Monday, August 12, 2013

CANON OF FILM: "CHINATOWN"

CHINATOWN (1974)

Director: Roman Polanski
Screenplay: Robert Towne



Considered a neo-noir upon original release, Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” now gets considered among the great film noir classics, despite its occasional flare for more colorful dialogue that Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe might have said in their respected films, the film doesn’t feel new-age. It feels as though it was made in the ‘40s, right next to “The Maltese Falcon,” and “The Big Sleep.” Even the movie’s main villain is played by John Huston (who directed among other film noir staples, “The Maltese Falcon,”) as the dictator of the Los Angeles’s water company during a time that there appears to be a drought, but as the private eye, Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes seems to think a little differently. It begins with Jake having a mysterious woman appear in her office being very vague about an assignment she wants done, as most film noirs seem to start out, a woman entering a private detective’s office. It later turns out that the person who she claimed to be comes in and demands that the investigation gets called off. While we’re still thinking who the girl was and why she pretending… the person Jake was assigned to watch, one of the heads of the controversial water company, mysteriously drowns in the middle of the drought-ridden L.A., and now the real Evelyn Mulwray, (Faye Dunaway) also seems to be concealing more information than she lets on. The movie’s title is a reference to something Robert Towne, who’s screenplay earned him an Oscar, although most credit Polanski’s uncredited rewrites as being more prevalent to the success of the film, heard a cop who ran the beat in Chinatown say that he tries to do as little as possible there, because you never know if you’re helping the good guy or the bad guy. Jake repeats this tale to Mulwray at one point, after they’ve gotten intimate, talking about his old days as a beat cop, and the mistake he made in Chinatown many years ago. It’s that confused state of mind that seems to surround Gittes as he tries to sort through this jigsaw puzzle. Like how come water is being flooded at night, where is the girl that Mulwray’s husband was apparently with on the lake in the park, and what does it mean that Evelyn has a slight discoloration flaw in her eye. Where this movie turns was shocking to a 1974 audience, and is still shocking now. This film noir variation of Oedipus story eventually leads down a dark corner in a part of town where the rich can get away with anything, and murder, shockingly, isn’t the worst of it. This is the first Roman Polanski film I’ve placed in the canon, and it probably should’ve been in earlier. Few filmmakers have led such a dark life, and his films usually tend towards it. He lost his family in the Holocaust, himself barely surviving, and when he made this film, his wife Sharon Tate had been murdered by the Manson Family; they were looking for him. When he finally won his long-delayed Oscar for “The Pianist,” he wasn’t allowed in the country to accept it, as he was in exile in Europe after fleeing spending time in prison on a rape trial that was such an atrocious abuse of the law, even the D.A. on that case has said he would’ve driven Polanski to the airport. He was nearly extradited a few years back after being arrested in Switzerland, but that didn’t go anywhere. He probably should’ve gotten two Oscars for this film, both for directing and he should’ve gotten a screenplay credit for rewriting the script, but like many of his protagonists, he doesn’t seem to ever be in the position to get the right break. If one must suffer to be a true artist, film’s Michelangelo is Polanski.

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