not in our stars, but in ourselves
22/52: A movie with a sequel
It’s not quite a universal truth, but it is an oft-accepted fact: outsiders look at the United States in a very different way from any native, and are often able to present some of its darker corners in their work. Whether it’s Vladimir Nabokov’s giddy embrace of American poshlost, Alfred Hitchcock’s stylish explorations of modern American neuroses, or any number of more erudite examples (haven’t I already told you that I’m a sham?), foreign-born artists and writers see more than most of us are willing to see. I grant you that the screenplay for Chinatown, by Robert Towne (an American!), is pretty dark on its own. With Roman Polanski directing, the story went from dark to pitch black. For all Polanski’s personal failings, it’s astonishing to see his greatest films, in which he seems to face head-on the multiple tragedies – the Holocaust, the brutal murder of his pregnant wife by the Manson Family – he suffered himself. He never shies from giving his audience a look at the abyss he seems to stare down – and when it works, it’s downright chilling. Boy, does it work here.
In 1937, J.J. “Jake” Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is a private investigator in Los Angeles. The vast majority of his cases involve trailing unfaithful spouses, taking photos of them during their trysts, and presenting the suspicious husband or wife with the evidence. Despite this ever-so-slightly disreputable line of work, Gittes is – or was – a real detective, once upon a time, with the LAPD. His beat was Chinatown, where he did “as little as possible.” A woman calling herself Evelyn Mulwray goes to Gittes, and insists that her husband is cheating on her. Her husband, Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), is chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Gittes’s interest is piqued, and he takes the case. In the course of trailing Mulwray, he finds that his quarry spends an awful lot of time hanging around near dried-up riverbeds and run-off pipes into the ocean. Soon enough, however, Gittes hits what he figures must be paydirt: he sees – and photographs – Mulwray embracing a pretty blonde. The photos end up in the newspaper, and it causes a scandal. It also causes the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) to threaten Gittes with a lawsuit. Gittes realizes that someone must have been trying to set up Mulwray, and he wants to try to find out who it could have been, and why. Before he can speak with Mulwray, however, the police fish his corpse out from one of the ocean-bound run-off pipes. Gittes convinces Evelyn to let him continue his investigation, leading him to cross (ha! you’ll get it in a moment) paths with some powerfully dangerous men – such as Evelyn’s father, Noah Cross (John Huston) (see? get it??) – and leading him right back to Chinatown.
You’ve all seen this one, right? I won’t spoil it for you, but suffice it to say: it gets real dark there at the end.
Chinatown is often, and rightly, considered among the best of the film noir genre. In the 1940s, it was heavily influenced by the visual style of German Expressionism. ’40s noir films, from Huston’s groundbreaking The Maltese Falcon to Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street to Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep, were full of deep shadows and vaguely nightmarish settings. Chinatown is much more naturalistic-looking, but it shares the same plot structure with all the best noirs: the everyman plunged into Hell, and forced to try to find his way out. Los Angeles is one hell of a Hell, it seems. Cinematographer John A. Alonzo captures the painful heat and aridity of the drought-stricken city. Many scenes are set just as the sun is setting, so that the darkening sky seems to stand in for the encroaching moral doom and gloom. And of course, in the midst of all this drought and penumbra, there are the perfectly lush lawns and gardens of the Mulwrays and the Crosses. (It’s not for nothing that a professor from USC compared California’s current water crisis to the events depicted in Chinatown.) In other words, Polanski has created a film noir out of something that might as well be real life: these desiccated riverbeds and farms, this systemic corruption, these abuses of power (in ways as numerous as they are horrifying), this fundamental unfairness in the name of greed and personal gain, is all too real. Polanski just makes it a mystery set in the ’30s.
All thematic questions aside, it’s a great film, simply on its own merits. Nicholson is in literally every scene, and he’s great in all of them. Huston, the father of film noir, is exactly right as the wolf-like patriarch of the Cross family: quiet menace, barely hidden behind unfailing politeness. Dunaway is the best of them all, I think. Joss Whedon had responded to a trailer for Jurassic World by calling it “’70s-era sexist” – something like that. To be fair, the 1970s were a pretty hit-and-miss decade for women in film. However, Dunaway’s portrayal of the deeply wounded Evelyn is remarkably nuanced; and Polanski, to his credit, ensures that the film treats her with deep sympathy, once it’s clear that she’s not just some black widow femme fatale.
It occurs to me that Dunaway’s work would be an incredible feat even now. Movies, in case you hadn’t heard, have been going through a bit of a crisis with female roles (in front of the camera, and also behind). Perhaps there are just as many complex, interesting roles out there now as there have ever been (i.e., not many, but a few here and there) – but the landscape has gotten so saturated with simplistic depictions of women and their “emotions” that it’s hard not to feel pessimistic. The ’70s gave us Annie Hall, Ellen Ripley, Princess Leia, Carrie White, Laurie Strode – hell, even Nurse Ratched. It also gave us a fair number of Bond girls, but there were some interesting women and some interesting roles. In 2015, we’ve had Imperator Furiosa and…uh…who else? I don’t mean to stand up on my feminist soapbox every time I write something, but I do think it’s worth noting that we appear to have forgotten how to create mainstream films with multifaceted females in central roles.
Back to the movie. While the classic film noir of the 1940s usually involved the criminal underworld, into which our intrepid would-be Orpheus ventured, Chinatown isn’t so – pardon the term – black and white. Gittes isn’t facing gangsters and hoods: he’s up against foes who are morally rotten and personally untouchable. When he worked as a detective in Chinatown, he did as little as possible because he was never sure if, by interfering, he was making things better for the victim or for the bad guys. Gittes ends up feeling much the same at the end of Chinatown – and that’s much more often the case in reality, I fear. Forget it, everyone.
N.B. I have no intention of seeing Chinatown‘s sequel, The Two Jakes, at least not any time soon. But, y’know. It’s out there.