by Stephen Thanabalan (Singapore)
“Forget it, Jake? Well, I can’t…It’s not just Chinatown!”
I wish this film was just about Chinatown and I could forget it. Unfortunately, I’m not the lead character in the film, who gets told to let the injustice of the circular tragedy of it all go, as he’s whisked away in that classic final scene. For me, that tragic ending defines Chinatown (1974) as a film that stands as a metaphor for the cynicism surrounding human tragedy, embodied within a timeless piece of cinematic genius. The kind that comes round oh so rarely. The kind so nuanced it takes you into its rubric entirely: movie; message; metaphor. While the latter is that which causes you to realise (often much later) what a work of art you’ve just witnessed, the former is that amazing achievement in film where everything somehow comes together in film-making, hence why it was nominated in 11 different categories at the Academy Awards.
If it won only one Oscar, at least it was for the one it truly deserved, because Robert Towne’s script is nothing short of clever, if nothing else, for the idea that Chinatown stands as a metaphor for a predicament rather than a geographical place; a euphemism for an uncontrollably negative state of affairs in a world of unknowns and unfathomable uncertainties, and where Chinatown isn’t just ‘Chinatown’. More about the metaphor/message later; but suffice to say, the strength of this film lies in Towne’s concept. That, along with the visionary artistic insight of director Roman Polanski, and we near cinematic perfection. Polanski’s insistence on the perfect irony of an actual scene set in Chinatown blends with Towne’s well thought out gravitas and the film benefits from having that unique pastiche of Polanski’s nerve for European melodrama (most aptly seen in that final scene where the haunting jolt provided the needed climax) to perfectly complement Towne’s intellectual sensibilities. If you’re a fan of the noir genre, this film’s storyline is up there with those Dashiell Hammett classics, and yet, it also offers something more.
In fact, what stands out in this piece for me is that no matter how far audiences cruise into the Marlowe/Sam Spade-like world of 1930s cool cat P.I. Jake Gittes’ era before no fault divorce, we discover that we don’t even bother to realise that this movie was made 40 years later as a nod to that era. This is simply because the plot and the performances are absolutely riveting.
Let’s start with the plot. Like any quality screenplay, it flows, but the riveting edge here comes from an ostensible realism latent within the detective mystery that contextualises the story in circumstances that postmodern audiences can relate to. What do I mean? I think it has something to do with the fact that this is no ordinary revival of the Marlowe noir mystery fare, instead, there’s a realistic layering of political-thriller material: Corruption. Power. Water. Three words that render a realistic resonance and allows the film to be ‘scarily’ relatable. The film makes you think this could actually have happened (parallels to LA’s Owens Valley notwithstanding). It’s sort of a Raymond Chandler novel set against 1970s issues – prescient; considering the OPEC oil crisis was only 5 years away. For me, it’s probably why Chinatown worked in this genre when other Marlowe revival films of the 70s (think Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye), arguably did not.
With the material grounded in realism, the cast performances needed to be as authentic too. They are, with Nicholson standing out in a role that even Towne admits was made for him – character warts, sly speech and all. The real ace though, is Faye Dunaway, in arguably her most challenging role. With Nicholson, the two invigorate their characters with every nuance needed to deal with their complexities, and like Polanski and Towne, are the second pairing, that really launch the film into classics territory. Our two lead characters’ paths cross because Mrs Mulwray (Dunaway) is left with no choice but to hire Gittes (Nicholson) to discover the truth, after Ida Sessions (Ladd) impersonated her and hired him for an adultery investigation. Sessions is then revealed to be an unwilling participant or whistleblower (we are not told) in a conspiracy scheme involving very powerful people who once controlled the city’s water/power (including Mrs Mulwray’s father Noah Cross/John Huston), and now are making money from land ownership through cleverly purchasing title using Albacore club (a retirement village) members’ names during LA’s time of drought.
This is done by diverting or truncating water supplies from the northern orange valleys to lower the land value in order for the sly purchases, but this was also only made possible after: murdering the town’s Water chief (Mulwray) who opposed the plan, making it look like a suicide; and installing their puppets in office (Yelburton and Mulvihill) to handle bureaucracy. Gittes uncovers Mulwray’s suicide as murder, and Cross ‘hires’ Gittes to locate Sessions to create a diversionary hoax that was designed to bait Gittes, kill Sessions, yet inadvertently incriminated Mrs Mulwray for a spousal revenge-killing to the ambiguously “corrupt/foolish” police officers (led by Perry Lopez’s character Escobar). After Gittes and Mrs Mulwray bond, he learns about her past and plots her escape because he stumbles upon glasses amid the “grass” (Chinese pun included), and links Cross to the murder, but can’t rescue Dunaway.
The mystery is built into the conspiracy and makes you wonder about every character’s true intentions because every character blends the right amount of shrewd with vulnerability across the narrative. Nicholson (an ex-cop on the Chinatown beat), for all his combination of world-weariness, hide, wit and cool headed charm (he smiles slyly throughout- even when in adversity), still finds time to instill a sweet scent of old fashioned integrity that is reverential to the canonical era of Marlowe, yet is bound vulnerably to his principles (see the scene at the barbershop).
Dunaway, is both part femme fatale with a cold streak, yet vulnerably revealed as a tragic victim (this one last twist I cannot give away even if I’ve already given away almost everything, but let’s just say Dunaway’s acting moved me to tears). Huston’s character, ironically dressed as a powerful, earnest fatherly figure, is revealed to be the epitome of evil. Finally, even supporting characters also have duality. Escobar, Yelburton and even the butler (Hong), all have two dimensions to them- cogs in the tragic cycle rather than absolutes- neither good nor bad. The development put into character shades in this film is impressive, and learning to love this deliberate ambiguity to the plot and to each character is a key to appreciating the film.
This picture brings other elements all together neatly too, and even Jerry Goldsmith’s score – with its melodic jazz horn howls – synonymous with the detective noir genre, captures the hauntingly beautiful yet tragic nature of the film (and apparently it was the replacement score as well!). Everything just clicks in this film. Polanski embellishes Towne’s screenplay with all his usual mise en scene magic – framing shots of portrait beauty at times (Nicholson on a cliff at sunset; framing completely symmetrical shots of otherwise ordinary LA apartment blocks). Only a non-LA resident like Polanski could have caricatured LA’s desert/urban duality this way. It had the aforementioned postmodern realism without compromising on set design, and style from the 30s – not to mention Faye Dunaway’s hair, wardrobe and thinly plucked Marlene Dietrich eyebrow lines! I think this all stems from that distinctly European Polanski build on a completely American motif (it can’t get more American than detective noir), such that, there’s even a hint of Godard like post-Nouvelle Vague influence – use of POV shots (in the chase or fight scenes), while keeping the film in Technicolor Panavision instead of B&W (de rigeur for noir).
However, the best bit about this film is its Message/Metaphor. As a metaphor for the unknown (Chinatown referring to a place with different culture/rules/language), this film is equally allegorical about cynicism towards the unknowable as toward the establishment. It says cynicism is fine, that this is a sinful world where inequality, greed and depravity, all exists and we are all stuck in it – a sort of rut where the reality is that human tragedy is tied to human depravity and human weakness. That we are kind of like many of the characters in the film, opportunists, yet, with differing moral platitudes to the degree of our cynicism and loss of faith in life and government and systems including taking for granted the sources of sustenance, from energy and water to power, and possibly, the greatest one: love. Yet, all of these get twisted and abused, the power, the water, the love. It’s tragic. We’re kind of supposed to be like Gittes, shocked by corruption but never surprised, hurt at the vicious cycle of it all – we hurt, and get hurt as a result of others, and yet, we know we were involved in the tragedy and wish we could have changed things. Sadly, we can’t, because we’re lost in the futility of being unable to change this world, because it’s Chinatown and we don’t understand it and can’t make sense of it all. There is no gospel. No fairytale. It just ends.
And that’s why, like Jake Gittes, who is told to forget it the ending, I can’t. I won’t forget this film. It’s because, to me, it’s a metaphor for the tragedy of fallen humanity. It’s not just Chinatown.