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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Chinatown (1974)

Director: Roman Polanski
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston

“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” We never know exactly what Chinatown means to Jake, nor do we need to. By the time the film reaches its conclusion, we know enough to know that Chinatown stands for all that is corrupt, brutal and unforgiving in the world. Chinatown draws upon the archetypes of detective noir in both its literary and film forms but subverts many of the classic tropes, breaking free to create something distinct in itself. Here we have a hero who isn’t quite at home in his rough and tumble world, a femme fatale who isn’t as “fatale” as she seems, and an ending which leaves a distinctly bad taste in the mouth. It was, and remains, something different, something new, and something wonderful.

Jack Nicholson stars as Jake Gittes, a private detective who deals mostly in catching errant husbands and wives in the act. When one such target - Hollis Mulwray - turns up dead and Jake discovers that the woman who hired him, whom he believed to be Mrs. Mulwray, was a fraud, he’s plunged into a mystery involving hidden identities, family secrets, municipal corruption and a plot to make millions by diverting water out of Los Angeles. Ultimately, Chinatown isn’t just one mystery, but several woven together, connected by a few key players. One such player is the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), with whom Jake quickly becomes enthralled even as it becomes increasingly obvious that there’s a lot she’s not telling him. By the time she gets to her final confession (“My sister! My daughter!”), it’s easy to understand why Jake doesn’t quite believe her and why he can’t be too sure of anything anymore. It’s Chinatown, a place that’s foreign to Jake’s understanding, where up is down, black is white, and dead men have just bought land that’s about to be worth millions.

Chinatown sets itself apart from traditional detective noir in several ways, most notably through the character of Jake himself. Unlike most screen detectives, Jake doesn’t quite seem to fit his role. There’s a distinct sense about him that he finds his job distasteful, that he doesn’t relish digging around in other people’s dirt. In one scene he’s called to account for some scandalous photos he’s taken and given over to the papers. He jumps up defensively in counter-attack, which is in contrast to detectives of the type you’d see played by Bogart or Mitchum, who would let such a remark roll off their backs with the briefest of witty remarks.

Further distancing Jake from the prototypical detective is the way that he fits into the narrative. By nature of the genre, no screen detective is really in control of the story, but most stories stack the balance of power in the favour of the detective so that you know that, ultimately, the guy is smarter, tougher and luckier than everyone else and will come out of it more or less in tact. Not here. Jake is at the mercy of the story, constantly being knocked around and always in danger. And in the end, there’s no relief for him, no satisfaction for a job well done, no knowledge that justice has been done, no girl, only remorse, bitterness and guilt. Few films are as pitiless to their protagonists as this one, which is perhaps why is seems so fitting that the character who cuts Jake up is played by director Roman Polanski.

Like Jake, Evelyn is a character who breaks free of the archetypes of the genre while also being firmly rooted in that genre. Her entry into the narrative is straight out of the classical story, the femme fatale walking into the detective’s office. But Evelyn is a femme fatale in only the broadest terms because she isn’t actually out to trap Jake or anyone else, but rather her desire is to save someone by ensuring that their identity and whereabouts are kept secret. She’s playing Jake to an extent, keeping him close so that he doesn’t get too close to the truth, but I’ve always thought that her intentions towards him were basically sincere. That she likes him and wants a relationship with him, but has to take care of business first. But his inability to believe that, his inability to take his own advice in the film’s opening scene and “let sleeping dogs lie,” will ultimately undo them both.

As the two leads, Nicholson and Dunaway are superb and play wonderfully off of each other, never quite relaxing in each other’s presence, as if always on edge waiting for the other to slip. Appropriately, given the genre, John Huston appears as Evelyn’s father, a quietly menacing man who informs Jake that "Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” He looms here larger than life, seeming to occupy the entire screen with his presence. When Evelyn shoots him and it has little effect, it’s hardly surprising. He’s more than just a man, he’s a symbol of all that’s corrupt and wrong with society, he’s the epitome of “Chinatown,” and will carry on long after everyone around him as been destroyed.

This fatalist view of the world dominates the film so that this story which takes place in sunny California (with much of the action taking place in the daytime), seems darker than it literally is. The contrast of the mystery/noir elements to the lightness of the mis en scene further emphasises how disordered is this world that we’re seeing. The final scene takes place at night, the setting fitting the darkness of the tone. But by then, of course, we understand: it’s Chinatown.


Joseph said...

"a femme fatale who isn’t as “fatale” as she seems"

Well said. Chinatown is a film that didn't like when I first watched it years ago, but after watching it again a few times for film classes (especially screen writing), I grew to truly appreciate it.

One of my favorite scenes is when Jake gets the real estate information. Priceless.

And Roman Polanski has a great bit in the film.

Norma Desmond said...

Polanski's is definitely one of the better director cameos I've ever seen.