Although “Noir” is a style that was prevalent from World War II to the ’50s, there have been ample examples of “neo-noir;” hundreds, I would expect. But I don’t think there’s any finer than Chinatown, both as an example of classic noir and as a great film. It was released 40 years ago this week (in a bit of mind-fucking, it has been longer from the release of the film until now that it was from the events of the film to the release).
When us older people maintain that the 1970s was the best decade for film (and it was, there should be no argument) here is an example. Roman Polanski, who despite his peccadilloes is a great director, was basically left on his own for this film, as were so many great young directors of the time. He was making an homage to a certain type of film, but it was very adult, very uncompromising, and while he had to argue to give it the unhappy ending it had at least he got his way.
The film began as a script by Robert Towne (he would win the only Oscar the film would win), who turned down a chance to write The Great Gatsby for Robert Evans; Evans made this instead. It was written for Jack Nicholson, who hadn’t yet cemented his status as leading man; this film would do it. He and Polanski had been longing to do a film together, and despite having to come back to California only a few years after the murder of his wife, Polanski did the film.
A deliberate throwback, Chinatown is a film that follows the rules yet seems perfectly fresh, even today. It has many elements in common with a host of other private eye films. Nicholson is Jake Gittes, who specializes in taking photographs proving infidelity. He is hired by the wife of the water commissioner to prove he’s running around. Only when he later meets a woman who is the actual wife and the commissioner ends up dead does Gittes realize he’s in a far bigger situation.
Towne channels Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett in his private eye trappings. Gittes is a knight errant–he’s duplicitous, but has a code. He comes across a menagerie of thugs and villains, including Polanski himself who slices Gittes’ nostril (the wounding of the hero is a common trope in both the Western and the private eye film, as is the vicious beating he will later take). But most villainous is Noah Cross (John Huston), who used to own the water department and is now working a scam to send water to the dry orange valleys of the northwest, after having bought up the land at a dirt cheap price.
Of course there is a femme fatale, with Faye Dunaway as Mrs. Mulwray. But she is not a scheming black widow in the usual sense. Her motives are purest of all, taking care of an innocent young woman.
Chinatown also has an enormous literary quality, and though it isn’t based on a novel it seems like it is. The title itself, as well as being the location of the climax of the film, is a metaphor for the dark side of humanity, a place where Nicholson had some sort of tragedy, which remains unspoken. “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown,” the last line spoken, has come to be an appropriate response for any condition that is beyond human control. Chinatown, in this sense, is the cruel hand of fate.
Unlike classic noir, Chinatown was shot in color, and since it’s Los Angeles, often in very bright sunshine. But there is evil under the sun, in the dry river beds and dusty orange groves. If Polanski doesn’t use shadow, he uses excellent framing, such as when Nicholson, his back to us in the background, reveals information to Huston, who is in the foreground, facing us. Clearly Huston had not realized the extent of the information Nicholson had, and his face, though hardly moving, registers this.
There are also numerous instances of Towne’s superior dialogue. It’s easy to see he wrote it for Nicholson, as it is not much a stretch for him. “Don’t eat the Venetian blinds, we just had them installed on Wednesday,” is one of his first, to “I almost lost my nose. I like it. I like breathing through it.” When he and Dunaway visit a nursing home and pretend they have an aged father, you can almost see Randle P. McMurphy.
Also, there is the part of Noah Cross. What a combination of writing and acting. Huston plays the banality of evil, a courtly gent who is nonetheless evil to the core (and purposely mispronounces Gittes’ names as “Gitts”). I love a scene late in the film when Nicholson asks him how much he’s worth, and Huston says, “I have no idea.” More than ten million? A smile, and “Oh my, yes.” But more chilling is when Nicholson confronts Huston with the knowledge that he raped his own daughter. “You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of ANYTHING.”
If you haven’t seen Chinatown, what are you waiting for?