I occasionally like to visit the movies that one is "supposed" to watch. By supposed I mean they are the ones that will be shown in a film class to demonstrate how a script should be written or what the perfect direction looks like, or to showcase the talents of specific actors. There is usually history behind the movie and some element that elevates it beyond the normal popcorn fare. It's the cinematic equivalent of William Shakespeare or Charles Dickens - the reputation, and the historic significance, far outweighs any knowledge of what the movie actually is.
I often don't review such films because, like in many examples of when art crosses into academia, what is considered a true classic or the perfect example of an art form in cinema is rarely a genre film. Still, there are films, like Chinatown and The Godfather that cross into that realm, and little is said about their genre leanings other than it "puts them in a different category" or "elevates" them beyond the confines of the genre. Basically, it is any excuse possible to avoid having to admit liking a film that, in lesser hands, would be summarily dismissed. For instance, a good portion of Shakespeare's work that was not epic historical plays, particularly early on, were revenge tragedies, which is basically a 500-year-old equivalent of today's b-movies. However, no one is going to call Titus Andronicus garbage due to whose name is attached.
Chinatown does not elevate the detective story or bring it to another level. Instead, it happily rests within the film noir genre, focusing on a flawed detective hero and setting its action in 1937 Los Angeles. It may be in the naturalistic style of the 1970s rather than the moody black and white of the 1940s, but it replaces the physical shadows for those found in the human psyche, with writer Robert Towne giving us a great tribute to a much-loved genre without making it self-referential or parody.
J. J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is an ex-cop turned private detective in Los Angeles. He specializes in matrimonial work, which means gathering proof that that one or another person in a relationship is having an affair. One day a woman (Diane Ladd), claiming to be the wife of Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), the deputy chief of L.A.'s Water and Power, hires Gittes to do just that and, after days of pursuing Mulwray, his office is able to get pictures of him with a young girl (Belinda Palmer). Gittes turns the pictures over to Mrs. Mulwray, only to find the next day that they are front page news, and that the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) is planning to sue him. This is complicated when Hollis Mulwray is found dead of a supposed accident.
Gittes does not believe it is an accident, as Mulwray's former partner Noah Cross (John Huston) seems to have still been in contact with the deceased man prior to his death. In addition Gittes's investigation is hampered by a number of shady characters that don't seem like the normal people that Water and Power would be working with. As Gittes peels back the layers he finds a number of hidden secrets involving the Cross family, as well a conspiracy that could rock the city of Los Angeles.
The problem with film noir from the past was that most of the classic films, such as The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon, were made at a time when certain endings were guaranteed. The Hays Code dictated that the bad guys would always lose in the end, something that became a much-parodied part of old Hollywood films. Foreign films were often much more ambiguous in their endings, with no guarantee that the good guy would live, justice would be served or that the bad guy would ever get their comeuppance. American films pretty much were guaranteed, by law, to have a happy ending. Those that didn't often were absent a good versus evil storyline.
The 1970s were not a decade in which one would expect happy endings. The Hays Code, as it began to be regarded more and more as an affront to the First Amendment, began to lose its teeth in the late 1950s and by the late 1960s was replaced by MPAA ratings, which themselves have had their share of problems. Still, it seemed that they were looser prior to the 1980s, allowing films like Chinatown to explore taboo subjects and have endings that are more realistic. Again, rather than present us actual shadows, the more Gittes learns about the case he is involved in, as well as the people involved, the darker it becomes as he realizes the depths that people will go to in order to make money, and what they are willing to do with that money when they have it in hand.
This is one of Jack Nicholson's finest performances, in large part because he gets to act like a normal, conflicted human being. Too often after The Shining everyone wanted crazy Jack, forgetting that the man was considered a great actor not because he could scare the crap out of people but because he felt like an everyman, and he made his roles believable. He keeps a tough-guy veneer through a good part of the film, despite being pummeled a number of times, but his sense of loss is palpable at the end. Faye Dunaway is also quite good, again initially being cast in the femme fatale role that propelled the story in most of the classics, only to have that convention broken down toward the end as well. John Huston shows up briefly, and effectively, as Noah Cross, and plays the role in a downright creepy fashion.
While Roman Polanski is often praised for his direction, I have often found often his films to be good despite of him. Rosemary's Baby, for instance, hinges on the performance of Sharon Tate and the fact that Polanski chose to stick so closely to Ira Levin's novel. I have never felt that Polanski has the operatic style of Francis Ford Coppola, the photographic style of Stanley Kubrick nor the gritty realistic quality of Martin Scorsese, yet he is often included with them. While I find his filming technics serviceable, one thing he is good at is pacing. He knows how to create a certain rhythm with a movie, and his best films get into a groove that the audience can't, and doesn't want to, get out of until the end. Robert Towne's script for Chinatown has often been called "perfect." It comes close, but does have some parts where it goes hilariously off the rails, like in the slapping scene. What should be a heart-wrenching dramatic turn at first is almost laughable in the way that it is handled. I think the script is less an example of perfection, and more an example of how a director who works with the screenwriter can make a movie better than what was originally intended.
In the end, despite the fact that Chinatown has been put on a pedestal, the movie is at its heart a great detective story. It takes what begins as a simple premise and builds to a conclusion that, while it may not be satisfying to everyone, is at least plausible despite all its disturbing insinuations.
Time: 130 minutes
Starring: Jack Nichols, Faye Dunaway, John Huston
Director: Roman Polanski