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Taken For Granted – Chinatown

January 17, 2017 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

Good movies don’t just happen. Even when they do, there’s no guarantee that the movie will be successful. It’s rare that a movie comes along that manages to connect with audiences in a way that it becomes assimilated into the broader culture. But some movies do. Many connect in the moment, and some manage to endure long after the moment. A select few become touchstones that always garner the same response:

“What do you mean you haven’t seen X?”

However, there’s a funny thing about movies that are that popular. When everybody has seen something, the reasons for its success often get lost in the conversation. When everyone agrees that something is good, it doesn’t tend to breed meaningful conversation. After all, most people who see movies can see that a movie is good, but can’t always explain why.

These movies are Taken For Granted. This column is dedication to analyzing beloved classic movies; assessing what works, acknowledging what doesn’t, and ultimately affirming that most of them really are as good as we think they are.

Chinatown

Wide Release Date: June 20, 1974
Directed By: Roman Polanksi
Written By: Robert Towne
Produced By: Robert Evans
Cinematography By: John A. Alonzo
Edited By: Sam O’Steen
Music By: Jerry Goldsmith
Production Company: Paramount-Penthouse, Long Road Productions and Robert Evans Company
Distributed By: Paramount Pictures
Starring:
Jack Nicholson as J.J. “Jake” Gittes
Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Cross Mulwray
John Huston as Noah Cross
Perry Lopez as Lt. Lou Escobar

What Do We All Know?

Chinatown was hardly a box office smash in 1974, but it was a critical darling that won Golden Globes for Drama, Leading Actor, Director and Screenplay (which also won an Academy Award). The film has since been considered one of the greatest of all time, selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1991 and ranking at #19 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years, 100 Films. Its screenplay is held up as one of the best in the craft, and many credit this as one of the film’s that established Jack Nicholson as a reliable leading man. Personally, it’s one of my favorite films of all time.

Chinatown is a successor to the heyday of film noir, and while it can be appreciated on its own merits, it’s best to know where the film comes from. I recommend watching The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity first to gain an understanding of American mystery films and their conventions. Also, in order to properly analyze Chinatown, this review will contain spoilers. You have been warned.

What Went Right?

After the opening credits wrap up, the first thing we see in the movie is a man rifling through pictures of another man and woman having sex in a park. He throws them into the air, looking down at Jack Nicholson’s character, who is seated at his desk. Distraught by the news, he throws the pictures in the air and twists the venetian blinds in his hands before being comforted in the most patronizing way by the private investigator. Barely a minute later, Jake Gittes is working on another case.

In many ways, this opening scene is everything this movie does right. The film uses visuals to tell it’s story more often than words, asking us to pay attention to each detail. After all, anyone with a cursory knowledge of P.I. stories can recognize the setting; even in color, this is classic film noir. But there are two important changes. One is in your face and there to see; the pictures let us know that sex will be a powerful presence in this film, and in a more explicit way than films from thirty years ago.

But a clever viewer will take note of the man twisting the venetian blinds. The blinds are a trademark of film noir, with their shadows creating striking imagery that subtly evokes prison bars on immoral characters. So why are they twisted? Because Chinatown turned convention on its head. And it did so because of emotion ruling out over logic. This is something that will happen in the narrative when Jake Gittes lets his heart get the better of him.

Jake Gittes is a character whose job requires detachment. He used to be an officer working for the District Attorney in Chinatown, but has turned to private investigation after a case resulted in someone he was trying to protect getting hurt. His struggle is deciding whether to “do as little as possible” in order to do his job well and come to terms with his life, or to care for people and try to help them. His brain tells him one thing, but we see early on that his heart is always going to win over his head. The role is one of Jack Nicholson’s best, a much more subdued performance than he is usually known for.

If Jake Gittes is every P.I. character ever, Evelyn Cross Mulwray is a subversion of another classic film trope; the femme fatale. Manipulative, sexually aggressive women are often the antagonists of film noir, and typically the lead character will fall for them before realizing that he has been played for a fool. For most of the movie, things seem to be playing as expected; after sleeping with Evelyn, Jake finds out she has been hiding something and confronts her. Rather than revealing Evelyn as the villain, this confrontation turns the narrative on its head by showing that she is, in the most tragic of ways, the victim.

Chinatown is a mystery movie, and can be hard to follow, but once you’ve seen the ending, foreshadowing is everywhere. The way Faye Dunaway hesitates whenever her character Evelyn has to mention her father. The brief moment when she falls asleep and hits her head on the horn. An early speech about “not making the same mistake twice”. It’s a masterful script with great acting and only gets better with multiple viewings. The finale is haunting and unforgiving, one of the best in film history. That’s the sign of a genuine classic.

What Went Wrong?

Chinatown, as a film, is nearly flawless. There’s one scene where Jake slaps Evelyn a few too many times, and the pacing is admittedly a bit slow. Also, it requires previous knowledge of genre conventions in order to really appreciate it. These are minor things, and overall the film has much more going for it than it had working against it. And yet, while considered by many film critics as one of the greats, it doesn’t seem to have the same reputation with the general public as its contemporaries like The Godfather or Rocky. Why is that?

It’s simple: Roman Polanski.

Director Roman Polanski is always going to be a controversial figure, as he is still a wanted man in the U.S. for fleeing a trial for the rape of a thirteen year old girl. While Samantha Geimer seems to be over the situation (“He said he did it, he pled guilty, he went to jail. I don’t know what people want from him.”), it’s obviously something that tarnishes the legacy of the director and hangs like a shadow over his work.

One might argue that such things should be ignored for the sake of critique and appreciation of the art. After all, many more people worked on Chinatown than Polanski. But it’s hard not to think about Polanski’s future actions when the villain of the film is a serial child molester who escapes punishment because he owns the police. The film predicted the future of the director, and that’s even more of a bitter pill to swallow on an already tough film.

What Went Really Right?

As I alluded to, Chinatown twists film noir conventions on its head. Evelyn is not a femme fatale, but the ultimate victim; she was emotionally manipulated into what is consensual rape, bearing her father’s child at fifteen years old. It’s a gutpunch of a twist that casts the whole film in a new light. Instead of a classic noir, where men are the victims of manipulative women, Evelyn is the victim of her emotionally manipulative and sexually abusive father.

But the more important twist is that Chinatown does not conform to the morality of the films that inspired it. Noah Cross not only gets away with his numerous crimes, but also escapes with his daughter/granddaughter, who will suffer the same fate as her mother/sister. That’s bleak. If this had been The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity, Cross would have gone to jail, or been shot. But in 1974, Cross escapes, and he doesn’t even have to run. His money and his power allow him to do anything, whether that’s robbing Los Angeles of its water or the raping of his own children.

Chinatown doesn’t play gently with its audience. The message is clear; sometimes the bad guys win, and there’s nothing we can do to change it. How do we deal with this affront to our morality? Do we follow Jake’s lead, and do as little as possible so that we cause as little harm as we can? Or do we find some way we can impact the world in a positive way?

I don’t have the answers, but Chinatown certainly asks the questions. That’s why I love it. This is why it’s just as relevant in 2017 as it was in 1974; the rich, powerful and corrupt will always get away with evil, no matter what we do about it.

Like This Column?
Check out previous editions!
Jurassic Park
Back to the Future

Or check out my column with Michael Ornelas; “From Under A Rock”. Last week we reviewed Bulworth.

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I log reviews for every film I see, when I see them. You can see my main page here. Recent reviews include 2016’s Lion, 1994’s The Lion King, and 1989’s Do The Right Thing, a film which just might end up on this column in the near future.

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