April 12, 2024

Gabbing Geek

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AFI Countdown Challenge #19: Chinatown

Jack Nicholson investigates murder involving figures at a public utility in this 1974 noir.

Chinatown is my favorite American movie.  That’s the answer I always give students when they ask me what my favorite movie is.  If they press, I’ll tell them the only movie I like more than Chinatown is Japanese.  But when I started this series, I did realize that there were a few films on the list that would present a special challenge for this series, and Chinatown is the first of them.  What special problem does it present?  Two actually.  The first is I wrote up about this film once before in the “Tom Recommends” series.  So, that means I don’t want to repeat myself too much with what I say here.  The second issue is less of an issue, in that I have seen Chinatown enough times that I don’t have to pay too much attention when I play it.  First time viewings and the like, I tend to pay more attention.  Something like Chinatown makes me wonder how much new I might notice with another viewing.

Well, I did watch it again.  It’s my favorite movie.  Of course I watched it again.  As for the other problem, I did reread the original piece, and I’ll do what I can not to repeat myself too much, but that earlier column was to entice people to check something out that perhaps hadn’t seen before.  I kept the big reveals out.  But I have no such compunctions about the AFI Challenge when it comes to dropping spoilers as I write these under the assumption the potential reader has also seen the film.  So, here goes…

Chinatown‘s big reveal, of course, is that Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn Cross Mulwray was raped as a juvenile by her vile father Noah Cross (Maltese Falcon director John Huston), an act that produced a daughter named Katherine.  Katherine is an elusive figure in the film.  For much of the film’s runtime, she is seen at a distance and I don’t think she has any actual lines except for a lot of horrified screams at the end of the film.  Huston may be chewing the scenery a bit in his portrayal of a man who gets more monstrous every time we see him, but the smile on his face and the way he reaches for Katherine in that last scene certainly does imply that whatever he did to Evelyn he will also do to Katherine.  And…he wins.  He gets what he wants in every possible way.  There’s nothing that a basically decent man like Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) can do about it.

If anything, the fact that Gittes basically is a decent man makes for an odd inclusion to any noir.  I don’t think I can call him a good man, though.  Jake does slap a confession out of Evelyn when he’s finally had enough of people lying to him and keeping secrets, but by noir standards, that’s pretty light and he doesn’t look too pleased with himself when she does tell him Katherine is her sister and her daughter.  Jake may make a living off a fairly sleazy profession of following cheating spouses, but he does have some standards, and it was those basic standards that are the reason why he isn’t a cop anymore.  Likewise, the murder victim Hollis Mulwray, Evelyn’s husband, Katherine’s “father,” and Noah’s former business partner, is implied to be a good man, someone who took in Evelyn and Katherine and won’t build a new dam that won’t hold, showing ethical judgement in the face of pressure of a bad drought.  And ultimately, as much as Evelyn may come across initially as a femme fatale, she’s as much a victim of everything that happens as anyone else.

Everyone else?  Well, everyone else is either blatantly corrupt, like Gittes’ former police colleague Mulvihill, might be working with the blatantly corrupt, or are complete monsters.

It’s the sort of scenario that almost costs Jake his nose, forcing Nicholson to spend much of the film with a large bandage over his face.

But as much as I love this film, it’s one that really taxes my ability to separate art from artist.  It’s not as bad as, say, Annie Hall in that regard.  But I do know at least one person who can’t bring herself to watch this film knowing why director Roman Polanski is basically in a self-imposed exile in France.  He may not be onscreen narrating about his lovelife, but he does have a small role as a knife-welding thug, the man who slices open Jake’s nose, the man Jake initially dismisses as “shorty,” and he does have some lines.  Knowing the film’s deep secret,, knowing what Noah Cross did, can anyone be reasonably expected to enjoy Chinatown?

Somehow I’ve managed, though it may help that I didn’t directly connect Polanski’s crimes to the film the first time I saw it.  I was just blown away by the reveal, and subsequent viewings have shown how much that one piece of information on where Katherine Cross came from really explains some of the stranger things Jake sees as well as the odder requests Jake gets.  Noah Cross, during his initial interview, really wants to know where that girl is.

Factor in also that Cross, already a wealthy man, is working some scheme through the water company to become even wealthier, and you see the portrait of a complete monster, someone who just wants more and more, for whom nothing is ever enough, and who takes what he wants regardless of any legal, moral, or societal norms and values that might nominally get in his way.

And if it means his only daughter ends up dead, well, that’s how these things go.

Ultimately, I still love Chinatown.  That isn’t going to change.  The screeenplay by Robert Towne, the famous last line, and a truly tragic ending all somehow adds up to a magnificent film.  I would like to live in a world where a piece of cinematic art could exist without any such controversy, but that isn’t the world we apparently live in.  In its way, that also means being a fan of a film like this when the director did such wrong, and those wrongs are reflected by the script itself, well, maybe the film’s plot and reality have more in common than I would like to think.

That said, no, I haven’t seen The Two Jakes and I don’t plan on seeing it anytime soon either, but in that case, it’s for completely different reasons.

NEXT UP:  We’re skipping back to 1960 for one of Alfred Hitchcock’s few films that could be genuinely considered a horror movie:  Psycho.