Tuesday, April 19, 2016
Noir Time! #5: Chinatown (1974)
Well here it is. My favorite neo noir ever, and a film that is without question in my top 5 favorite movies of all time. Chinatown is a master piece. I was planning on saving this one once I had a few of the classical era noirs down, in order to highlight the differences between the old and the new, but with Too Late coming out and blowing me away, I kind of already got into what makes a neo noir different from a regular noir. I think it also serves this 'Noir Time!' editorial better to jump around between older and newer noirs rather than front loading all the classics and being stuck with only neo noirs to talk about. But anyways. I don't think I'll be able to satisfy myself with what I write here about Chinatown. I can go on for days and I'll still miss an aspect of this movie that makes it amazing. But I'll try my best to coherently summarize why this is an all time great film.
Chinatown follows private detective Jake Gitties (Jack Nichelson) in 1939 Los Angeles, as he's hired by a mysterious Evelyn Mulwray to tail her husband Hollis because she believes he's cheating on her. Upon tailing Hollis, Jake finds out that he's tied to the major water and aqueduct project that would bring in tons of water to the city of Los Angeles, stealing it from the nearby valley. At a hearing, he finds that Hollis is against this idea, but most of the city is pushing for the measure to pass. As the day goes on Jake does in fact catch Hollis sharing a boat in Echo Park with another woman. When he returns to the office to share his findings, anther woman is there claiming that she's the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunnaway), and that he was hired by an imposter. This causes Jake to poke around even further, and a huge conspiracy unfolds as he uncovers more and more about the Mulwray's and the controversial water project. The underdog aspect of this movie that really sets it apart from other films that try and do this (cough cough L.A. Confidential) is its atmosphere and tone. This feels like a Noir from the 40s in color. Everything in the movie looks like 1939 Los Angeles as it was, as opposed to a blatant and polished set. I feel like director Roman Polanski took his cast and crew back in time and shot in the streets of 1930s L.A. They filmed on location too, no replicated sets, which is even more of a testament to their achievement. The music is perfect. The overall theme is a beautiful somber jazz ballad which is equated with many noirs. The score can be downright chilling at times, like when Jake is spying on Hollis, or he takes a trip to the reservoir at night. It makes you feel like some real shit is about to go down, but it never does (at least that's what you think). The locations of the film are so damn memorable and vivid too. Echo Park, the Orchard, the retirement home, the reservoir, the dried up river mysterious ethnic boy who's riding a horse and gives Jake 'Obi Wan-like' guidance. They're all so colorful and vivid in my head. It goes with what I said in the Too Late review that the bight and vivid colors contrast with the very dark and depressing tone this film has. I can't really describe what feeling that invokes but its a very prominent and profound one. All of that to me help completely justify the twist at the end.
Let me talk about twists for a sec. A twist in a film isn't something anyone can put into a movie to shock the viewer for the sake of memorability. A twist has to do more than that, it has to be earned. It's why M. Night Shyamalan has not found any critical success since the Sixth Sense. He throws them in for the sake of having them, and for making it a part of his brand , when in fact most of the time it's cheap confusing and groan-worthy. What I just said in the previous paragraph was basically that the aesthetics and tone alone were enough to justify any sort of twist at the end of this movie, which there is. But Chinatown is so amazing, it has multiple aspects for it's justification. [SPOILERS] So let's talk about that twist. Finding out that the girl Evelyn has been hiding her daughter that came from the rape of her father is an absolute mind bender. So first of all, the movie up until this reveal was playing it very straight, like a classic noir of the 40s. It was hitting the same beats of those films: the venerable private eye, the femme fetal, vivid imagery, a conspiracy that's bigger than any case the private eye has had before. So we as the viewer are expecting a similar experience. We think we kind of know along the lines what's going to happen, not necessarily plot details, but how the movie will resolve itself. We think we have it figured out. Because if you've been reading these pieces before, I always reiterate that these movies are not about the destination, they're about the journey. So we as the audience have our guard lowered going into the twist. When it happens, all of a sudden Polanski has flipped the concept of a noir on it's head. The destination of the film becomes just as crucial as the journey. And it's so shockingly out of left field that you feel sick to your stomach when it happens. And just when you think it's all done and your guard is all gone again, bam, the police shoot Evelyn in the head as she tries to escape with her daughter from her evil powerful and corrupted father Noah Cross. Your left gobsmacked (hi I'm from 1956) and you have the same disbelief, the not-knowing-what-to-think-or-feel feeling that Jake has at the end of the film. The famous line "forget it Jake, it's Chinatown" was the movie speaking to the audience in a meta way. So that's one reason why this twist is so good. There's more however
So the twist is very much justified, but it's not hollowly created for the sole reason of shocking the audience. There is some serious subtext behind it. Having an inbreed child really just emphasizes the corrupt personality of Noah Cross. He goes against everything that's considered morally right, and that includes breaking natures law of never molest or rape anyone that's related to you, especially your own daughter. He doesn't care though, he knows he can get away with it. And he does! He isn't arrested or dethroned or stripped of anything other than the life of his true daughter. This is just showing how the top of the top in this world are untouchable. No matter what you do, no matter what evidence you uncover, that 1% will never be affected. A truism that resonates all too familiarly today (see the Big Short). The death of Evelyn to me represents the death of the old, reputable Los Angeles. That's really what this movie is about in a sense. It was written by Robert Towns, but it's no coincidence that Roman Polanski chose to direct it. Polanski's wife was the victim of the Manson family murders back in the 60's, and was brutally killed in their Los Angeles home. Polanski, mortified, moved away from L.A., and almost didn't even direct the picture because of how scarred he was. I think in the end he really wanted to make a piece exposing how this city may seem all that, but it was built on the foundation of corruption. I think Kathrine Cross, daughter of Evelyn and Noah, represents what L.A. has become. It's the inbreed result of corruption, lies, and crime, yet is still somehow still beautiful on the exterior. In my opinion, this is the best twist ending of all time [END SPOILERS]
Let's talk a little more about L.A. because to me, it is a main character in this film. Other than the gorgeous set pieces, there is a lot to be said on behalf of the city. The overarching concern is water, and how the city needs more of it. It's highlighted that they're in a drought (when jake visits that dry river bed) and they're going to be needing to take water from near by areas, unfairly. These areas would be the valley and south of L.A. This was actually a concern for Los Angeles back in the day. If Mullholland (Mulwray hmmm) hadn't built a similar style aqueduct to Los Angeles, it is believed that L.A. would be no bigger of a town than Santa Barbara with a similar wealth distribution. Without the water, there would be no industry, less of an influx of immigrants seeking opportunity, and no upscaling the seemingly empty areas. So it's pretty clear why the movie chose to focus on water. Us Californians are in the middle of a huge drought, we're no strangers to the power of water. I also like the little touches on L.A. the film has. For example, as soon as Jake crashes his car in the orchard, he becomes less confident and more helpless. He needs his friend to give him a ride places, and that affected the outcome of the end of the film. This is the film's subtle way of saying that you need a car in Los Angeles to survive, similarly to Sunset Blvd.
As for the actual characters, our main leads are amongst the most memorable in all of Noir. Jack Nicholson absolutely transforms himself into private eye Jake Gittis. He has this confidence and swagger of any dic of the time, and you feel like you can trust his actions, that he knows what he's doing. As the movie goes on his confidence diminishes, and all of a sudden your safe net that you've placed on Jake begins to become nonexistent. You're at the mercy of the movie. Evelyn Mulwray is one of the most interesting femme fatals out there. She's not trying to cheat Jake, she's not after anything material like most other femmes. She just wants freedom. Freedom from her father, and to break away from her life that she's currently in. Her love for Jake is actually true, and what keeps her from fully realizing it is her insatiable thirst to start a new life. John Huston as Noah Cross is also an amazing cast. Huston is known as a legendary director and actor, and is famous for directing one of the first noirs the Maltese Falcon. It's safe to say his casting was deliberate. He's cocky, poignant, and just without any sort of moral fiber. He's amongst the best of the worst.
And that's all I really have to say about Chinatown. I know I'll be forgetting some points and facts about the film, and maybe I'll update this post as I remember them. The fact is this is one of the best movies ever made. Period. It does justice to the movement of noir, the old pulp novels from the likes of Raymond Chandler, the city of Los Angeles, and of course us the viewer. If you haven't seen it, I highly highly recommend that you do. If you have seen it, but only once or not in a while, I invite you to revisit it with these points in mind! It's one of those movies that never gets old to me, no matter how many times I watch it. It's a testament to masterful filmmaking. And to me, it's one of the very best Noir has to offer.