"Chinatown" (Roman Polanski, 1974)
As opposed to the whimsy of "The Third Man," "Chinatown" is a film of deadly earnest, a perfect example of what is termed "film noir"-which means, in melodramatic terms "when the streets are dark with something more than night," usually the feeling of purveying evil. That is certainly there in "Chinatown," although it would be hard to pin that evil on the influence of the film's all-encompassing villain, or the influence of its director, Roman Polanski, who incidentally played that strangely accented "midget" with a knife you heard in that tape segment.* Polanski shaped this film into a first-rate thriller, even more, into the best film coming out of a major studio in 1974, deserving of every Oscar that "The Godfather Part II" won that year.** As with most of these films, each and every performance is perfectly played from the starring performances of Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston and John Hillerman, down to a lowly sign painter.***
Gittes: Hello Claude. Where'dja get the midget?
Midget: Yer a nosey fellow, kitty-kat, huh? Ya know what happens to nosey fellas, huh? No? Wanna guess? Huh? No? (slices Gittes' nose). Next time you lose the whole thing. Cut it off and feed it to my goldfish. Understand? Understand?!
Mulvehill: Tell 'im you understand, Gittes.
Gittes: I unnerstand!
Chinatown--a section of Los Angeles inhabited mostly by Asian-Americans due to a suppression of their people.
Chinatown--the former beat of two L.A. patrolmen, J.J. Gittes and Lou Escobar; a beat they think in "bad luck" for "you can't always tell what's going on."
Chinatown--the symbol of all evil to Jake Gittes, private detective, for it reminds him of his own tragic failures.
Jake Gittes is hired by a Mrs. Mul'-wray to investigate her "philandering" husband. But as Jake investigates, he realizes that Mr. Mul-wray' is not what he seems, Mrs. Mul'-wray is not what she seems, and Jake finds himself investigating a larger scandal, one encompassing city-wide fraud and personal tragedy. Jake knows all the moves he is supposed to make while investigating--tailing, picking up clues, following them to the next step--and the whole way, he thinks he has the whole case going smoothly. But he doesn't. It is much too big for him to stop. He ignores those little details that he, and we, only can remember later. And Jake Gittes, when the case is over, relives a tragic part of his past, and can only take consolation in the caring words of an associate--"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."
The ending of "Chinatown" is a complete reversal of what the film had, supposedly, been leading up to. It will undoubtedly shock and disappoint you. Some critics have said it is ill-considered and "tacked on." But it isn't. It is perfect for the film that Roman Polanski made, and it makes the experience of viewing "Chinatown" that much more resonant.
Broadcast on KCMU-FM November 11th and 12th, 1975.
Some revisions should be made to this (if I were making revisions). I was being too much of a "nanny" critic, telling people how they should feel. And I kind of blew any surprise that ending SHOULD have by telling an audience to expect it.
And "Chinatown" isn't "the symbol of all evil" for Gittes. That's giving him too much thought of the place. It's just a place to be avoided. Bad luck. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice--
And Walsh's words to Gittes aren't "caring," he says it because there's nothing more to say. "Get over it. What'd you expect?"
I've written about "Chinatown" more extensively here. But there's more to say. Reading a nearly final script by Towne of this film tells you that Polanski brought more sense of moral rage to the film (interesting, for Polanski). Evil is evil. Good is good. I've always "gotten" the sense that Hollis Mulwray is not only a good man, but practically a saint. There are things implied in Polanski's direction that point even further in that thought. But, in Towne's screenplay, more sympathy is ascribed to the villain. He is not pure evil as the film would have him appear. He is merely weak, and anything can happen in a moment of weakness. Evelyn Mulwray is also less of a victim in that screenplay, though her actions are seen to be a trifle hysterical. There are no easy answers in Towne's early screenplay. Things are not black and white, merely shades of gray. And given Polanski's history--the concentration camps, and his wife, Sharon Tate's grisly murder at the hands of the Manson gang, and his own past films, one would see why he'd tilt it to the side of the devils.
In 1991, "Chinatown" became a part of the National Film Registry.
* Yeah--you don't get the taped segment. Sorry. The transcript will have to do. I've always loved the way Nicholson drawled out "Hello, Claude. Where'dja git the midgit?" It runs a close second to my favorite Nicholson line, from "Five Easy Pieces:" "Don't tell me 'bout the GOOD life, Eldon, 'cuz it makes me PUKE!"
** Although "The Godfather, Part II" also deserved every Oscar it won. Except maybe score. And I don't think that's hyperbole saying the best film coming out of a major studio that year. That's also due to its Executive Producer, the extremely savvy producer Robert Evans. Say what you will about Evans, but under his stewardship, Paramount could not be topped as the dominant movie studio in Hollywood. Look at 'em now, folks.
*** Actually, "Chinatown" is one of the few films where every performance is perfect. And that sign painter--it's one of my favorite bits in movies, because it rings so true. The guy's watching his assistant scrape the name off a door, and that scrape gets detective Gittes to investigate, opening the door. The painters look up at Gittes, who realizing what it is, shuts the door...and AS IT'S CLOSING, the guy in charge replaces his nodding greeting with a rueful shake of his head "Happens every time." Of course it does. But it's the sort of detail "Chinatown" is full of, as so few movies are.