Monday, 30 January 2012

FilmQuest 2012 (6/30): 'Chinatown':

Furthering my quixotic "FilmQuest 2012" - a mission to fill the vast, unforgivable gaps in my knowledge of film - is Roman Polanski's 1974 neo-noir classic 'Chinatown'. When I selected my arbitrary roster of 30 films I made it a rule to name no more than one by any given director, meaning that 'Repulsion', 'Cul-de-sac' and 'Rosemary's Baby' will have to wait for a future list. It's fair to say Polanski encapsulates one of those embarrassing cinema blind spots that prompted the list in the first place.

'Chinatown' is the first "classic" Polanski film I've had the pleasure of seeing and now I can see why he's considered one of the great masters of cinema - something that was not apparent upon watching his forgettable 'Oliver Twist' or rote thriller 'The Ghost Writer' (though that film is similar to 'Chinatown' in so far as its an investigation told from a subjective viewpoint). It's one of those rare films that is universally acclaimed for more or less every aspect of its production - and deserves it. What can you say about a film like that? I'm afraid I'll be reduced to simply repeating the obvious.

Robert Towne's Oscar-winning screenplay is intelligent and full of brilliant one-liners ("politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough"). I recently discussed the films of David Fincher with friends who defended the loathsomeness of 90s thriller 'Seven' as being a poem on the decline and immorality of the modern American city. 'Chinatown' is similarly cynical and critical: indeed its hero takes a similar arc to Brad Pitt's idealistic cop in that film, ultimately realising that his attempts to do something good are futile amongst the greed and corruption of 1930s Los Angeles. But the foregrounding of specific, historically-routed political critique stops 'Chinatown' from feeling like the nihilistic ambassador for hopelessness or a cheerleader for empty despair.

The actors are also on career-defining form. Jack Nicholson is at his inimitable best as private eye Jake Gittes (who surly ranks as one of the all-time greatest movie detectives), combining his explosive intensity - that ever-present feeling that he could do or say anything - with an understated, classic movie star elegance. The great director John Huston makes a lasting impression as wealthy patriarch Noah Cross, despite only appearing in two scenes (one of which is at the very end). His courtly and genteel portrayal ensures the character looms large over the whole film.

Faye Dunaway is also perfectly cast as the seemingly poised and in-control femme fatale Evelyn Mulwray, exhibiting an underlying damaged quality that prevents her ultimate reveal as the victim from being out of the blue without robbing it of its capacity to shock. Legendary screenwriter William Goldman has said that good movies feel both inevitable and surprising and 'Chinatown' certainly has this strange seemingly contradictory quality.

And then there's Polanski. The director ensures a dialogue heavy and complicated script holds together without an ounce of fat. He apparently eliminated a Gittes voiceover from the script and tightened up the famous ending: bringing everything to a head in one climactic confrontation instead of over several more complex scenes. He also placed the film's celebrated "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown" at the very end. The line had apparently already existed elsewhere in the script but Towne could never quite make it fit - in the end its placement is perfect, capturing the tragic futility Gittes struggle in a single phrase.

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