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Non-Review Review: Chinatown

“You may think you know what’s you’re dealing with,” a character warns private detective Jack Gittes at one point during Chinatown“but, believe me, you don’t.” Later on, Gittes confesses to his lover that, when he was a police officer working in Chinatown, his beat consisted of doing “as little as possible”, an anecdote that screenwriter Robert Towne reportedly heard from an officer who had actually served in Chinatown – rather than an officer involving himself in some sort of event that he couldn’t possibly comprehend, the police would actively disengage themselves from the community. That’s the core of the corruption at the heart of Polanski’s film – how little anyone actually knows about what is really happening, and how it’s easy to ignore these things rather than attempting to deal with them.

A nosey detective...

Chinatown is generally regarded as perhaps the last true noir film (though it’s certainly a debated and contested description) – I mean, sure, the genre has successors in films like L.A. Confidential or The Usual Suspects or Memento, but these are frequently described as “neo-noir”, a modern restyling of the genre. Perhaps part of the appeal of this classic is that it feels like one last effort in a beloved (but increasingly redundant) genre – there’s certainly a hint of nostalgia in both the setting and the casting of John Huston, the director of classic noir films like The Maltese Falcon. Chinatown feels like a living tribute, a graceful farewell to a type of film that is slowly dying out, as the riverbed becomes as dry and barren as the one that Gittes strolls across early in the movie.

Chinatown is, like all great noir films, a story about misdirection. It starts with an accusation of infidelity on the part of a local official before becoming a murder mystery and then evolves into a political conspiracy and a sordid family soap opera. Jake Gittis stumbles through this mess with the audience – by the end of the film, we’re just as lost as he is, unsure where our footing is or even where we started from. We’re embroiled in events which are explained by reference to even more seedy and disturbing facts – we’re like that officer in Chinatown, wondering if we would have been better to disengage rather than to find ourself trapped inside this horrible world.

Polanski follows the standard template for these types of films.  The story seems fairly straightforward and maybe even predictable when you explain it – Jake Gittes, a former police officer and private detective, is made a patsy in a larger scheme, and begins to peel away the layers with the help of the stoic and mysterious Evelyn Mulwray. However, the movie plays around with our expectations. Screenwriter Robert Towne has conceded that his original draft of the script wasn’t quite as defeatist and depressing as the finished film, but Polanski channels a lot of darkness through the camera – motivated by events outside the world of cinema. It’s this cynicism and downbeat approach which defines the film – noir asks us to accept a world where a good person (or anything resembling a good person) cannot win, and Polanski serves that up to us.

Every frame of the movie is rich with atmosphere. Atmosphere isn’t something provided with rich attention to detail (as the film’s sequel, The Two Jakes would learn), it’s something provided by a skilled hand behind the camera. Polanski’s disagreements with his actors (Nicholson and Dunaway in particular) are the stuff of cinematic legend, but he somehow manages to craft a film that manages to be incredibly dark despite mostly occurring in the California sunshine. The rich colours (the oranges growing, the water flowing) only serve to emphasise the fact that the world these characters inhabit is half-empty.

Towne’s script is good – maybe even great. It’s the little touches rather than the big picture which add to the film’s appeal. When a co-worker remarks that the subject of Gittes’ inquiries never even joked about other women, Gittes replies, “Maybe he takes it very seriously.” The script plays up the somewhat shadier aspects of nineteen thirties society – a world where Gittes will instruct his secretary to “go to the little girls’ room for a minute” while he trades dirty jokes with the boys, and where even the lead character wears his prejudices on its sleeve. The movie subtly hints at the sexism and racism of the time while never forcing its hand and never seeming to force the issue or dwell on it – unfortunately, the movie seems to say, this is an inherently broken world and there’s nothing that can be done about it.

"Are you sleeping with my daughter?"

I don’t subscribe to the view that Jake Gittes represents Jack Nicholson’s finest role on the silver screen. Perhaps the rather disappointing sequel plays into that, but I don’t think the movie allows Nicholson to shine in the way that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or The Shining or even As Good as it Gets did. That said, Nicholson turns in a great performance, perhaps demonstrating why he is one of the iconic leading men. There’s a quiet dignity to his snooping detective, that – when paired with Nicholson’s roguish “chance your arm” charm – makes Gittes quite an engaging character.

Dunaway is perhaps more impressive as the buttoned-down Miss Mulwray. She’s cagey and closed off, but we’re always aware of the fact she knows more than she will admit. The movie asks us to believe that she’s the femme fatale, something we’ve all grown up to believe was a necessary ingredient in a film like this, but it’s Dunaway’s performance which hints that there is something more to her character.

The production is top notch. It feels like I imagine thirties Los Angeles does, without relying too much on the clichés that one associates with the time period. Nobody speaks with that awkward forced accent and prohibition and gangsters aren’t the only basis of illicit activity. The screen drips with little period details. Each and every frame just oozes atmosphere. Crickets buzz at night, Polanski shows up as a creepy henchman and an orchestra is on hand for a subdued yet effectively sinister score.

Chinatown was originally imagined as the first in a trilogy to explore the social evolution of Los Angeles. Of course, real life would intervene and thing didn’t work out that way. Jack Nicholson would step behind the camera for the second film and the third film – while never actually made – formed the basis of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Of course, we don’t talk about Chinatown as part of a series or in the context of an overarching mythology. Maybe it’s for the best, and it certainly fits with the dark and dreary defeatist attitude of this film that there wasn’t a huge successful trilogy – but I can’t help but wonder how a trilogy about the evolution of Los Angeles might have looked if was originally developed as intended.

As it stands, Chinatown is a classic. If it represents a eulogy for the classic noir film, it is a fitting one, but even judged on its own merits it’s a fascinating portrayal of a world where good people lose on the hand they are dealt – where being right doesn’t exactly count for much. It’s a story about how difficult it is to sometimes discern what is really going on – and, more importantly, what is actually important – in the midst of everything.

“Forget it, Jake,” the ridiculously over-quoted line assures the lead, “it’s Chinatown.”

However, haunting and beautiful and terrifying, Chinatown is unforgettable.

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