. They are dressed like Spanish dons on horseback. For the most part they are fat in the saddle and pass along in disordered review to the music.
Cross: Sheriff's gold posse. Bunch of damn fools who pay $5,000 apiece toward the sheriff's re-election. I let 'em practice up out here.
Gittes: Yeah. Do you remember the last time you saw Mulwray?
Cross: At my age, you, uh, tend to forget.

Gittes: It was five days ago, outside the Pig 'n' Whistle, and you had one hell of an argument. I got the pictures in my office if that'll help you remember. What was the argument about?

Cross: My daughter.
Gittes: What about her?

Cross: Just find the girl, Mr. Gits. I happen to know that Hollis was fond of her, and I'd like to help her if I can.
Gittes: I had no idea that you and Hollis were that fond of one another.
Cross: Hollis Mulwray made this city. And he made me a fortune. We were a lot closer than Evelyn realized.
Gittes: If you wanna hire me, I still have to know what the argument was about.

Cross: My daughter’s a very jealous woman. I didn’t want her to find out about the girl.
Gittes: How did you find out?

Cross: I’ve still got a few teeth left in my head, and a few friends in town.
Gittes: Okay. I’ll have the secretary draw up the papers. Tell me, are you frightened for the girl, or what Evelyn might do to her.
Cross: Just find the girl.

Gittes: I’ll look into it, as soon as I’ve checked out some orange groves.
Cross: Orange groves?
Gittes: We’ll be in touch, Mr. Cross.


Words by Robert Towne

Pictures by John A. Alonzo and Roman Polanski

"Chinatown" is available on DVD from Paramount Home Video

Oh, and Happy Father's Day

* Next week's "Don't Make a Scene"

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