Monday, February 7, 2011

Chinatown (1974)

          Screenwriter Robert Towne has famously described his masterpiece Chinatown as a story about “the failure of good intentions,” and that cryptic quip says a lot about the film’s enduring power. Superficially a straightforward film noir about an adultery investigation that unravels a far-reaching conspiracy and also ghastly personal secrets, the picture is fundamentally a profound statement about the impossibility of finding definitive moral high ground. And though this provocative thematic material is unquestionably Towne’s creation, the product of a native Los Angeleno’s preoccupation with his hometown’s sordid past, director Roman Polanski delivers the narrative in his uniquely cynical voice, embellishing the tale with uncredited screenwriting contributions, ingenious camerawork, and even a tart supporting performance. It’s a perfect blending of two cinematic alchemists. The central character is L.A. private eye J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), an ex-cop who now earns an undignified living peering through peepholes so he can catch wayward husbands and wives in flagrante delicto.
          Through convoluted circumstances that only become clear as the masterfully organized film unspools, Gittes comes into the employ of Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), the beautiful but chilly wife of a high-ranking official in the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Partially through investigative skill, partially by dumb luck, and partially via sheer persistence, Gittes uncovers a scheme by Mulwray’s powerful father, Noah Cross (John Huston), to make money off the city’s insatiable thirst for water, and Gittes also uncovers shocking truths about the private lives of the Mulwray clan.
          The film’s haunting title refers to the idea that white cops keep a safe distance from internal conflicts in L.A.’s Chinatown district because they’re so ignorant of Chinese culture that they often stir up more trouble than they repair, simply by intruding where they don’t belong. This sad theme of irreparably twisted circumstances runs through every scene of Polanski’s deeply melancholy film. Whereas many lesser ’70s homages to classic film noir simply ape the saxophones-and-venetian-blinds surface of that venerable genre, Chinatown matches the surface plus the fatalistic foundation of noir; Chinatown then goes further still by using the trappings of noir to make an elegantly hopeless comment about the disconnectedness running through American society in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
          Towne won an Oscar for his work, and others on the team earned nominations for their equally excellent contributions: Dunaway and Nicholson got nods for their tragic portrayals, John A. Alonzo’s moody cinematography and Jerry Goldsmith’s elegiac score were recognized, and Polanski got a nom for his direction. Glaringly absent was recognition for Huston’s brief but unforgettable performance as heartless titan Cross. The way he intentionally mutilates the pronunciation of Gittes’ name, in that inimitably moist Huston growl, is one of the most vivid character details in any ’70s movie. Meditative and subtle, Chinatown is like the mystery it depicts: an enigma that becomes more fascinating and frightening each time it’s reexamined.

Chinatown: OUTTA SIGHT

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