Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Great Movies: "Chinatown"

Roman Polanski, 1973.

Previous Contact: I have watched Chinatown more times than I've watched any other movie. Back when I taught Geography, I showed it regularly for classes as a dramatization of human ecology in a modern context. I also watched it with Mrs.5000 only a little over two years ago, just before beginning the Great Movie project. I didn't really look forward to seeing it again so soon, great though I knew it is, and in fact I considered recusing myself from it on the grounds that I'd already watched it to death.

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And yet, it took me less than thirty seconds to lose myself once again in this lushly realized story of crime and water in 1937 Los Angeles. It is a beautiful movie, in which every detail of sets, wardrobe, and cinematography is absolutely immaculate. Technically, it is very nearly a perfect movie, and at, what -- 10th? 12th? 14th? -- viewing, there are still plenty of surprises and subtleties to discover in the script and in the sets.

Chinatown was conceived as an homage to earlier film noir detective movies such as The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. Like them, it features a tough, wisecracking private eye who wallows in the corrupt, seedy margins of human life -- in this case often by photographing people having sex with people not their spouses -- but who manages to preserve his own personal code of honor. Like Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe, he falls for a beautiful but troubled woman with too many secrets, and complicated hijinx ensue.

This kind of homage could have been the recipe for a very corny movie indeed, but Chinatown not only honors but surpasses its predecessors. Much of the credit goes to the script. The Big Sleep was stylish but notoriously incoherent, and The Maltese Falcon was fun in spite of a dumb, contrived plot. Chinatown, by contrast, is fiercely intelligent as a well-made whodunit, as a moral drama, and as a kind of social criticism (the kinds of conflicts over water and land dramatized in the movie are central to the history of the American Southwest).

Too, Jack Nicholson inhabits a stunning performance as Jake Geddes, the private eye at the center of the mystery. Geddes embodies all of the cliches of the pulp fiction detective, but he is also strangely complex enough to be realistic. He is mercurial, prickly, disillusioned. At times he is vulgar and insensitive -- forcing his uncomfortable colleagues to listen to a joke about "screwing like a Chinaman" at the worst possible moment -- but at other times he reveals a sharp, literate intelligence. "Look," he tells his rich, highly educated client. "I do matrimonial work. It's my métier. When a wife tells me that she's happy that her husband is cheating on her, it runs contrary to my experience." "Matrimonial work"? His "métier"? This is a guy who knows how to talk to a wide range of people.

Most of the classic B&W noir movies ended, if not exactly happily, at least with a reasonably comfortable state of affairs. Chinatown ends incredibly bleakly. You could say that this makes it true to the downbeat mood that underlies the whole film noir concept. Or, it could be argued that it's a miserable, depressing way to end a film, unkind to the characters and the audience alike. You make the call!

Plot: A private eye is suckered into disgracing a water department official who stands in the way of a complicated piece of real estate fraud. When he finds out he's been duped and the official turns up murdered, he decides to go after the people behind the crime. Can one man stand alone against the corruption of the rich and powerful?

Images: Lushly filmed in a kind of lightly sepiatone color that captures the otherness of the past but also presents the late thirties more or less the way they must have looked in real life. Made in 1973, Chinatown was about the past of only 36 years earlier -- most of those working on the movie knew the setting very well, since it was the one they grew up in. The movie is now 37 years old, which is a remarkable reminder of how much the pace of social and, in many ways, technological change has slowed since the 1960s. The world has changed a lot between 1973 and today, but it changed A LOT between 1937 and 1973.

Dialog: There is not a line wasted in this movie, and there are very few lines that don't carry new resonance the second or third time you hear them. The acting and delivery is incredibly strong from the leads almost down to the last extra. I say "almost" only because there is one conversation, between Geddes and a little boy on a horse, that rings false. In most movies, you wouldn't even notice a problem, but Chinatown is so otherwise exquisitely made that this imperfection always makes me wince a little.

Prognosis: Chinatown is the best film ever made that you might with good reason really, really hate. The plot is important, and demands a lot of attention to follow, so it's definitely not a good choice for those who like to watch movies for sheer escapism. The character of Geddes is pretty perfectly rendered, but you might find yourself really disliking him and his masculine bravado. Women (and men) get slapped around quite a bit. The ending is not exactly going to lift your spirits. Against this, all I can say to recommend it is that it is one of the very finest movies of all time.


DrSchnell said...

I LOVE this movie!
In a class on the American West in the Twentieth Century, Don Worster called it "the best Western ever made" - which makes sense, coming from an environmental historian who has written extensively on water-related stuff

Jenners said...

Would you still talk to me if I told you I've never seen this one?

Elizabeth said...

Neither have I ... and I can't decide whether this review makes me want to see it, or not.

Michael5000 said...

@Jenners: I'm still talking to you after your sick sick confession about teenybopper vampire boys....

Dug said...

The National Geographic article that I stole the map you linked here mentions Chinatown. I was completely unfamiliar with it but then I don't get out as much as I should. I'll have to look for it.
Is it still playing at my neighborhood movie house? You know, the one between Woolworths and the soda fountain drug store?
Sorry, I'm going on very little sleep right now.