44 Days of Paranoia #25: Chinatown (dir by Roman Polanski)

Our latest entry into the 44 Days of Paranoia is a dark masterpiece.  Based on a script by Robert Towne, directed by Roman Polanski, and starring Jack Nicholson, 1974’s Chinatown is one of the greatest films ever made.

Chinatown takes place in 1940s Los Angeles.  Private Investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by a woman (Diane Ladd) who claims that her name is Evelyn Mulwray.  She wants Gittes to follow her husband, Hollis, and discover whether he’s having an affair.  Gittes gets some pictures of Hollis with a young woman (Belinda Palmer) and hands them over to Evelyn.

The next day, the pictures are published on the front page of the newspaper and Gittes is confronted by another woman (Faye Dunaway) who explains that she — and not the woman who hired him — is the actual Evelyn Mulwray.  Gittes then learns that Hollis has turned up dead, drowned in a reservoir.

Gittes suspects that Hollis was murdered and launches his own investigation.  This eventually leads Jake to Hollis’s former business partner, Noah Cross (John Huston).  Noah also happens to be the father of Evelyn and he offers double Gittes’s fee if Gittes will track down Hollis’s younger girlfriend.

As his investigation continues, Gittes discovers that Hollis’s murder was connected to both the continued growth of Los Angeles as a city and a truly unspeakable act that occurred several years in the past.  Nobody, it turns out, is what he or she originally appears to be.  To say anything else about the plot would be unfair to anyone who hasn’t seen Chinatown before.

Since I first started reviewing films for this site, one of the things that I’ve discovered is that it’s actually easier to review a bad film than a good film.  It’s easier to be snarky and cynical about the latest film from Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich than it is to explain why a film works.  There’s a famous saying about pornography: “I don’t know what it is but I know it when I see it,” and sometimes that’s the way I feel whenever it comes time to try to review a great film.

Consider Chinatown.  At its heart, Chinatown is an homage to the old film noirs of the 40s and 50s.  Now, I have to admit that I’ve lost track of how many noir homages I’ve seen.  It seems like every director has to make at least one hard-boiled, morally ambiguous detective film.  Chinatown has all of the familiar elements — the hero is a private investigator, Evelyn Mulwray initially appears to be a classic femme fatale, the dialogue is appropriately cynical, and the plot is full of twist and turns.  Even the film’s theme of political conspiracy serves to remind us that most noirs used their detective stories as a way to explore the hidden underbelly of American society.

And yet, with Chinatown, Polanski, Nicholson, Towne, and producer Robert Evans took all of those familiar elements and used them to create one of the greatest films ever made.

Why is Chinatown such a great film?

Some of the credit has to go to Jack Nicholson who, in the role of Jake Gittes, gives perhaps his best performance.  As I mentioned above, Gittes is, in many ways, a stock character but Nicholson brings so much nuance and depth to the role that it doesn’t matter.  Nicholson’s trademark cynicism and sarcasm are both to be found here but he also brings a cocky recklessness to the role.  Gittes is such a charismatic and likable hero and so confident in himself that it makes the film’s ending all the more shocking.

As good as Nicholson is, he’s matched at every turn by John Huston’s Noah Cross.  Noah Cross is one of the most vile characters to ever appear on-screen, which is why Huston’s rather courtly performance is all the more disturbing.  When Gittes confronts Noah about the worst of his many crimes, Cross simply responds that a man is never sure what he’s capable of until he does it.  Huston delivery of the lines leave us with little doubt that Noah believes every word of what he’s just said.

In the end, though, most of the credit has to go to Roman Polanski’s direction and Robert Towne’s script.  Towne’s script provides a genuinely challenging and thought-provoking mystery, while Polanski’s stylish direction keeps the view continually off-balance and unsure of who is telling the truth.  Reportedly, Polanski and Towne had a contentious relationship, with Polanski changing the ending of Towne’s script to make the film much more downbeat.  In the end, Polanski made the right choice.  The film ends the only way that it possibly could.

Or, to quote the famous line: “It’s Chinatown.”

Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia 

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind
  15. God Told Me To
  16. Wag the Dog
  17. Cheaters
  18. Scream and Scream Again
  19. Capricorn One
  20. Seven Days In May
  21. Broken City
  22. Suddenly
  23. Pickup on South Street
  24. The Informer

Ghosts of Christmas Past #14: Dave Foley’s The True Meaning of Christmas Specials

I came across tonight’s Ghost of Christmas Past while I was doing a search on Christmas specials that have been posted to YouTube.  Apparently, this is a Canadian show that aired way back in 2002.

And, watching it, I could really tell that was the truth.  This show is not only very Canadian but it’s very 2002 and as well.  Fortunately, while I can pretty much do without 2002, I happen to love Canada.

Movie Teaser: Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar”

Having rescued Batman from the Schumacher age and assisting in the full on destruction of Metropolis, Christopher Nolan has reached an interesting point in his life. He can now walk up on stage, grab a microphone, mutter the words “I’m filming a movie.” and have tons of fans (like myself) lose themselves like swooning chickens.

Christopher and Jonathan Nolan are dreaming about the stars. And with a dash of what I think (what I hope) is Zimmer playing in the background, he tells us absolutely nothing. The gaul! The tease! It’s the movie watcher’s equivalent of  seeing a bare expanse of leg exposed on someone walking in a sleek black dress. Or perhaps the equivalent of Beyonce’s album drop, only with a movie? Either way, how dare they leave me drooling like a Pavlovian mutt.

So, what do we know about Interstellar? Well, that his brother is on board, and David Goyer is nowhere to be seen, Nolan could be giving us something just a little different – or rather more along the lines of Inception. I’m one of the fans who feels he actually does much better when working with Jonathan and maybe this is good overall. Now that he’s done with everything Batman, he can focus on telling other stories.

I’m just hoping those stories aren’t like Insomnia.

And I’m hoping they’re better edited than The Dark Knight.

Interstellar, on the surface looks like it has something to do with space travel (stating the more than obvious fact), but this feels more like October Sky to me. We have Matthew McConaughey talking about how we’ve lost our way in being explorers and pioneers and the film suggests some kind of return to that. Of course, this is just a teaser, and we really won’t know the full details until the full trailer appears (which for all we know, could have aliens in it).

The thing that stands out on all of this is what isn’t easily noticed. Interstellar will be the first film that Nolan has done since Following where Cinematographer Wally Pfister wasn’t on board. This is akin to the Coens not using Roger Deakins (which is exactly the case with Inside Llewyn Davis). Visually, this could be a different film as Instellar’s Cinematographer is Hoyte Van Hoytema, who was responsible for Her, Let the Right One In and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Very interesting, indeed.

Interstellar premieres in theatres next year.

Oh, and here are some swooning chickens, for added effect.