Monday, October 8, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #202 - Chinatown (1974, dir. Roman Polanski)

It is possible that Roman Polanski’s Chinatown is one of the few movies that has absolutely everything. Beginning with a labyrinthine script by Robert Towne, which simultaneously deals with issues of public policy, water rights in California, entitlement among the wealthy, murder and even incest, all within the rich cloak of a stylish noir mystery. For his part, Polanski treats each scene like an individual work of art, utilizing his skill in set, light, movement, music and performance to make each plot twist an indispensable piece of a larger puzzle, which inexorably leads to the emotionally shocking and politically relevant conclusion. The casting and performances are world-class with Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway offering the best performances of their careers and veteran John Huston offering one of the most understated studies of evil in the history of film.
Jack Nicholson is J.J. Gittes, a Los Angeles private detective who has made a name for himself as a high profile cheating spouse catcher. His routine is disrupted when he gets hired to investigate the commissioner of water and power in Los Angeles who is suspected of cheating on his wife. A seemingly normal “Sam Spade” type mystery quickly goes off the rails into much more politically treacherous territory as Gittes’ subject, Hollis Mulwray, becomes embroiled in a controversial plan to divert water to Los Angeles county at the same time he is suspected of carrying on an extra-marital affair, and then, suspiciously, ends up dead shortly thereafter. I have seen this movie at least half a dozen times and this time I REALLY paid attention to the details of the plot, and I have to say, it is extremely hard to keep them all straight. This doesn’t take away from the excitement of trying to figure it out. There are so many levels to this mystery that figuring any of it out before the end of the movie is an accomplishment. The water rights issue is relevant to today’s world as much as it was in 1937 (when the movie takes place), as are issues of land usage, real-estate manipulation and county zoning - all seemingly boring topics that Polanski masterfully turns into a breathtaking mystery. You will literally not be able to guess what is going on until the final scenes, but you will be on the edge of your seat getting there. Running parallel courses throughout the film are the complex and disturbing relationships between Mulwray, his supposed girlfriend, his wife (Dunaway), and her ultra-wealthy father (John Huston). An adequate synopsis of this plot would take pages there are so many twists and turns in both the story of stolen water and in the dysfunctional family/marriage/sex/incest sub-plot. Ultimately, the solution is not as important as how we got there.

The title of the movie refers to J.J. Gittes’ past life as a police detective in the Chinatown neighborhood of Los Angeles. As a younger man he experienced a lawless and anarchic subset of society that comes to act as a metaphor for past sins in this movie. Everyone in the movie has their past “Chinatown” that they would rather forget, or at least not admit to. Similarly, many people in real life have done things in order to get what they wanted which they might now regret. Towards the end of the movie John Huston tells Gittes that in the right circumstances people are capable of almost anything. This turns out to be tragically true for the characters in Chinatown as the movie moves speeds like a train headed for a downed bridge. We know this is going to end badly for everybody, but we simply can’t guess the ghastly truths that make up the characters’ secret motivations. When the truth comes out in a series of scenes that are as revelatory as they are disturbing, we come to understand the depths of depravity involved here. Ending with the classic line “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown,” the viewer feels sucked down into the moral vortex with Gittes.
Every single thing works in Chinatown. It is a suspenseful and ultimately rewarding story, filmed with a master’s eye toward the traditions of film-noir, and acted by an ensemble cast for the ages. This is a mystery that keeps you guessing and leaves you scratching your head when it’s over. So few films are this intelligent and unpredictable, yet Chinatown succeeds in keeping us guessing and then offering a believable and shocking conclusion.
- Paul Epstein

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