Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. October’s director is master thriller/horror filmmaker Roman Polanski.
NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.
Grade: 98 (A)
Chinatown represents a number of peaks in film history. It’s a high-point in noir, in the career of the great writer Robert Towne, a career-best performance from star Jack Nicholson, the best score in composer Jerry Goldsmith’s career, and one of the defining films of the New Hollywood movement of the 60s and 70s. Above all else, it’s the crown jewel in Roman Polanski’s filmography, a cold, cracked masterpiece that serves as a revisionist origin story for modern America, the horrors that led up to it, and the souls who lose on the way. It’s fitting that it would be Polanski’s final American film: he could never top it.
Jake Gittes (Nicholson) is a former cop turned private investigator with a special focus on adultery cases. When a mysterious woman claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray, the wife of water company head Hollis Mulwray, asks him to find her husband’s mistress, Jake thinks nothing of it until the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) serves him with a lawsuit. Things turn ugly when Hollis Mulwray turns up dead and Evelyn hires Jake for real. Added into the mix: a shadowy plot by the water company to cheat farmers out of their land, Evelyn’s mysterious father/Hollis’ business partner Noah Cross (John Huston), and the possibility that Evelyn is behind it all.
Casting has been an important part to the success of all of Polanski’s best films, and he outdoes himself here. There’s a number of memorable supporting parts: Diane Ladd as the woman who poses as Evelyn, Burt Young as an upset cuckold, Perry Lopez as a cynical former colleague of Jake’s, and Polanski himself as a creepy little guy who memorably slits Nicholson’s nostril open with a knife. The most important supporting role, of course, comes from writer/director John Huston as the villainous Noah Cross. Huston has always been an ingratiating and jovial larger-than-life presence both behind and in front of the camera, and Polanski uses that to his advantage. Cross is a charming, all-out likable man when we first meet him, one who overwhelms the frame and insinuates himself into Gittes’ investigation (“just find the girl”). That kind of kind insinuation makes him a more effective villain when we finally find out what kind of a monster he is- persuasive, charming, and diabolical.
Faye Dunaway wasn’t Paramount’s first choice for Evelyn Mulwray- Robert Evans wanted Jane Fonda- but Polanski pushed for Dunaway, who gives perhaps her best performance as Evelyn. Dunaway’s work here plays well to her specialty in portraying chilly, often untrustworthy women of power (see also: her Oscar-winning work in Network). Evelyn is introduced as an ice-cold femme fatale who’s always in the middle of a lie and doing a less-than-convincing job of hiding it. Jake has reason to suspect her every word and action- we’re on his side, as we can tell she’s hiding something as well. The casting here is so smart that we suspect Evelyn right up until the last twenty minutes, where we realize that she’s the only selfless person in the film.
Nicholson has always specialized in playing smart-alecks and wild cards, and Jake Gittes may be his finest creation (it doesn’t hurt that the role was written for him), one that both plays to and subverts the Nicholson-isms. Jake always pushes thing as far as they can go, but he’s ultimately fighting for order to the world rather than working as a wild card. Jake’s a smart-aleck who knows how to play the game, but he doesn’t know all the angles the way he thinks he does. Part of Polanski’s genius here is keeping the entire film in Jake’s perspective- we learn things when Jake learns things, and we never know who to trust. We’re with a guy we like and want to win, but we’re always a step behind Evelyn and Noah.
Part of that ingenuity comes from Robert Towne’s twisty-turny script, rightfully credited as one of the greatest screenplays ever written. Sure, much of that has to do with the abundance of one-liners in the film (“When you’re right, you’re right, and you’re right!”; “To tell you the truth, I lied a little”; “Of course I’m respectable. I’m old.”), but Towne has crafted a dense tale that connects the rape of the Californian land with an even more sinister personal story of abuse.
Still, this is ultimately Polanski’s show: it’s he who red-penned Towne’s excesses and gave the film a stronger through-line (to see Towne unchecked, watch the middling sequel The Two Jakes), not to mention the one who changed the film’s originally optimistic ending into the famously grim ironic one the film bears today. Chinatown’s script follows (and occasionally upends) noir conventions, but Polanski’s direction is more in keeping with Hitchcock, focusing on the way people try and fail to hide things from each other and playing with subjective perspective brilliantly- we can never quite be sure what we’re seeing means until it’s far too late. Polanski and cinematographer John A. Alonzo change the deep blacks and whites of classic noir for a sunbaked look that hides the shadowy underworld of Los Angeles, which was perhaps never better captured on film. Chinatown manages to capture both the sprawling and isolating qualities of L.A.: there’s so much territory that when Jake’s car gets taken out of commission it suddenly turns claustrophobic. He has trouble getting around without help, and that’s a frightening situation in a film where he has to go all over the place if he wants to save the day.
Polanski’s filmography are full of power plays, but Chinatown’s is easily his most potent. Polanski’s world is one where the man behind the curtain controls every aspect of the city- Hollis Mulwray is a decent man, but he becomes the patsy for Noah Cross’s corruption even after his death. Jake, meanwhile, is a smart cookie who inadvertently plays into Cross’ hands throughout the film: first he’s manipulated by Cross to find Hollis’ “mistress”. Then Cross plays up Evelyn’s ostensible madness as a way to further cast doubt upon her noble intentions. When Jake thinks he can save the day, Cross takes away any evidence of wrongdoing and manipulates the police to do his bidding. Cross is so in control and Jake so in the dark that it’s ultimately a futile effort to even go against him: Jake’s suspicions of Evelyn and underestimation of Cross lead to tragedy.
As with any Polanski film, there’s a question of “why?” that comes up when we learn Cross is the father of his own granddaughter. Polanski and Towne’s answer is a variation on “no answer”: “Most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.” It happens because it can and it does (just ask Polanski, whose own life once again started to resemble one of his movies a few years later). Evelyn holds so tightly to the truth about her relationship with her father because it’s so shameful, so inexplicable, and so painful. Her lies and questionable actions make sense by the end- it isn’t about hiding a crime, but protecting her daughter/sister Katharine from a truth too horrifying to believe.
The mood of fatalism is a characteristic shared by noir and Polanski’s films, and Chinatown serves as a devastating dovetail between the two. From the ever-present drought that allows Cross to manipulate the power structures to Hollis Mulwray’s death (in a grim joke, the water commissioner drowns during a drought), death is everywhere in Chinatown. The title location itself is a gorgeous and melancholy metaphor for death and the idea that the world isn’t as ordered as it should be- in Chinatown, the cops are told to do “as little as possible”. It’s too difficult and strange a place, and one can never know whether or not they’re helping or hurting someone.
That sad truth of Jake’s past (alluded to but never spelled out) becomes an emotionally overpowering reality of the present in surely the best scene of Polanski and Nicholson’s respective careers. Jake rages and begs the police to do something to stop Noah, but no one will listen. Evelyn is a “disturbed woman”, not a hero. We can only hope that she and Katharine will escape, but it’s no use. Polanski drags out the reveal of Evelyn’s death to almost sadistic levels- we hear first the blare of a car horn, then the screams of Katharine. Cut to Evelyn’s body falling out of the car, Noah grabbing Katharine for himself, and Jake’s quiet look of shock and pain. What’s worse, he’ll never be able to prove the truth, and the police are guaranteed to cover any hint of the truth. It was inevitable. There was nothing they could do. “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”