I’ve got into the habit on this here blog-space thing of reviewing some of the worst films cinema has to offer when it comes to my milestone reviews. At review 50 I covered Mortal Kombat Annihilation, at 100 the classic that is Troll 2, on the one year anniversary I trolled people by reviewing The Avengers… The one with Uma Thurman and Ralph Fiennes and the 150th review was for the obscure cult nightmare that is Death Bed. As review number 200 began to appear on the horizon I really couldn’t decide what to watch. I had a few ideas, The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, Story of Ricky-Oh, that sort of film. There was one problem though. The month of November 2013 has been a financial bitch for me and as such I’ve been unable to afford to purchase those films. So I raided my film collection instead. Now seeing as I am one of those weird people that always purchases physical copies of films rather than downloading them from dubious sources my actual collection at home is most either films I greatly enjoy or cinema classics. It is from the latter category that I chose review 200. One of my personal favourite films of all time, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.
When private detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by a Mrs Mulwray (what, no credit? I’ll explain that in a minute) to spy on her husband, who she fears is having an affair, Jake does exactly what he’s told. Her husband is the chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power so when his apparent affair is exposed it becomes public news. When the real Mrs Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) turns up at Jake’s office looking for answers Jake realises he’s been had. Someone was out to cause trouble for Hollis Mulwray and in the process has hurt the reputation of Jake Gittes and so he sets out to find out who employed the fake Mrs Mulwray. Before long the simple case of exposing a campaign leads to Jake getting mixed up in events that go way deeper with ramifications for the people of Los Angeles and, on a more shocking level, the exposure of secrets hidden within Evelyn’s past.
Chinatown is often cited as one of the greatest screenplays of all time and this is not without reason. There’s an incredible level of detail in the film’s writing that all appear on screen giving you hints, filling in story elements and foreshadowing events with such incredible subtlety you may not realise they happened. But your brain did. In the first scene Jake has just given the news of an affair the wife of a client he had. As the man tries to eat the Venetian blinds, which Jake only had put in last week, Jake reaches into his drinks cabinet for a bottle of whiskey. He stops before grabbing the expensive bottle before picking out the cheaper looking one for the man to drink. Jake isn’t going to waste the good stuff on a guy that wouldn’t know a good whiskey if it slapped him in the face. In another scene Evelyn is trying to confess a secret to Jake whilst sat in her car. She slumps her head forward and it hits the steering wheel horn which startles her. I’m not spoiling anything here but that foreshadows an event later. After Hollis Mulwray is found dead Jake enters his office at the Department of Water and Power to talk to the Deputy Chief. The door still has Hollis’ name on it and all his awards and photos have been removed from the walls already leaving dirty marks behind. This shows that the deputy was quite keen to get into that office. Maybe a sign of guilt, maybe he’d been promised that office. It’s all mise-en-scene.
5 years before Chinatown was made Roman Polanski’s, at the time, pregnant wife Sharon Tate had been murdered by the Manson Family Gang. There’s an element of the bleak about Chinatown which undoubtedly comes from that event. Unlike other films at the time Polanski didn’t shoot LA as this bright land of opportunity. He didn’t shoot it like a lot of the more realist cinema that had been breaking through at the time either. Instead he shoots it a lot like the noir crime thrillers of the 40s with the only real differences being the aspect ratio and the use of colour. Even the colour tone of the film is kept muted though. This is one of those cases where I think if Polanski had been allowed he would have shot Chinatown in black & white.
Chinatown is the film that really established Jack Nicholson as a major star in Hollywood and a lot of it can come down to his excellent performance. At first you see Gittes as a bit of a show off and with a small amount of ego. He thinks he’s the shit but gradually as the film progresses you start to see that it’s part of a persona he puts on to make himself feel better about his past as a cop working in the Chinatown district of LA. An event happened in his past there where he tried to save a woman he was involved with and, as a result of his actions, she was killed. When asked what he did in Chinatown he replies with “as little as possible”. Throughout the film you realise that he’s doomed to repeating history as his every action in attempting to uncover the truth creates more and more problems for himself and for Evelyn. Possibly the most devastating of his actions is talking to Evelyn’s father Noah Cross (John Huston). We can tell it’s a bad idea for Jake to go near him, Evelyn even has trouble saying her maiden name let alone acknowledging her father’s existence, but Jake visits him to uncover the truth and that’s when events really start turning bad. You see Noah has a special interest in the woman Jake had originally photographed Hollis with and it really is best if he never gets near her. Again, I don’t want to spoil the end, but that first meeting is what gradually brings about the films very very dark final act.
The film is one of the most well crafted and produced films ever to be made. Directors are still making reference to it today. Rian Johnson references Chinatown multiple times in Brick (a dead body in reservoir), Gore Verbinski based the villains plot in Rango entirely on John Huston’s character. David Lynch has cited Jerry Goldsmiths score as his favourite film score of all time which probably explains his love of noirish musical themes weaving their way into his films. Syd Field, renowned emparter of screenwriting knowledge, cites Robert Towne’s screenplay for Chinatown as one of his all time favourites and even goes over a few scenes of the film in his screenwriting guide books. The film received a massive amount of Oscar nominations, 11 in all, but only won one of them, likely because it was up against The Godfather Part 2. It won for it’s screenplay though. If you have any interest in film, especially in writing, you need to watch Chinatown.
So can you tell that I really like Chinatown? The film delves into some dark territory but it’s the slow gradual decline to that point that keeps you hooked. Its mystery is drip fed to you so gradually that you’ll be uncovering the clues for yourself just as Gittes does, which is exactly how a mystery should be paced. Nicholson is actually in every single scene in the film which really helps keep the audience in step with the story. Polanski even toys with this structure when Jake gets knock out the screen fades to black and fades back when he wakes up. We don’t see anything he doesn’t see. My brain is currently going mental trying to remember the proper term for this type of story. I should dig out that Robert McKee book of mine.
Overall Chinatown is in the upper echelon of film making. It is the literal definition of a Hollywood classic. It single handedly revived interest in the Noir style. It gave a director a chance to make a film many call his masterpiece. Its influence is everywhere. Performances are excellent throughout. The film is shot superbly with a slightly European feel to it’s LA setting whilst also maintaining the hallmarks of classic Film Noir. Personally I put it in my top five films of all time. That list has no order by the way so if ever I do post it don’t focus on the placement. I always tell people that they need to see Chinatown and now I have told you. Now, what to review for film number 300..?