Saturday, May 1, 2021

CHINATOWN 1974

"Mrs. Mulwray, I think you're hiding something."

Whether for the prestige, visual opulence, short-hand history, or easy-access sentimentality, period films and costume dramas have always been a Hollywood staple and a vital part of movie storytelling. But in the 1970s, the need for some kind of collective breather from the relentless tensions of the “Now” (i.e., Vietnam War, Watergate, impeachment, oil crisis, inflation) produced a market-surge interest in movies set in the “Then.” Particularly the then of the 1920s and 1930s.
Some of these films were escapist homages to retro genres (At Long Last Love -1975). Some were style-fetish showcases devoted to the detailed reconstruction of the fashions, furnishings, and décor of the era (The Great Gatsby -1974). And some were trenchant exercises in ‘70s disillusionment whose nihilist themes were tempered by the distancing device of taking place in America's recent past (The Day of the Locust -1975). Roman Polanski’s Chinatown managed to be all three.
Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes

Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Cross Mulwray

John Huston as Noah Cross

The collaborative effort of the members of the “New Hollywood” Boys Club: producer Robert Evans (The Godfather, Marathon Man), screenwriter Robert Towne (Shampoo, The Last Detail), and director Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby, Macbeth), Chinatown had a bumpy, three-year journey to the screen (covered in deliciously intricate detail in Sam Wesson’s book The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last years of Hollywood). But when Chinatown premiered in theaters in the summer of 1974, the many arguments, rewrites, firings, walkouts, and endless weeks of tinkering proved not only to be more than worth the effort, but stood as evidence of the degree of care and artistry that went into fashioning a film that many today regard as a modern masterpiece of American cinema. 
Love the composition of this shot. Even the body language of the characters is perfect

Hardly considered the sure-fire success its current reputation would suggest, Chinatown struggled through disastrous previews and a difficulty generating pre-release interest in a 1974 movie marketplace dominated by the twin publicity blitzkriegs of Lucille Ball's ill-conceived Mame and Robert Redford's The Great Gatsby. Three-time Oscar nominee Jack Nicholson (his most recent being a Best Actor nod for 1973's The Last Detail) was hot at the time, but there existed considerable doubt among many as to how he would come across in this, his first stab at a leading man glamour role. 
Meanwhile, Faye Dunaway's post-Bonnie and Clyde screen output had proved erratic at best, with her The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) golden girl patina coming perilously close to tarnishing after a string of arty flops and effective but unfruitful supporting roles. Then there was Roman Polanski...with his days as New Hollywood's European wunderkind a matter of history and coming fresh off two back-to-back boxoffice bombs (Macbeth -1971 and What? -1972), his name carried about it an aura of fall-from-grace tragedy (the Manson murders) in a town ruled by superstition.
Darrell Zwerling as Hollis Mulwray

Further contributing to the uncertainty surrounding the film's reception was the fact that a quick recounting of Chinatown's plot-- "A private eye in 1937 Los Angeles investigates a mystery involving a real estate swindle and the city's water rights!" --didn't exactly set the pulse racing. 
But what Chinatown had going for it was that it was an original. Not an adaptation of a previously-produced novel, film, or theatrical production. As '70s movies became more formulaically bloated (The Way We Were -1973) and market-driven slick (The Sting - 1973), Chinatown's creative integrity vs its dubious box-office prospects felt like a throwback to Hollywood's very recent past. Back to the start of the decade when difficult-to-categorize films like Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) and Five Easy Pieces (1970) were being made because they were stories the filmmakers wanted to tell, not because they were sure-fire blockbuster material.

The first time I saw Chinatown, it had me in its hip pocket the minute those stylish opening titles appeared to the accompaniment of Jerry Goldsmith's mysteriously forlorn theme music. And though the film had an alluringly old-fashioned sound and succeeded in creating a vision of a past that felt lived-in, not decorative, Chinatown somehow managed to sidestep things that might have made it feel imitative or as paying affectionate homage to another movie…Chinatown looked and felt like the genuine article.

It didn't seem quite possible that Polanski and Co. had managed to make a film that worked magnificently as a mystery (the particulars of the twisty plot--murder, political swindling, family secrets ---are not exactly easy-to-follow on first viewing); achieved a kind of visual poetry (the movie looks swelteringly hot! How did they do that?), and was propelled by the emotional connection of compelling characters whose fates you came to care about (the performances are uniformly first-rate...right across the board). 
Chinatown, in both style and execution, is a jet-black neo-noir that realizes--with a persuasive canniness I still can't quite put my finger on--both Robert Towne's goal of writing a story in the tradition of Raymond Chandler Dashiell Hammett, and Roman Polanski's desire to create: “A film about the ‘30s seen through the camera eye of the ‘70s.” 
Chinatown gets everything right. In creating the slightly artificial authenticity of Los Angeles in the '30s, Polanski nailed it when he observed "People know this time because of the movies, not because of what was real."

Given a contemporary sheen thanks to its widescreen Panavision color photography that "feels" like B&W, Chinatown evokes the classic detective movies of the past via its keen eye for period detail and avoidance of so many of the nostalgia-craze movie gimmicks of the time: no diffused lighting, no voiceover narration, no self-conscious “period” jargon, and no knowing winks to the audience. And here's a bonus...the actors actually look comfortable and convincing in their period clothes! (For the alternative, see Mank - 2020). 
The result is a movie that's as satisfying as a genre entertainment as it is a dark and existentially layered contemplation on corruption, the destruction of innocence, and, as per Towne, "The futility of good intentions."
Chinatown provides many memorable "goosebump moments," this scene being one of my favorites. I absolutely love Dunaway's delivery and the struck look in Nicholson's eyes when Evelyn asks about the mystery woman in Jake's past. As we'll discover, Evelyn & Jake are two people united by the things they're trying to forget.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
One of the main reasons Chinatown made such an impression on me is that it was the very first noirish private eye movie I ever saw. 
In 1971 LIFE magazine devoted its February cover to America’s burgeoning nostalgia craze, and by 1974, everything from fashion to music reflected the nation’s fascination with life enjoyed in the rear-view. The summer of 1974 saw San Francisco movie theaters so overflowing with retro fare, it took considerable effort to find a film set in the present day: Chinatown, The Great Gatsby, The Lords of Flatbush, That’s Entertainment!, Mame, The Three Musketeers, Daisy Miller, Thomasine and Bushrod, Blazing Saddles, Jeremiah Johnson, Huckleberry Finn (of all things), and Our Time (a little-seen coming-of-age movie set in the ‘50s that opened at the Alhambra during the summer I worked there as an usher). 
The Two Mrs. Mulwrays
Diane Ladd as Ida Sessions. There is a subtle wit to Ladd's performance as the prostitute/movie bit player hired to impersonate Evelyn Mulwray. Miss Session's attempt to affect an air of moneyed aristocracy hints at her lack of success as an actress.

When Chinatown came out I was a 16-year-old movie buff with a passion for contemporary films almost to the exclusion of all else. Back then, my appreciation for classic movies was largely academic and aesthetic (i.e., I enjoyed reading about them and decorated the walls of my bedroom with posters of Marilyn Monroe, Glark Gable, and WC Fields), not practical. Which meant I hadn’t yet seen The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, or any of those classics on The Late Show about hard-boiled detectives and dangerous women. At sixteen I was much too in thrall of the then taboo-shattering adult themes and newfound unrestricted nudity, sex, & violence of ‘70s films to ever find the Production Code coyness of old movies to be of much interest. That is, except for musicals. Ken Russell’s The Boy Friend (1971) ignited my love for old MGM musicals and the films of Busby Berekely, but that’s pretty much where my interest in “Golden Age" Hollywood films began and ended. 

The latter point, my love of musicals, goes to plain why, when That’s Entertainment! and Chinatown both opened on the same day in San Francisco (Wednesday, June 26th), I opted for That’s Entertainment!. An option I exercised for two more weekends before getting around to seeing Chinatown.
Roman Polanski as Man with Knife

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Maybe it’s the Blu-ray talking, but I’m obsessed with what a fabulous-looking movie Chinatown is. The Oscar-nominated team of cinematographer John A. Alonzo, production designer Richard Sylbert, and art director W. Stewart Campbell give Chinatown an atmospheric sheen that is often breathtaking in its evocation of sun-baked Los Angles in the late ‘30s. 
But despite the obvious care and expense lavished on every frame, Chinatown's distinction is that it is a period film that has no interest in romanticizing the past. With traditionally swept-under-the-nostalgia-carpet realities like racism and classist privilege flowing like an undercurrent in a narrative propelled by graft, collusion, murder, and incest; Chinatown’s surface sheen creates a dichotomy that challenges the dreamy ideals one associates with old movies. Cynicism has always been a part of the detective movie genre, but no matter how nihilist the theme, by fade-out, the requisite virtues of honor, heroism, and the triumph of good had to be reinstalled. Chinatown, however, ends with a punch to the gut and the ground knocked out from under us.
Me in 1974:  "Wow, even in so-called simpler times, rich people were greedy and corrupt!"
Me in 2021: "Wow, this movie is almost 50 years old and the rich are still as corrupt and greedy as ever!"

PERFORMANCES
Robert Towne wrote the character of J. J. Gittes with pal Jack Nicholson in mind, so the star-making role of the principled private eye with a taste for Florsheim shoes and words like “métier” fits the actor as perfectly as one of Jake’s tailored suits. This is my favorite of all Nicholson’s performances and arguably his last real immersion in character before entering the “Wink-wink, it’s me! Jack Nicholson!” phase of his career. The entire film is from his perspective...Chinatown is Jake’s journey. But its mystery, tragedy, and heart (and my favorite character) is Evelyn Mulwray.
Jane Fonda in Julia (1977) - Even Robert Towne had Fonda in mind when he wrote Chinatown

Both Robert Evans and Roman Polanski have made it known that Jane Fonda was their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd choice for the role of Evelyn Mulwray. But when Fonda declined (something the actress denies), Chinatown gained Faye Dunaway…the jewel in Chinatown’s crown and the only ‘70s actress in my eyes to possess the combined intensity, inscrutability, aristocratic bearing, neurotic edge, old-fashioned movie star glamour, and grown-woman gravitas required to bring Evelyn Mulwray to life as something more than just another vaguely-drawn film noir femme fatale cliché. 
As Chinatown’s woman of mystery (she who must not be known until Act III), Evelyn Mulwrays’s impact has to be visual. A guarded woman who’s erected an immaculate façade to conceal just how badly she’s damaged, Evelyn intrigues because she is not at all what she seems. So defining a character trait is Evelyn’s appearance that when the film starts to peel away the layers of Evelyn’s very literal “mask” of makeup as her vulnerability is exposed, those moments achieve a poignancy that makes the film's tragic denouement all the more devastating. Faye Dunaway captures all this magnificently, but is seldom given credit.
Journalists applauded Polanski's time-consuming multiple takes and Towne's glacially slow writing pace as examples of their artistic perfectionism. Meanwhile, Dunaway's painstaking commitment to her character's obsession with appearance was dismissed as prima donna "difficulty" and made her behind-the-scenes clashes the only things people talk about when speaking of her contribution to Chinatown. Despite his early reservations, in the end, Robert Evans came to praise Dunaway's performance to the skies, albeit in his usual self-congratulatory way: "Dunaway's singular mystery on the screen was among the best casting choices of my career!"


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
There are a great many '70s films that I love in spite of (or because of) their flaws. But only a few I'd call perfect. Robert Altman's 3 Women (1977) gets my vote for being a wholly perfect film, so does Ken Russell's Women in Love (actually a 1969 film, but I'm cutting myself some slack because it wasn't released in SF until 1970), and most definitely Chinatown qualifies. 
And by perfect I don't mean an absence of technical goofs or anachronism errors... it's more the feeling of everything fitting so well together that you can't imagine anything being improved upon. The feeling that a story has been told in precisely the manner the filmmakers wanted to tell it. In the case of Chinatown, everything falls into place so ideally, from the cast to the music to the dialogue to the score...watching it becomes an immersive, deeply satisfying experience that engages on so many levels. I never tire of revisiting it, and the film seems boundless in offering new things to discover even after all this time. But best of all, it still manages to move me. 
I'm no longer as totally destroyed by it as I was when I was 16, but at age 63, this masterwork of cinema persists in giving me waterworks every single time.   

Thankfully, films are frozen in time. People, alas, are not. In 1974, audiences drew subconscious parallels between the dogged tragedies of Roman Polanski's personal life and the cursed fate of J.J. Gittes. Today, I'm afraid the parallels linking Polanski and Noah Cross fairly hit one over the head.




BONUS MATERIAL
Actor Paul Jenkins, who plays Policeman #1 in Chinatown (1974), made his film debut as a policeman in Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968).


Chinatown was planned as the first film in a trilogy. A plan which ground to a halt after the weak boxoffice performance of the second entry, The Two Jakes (1990). Set in 1948, the Jack Nicholson-directed sequel sorely misses Polanski's gift for cinematic storytelling and gets my vote for film most likely to convince you that Chinatown didn't need a sequel in the first place. Still, I did get a kick out of seeing these actors from the original return. 

Poster art by Jim Pearsall 
Chinatown was a summer release, opening on Wednesday, June 26, 1974 at San Francisco's Coronet Theater (which had just hosted The Great Gatsby for 11 weeks). I fell in love with the movie poster the instant I saw it, purchasing it a full month before seeing the film. The artwork captures just the right tone of nostalgia, the shadowy figure of the hatted and pinstriped Nicholson leaving no doubt as to the film's noirish roots, the dreamy image of Dunaway's face framed by the trails of cigarette smoke. the essence of romantic longing. 
The water motif is worked in with the wave crashing against Nicholson's sleeve, it being one of several elements of the poster that refuse to stay within the boundaries of the frame. From the lettering to the heat-glare effect of the coloring, everything about this poster is just perfect.  


Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2021

25 comments:

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and, as you probably know, am a crazed Dunaway fan. The screencaps are glorious. The big mystery is that, loving this film as you obviously do, how could it take so long for you to get around to highlighting it here?! Anyway, your insightful and appreciative take on it makes me want to view it once more. Thanks!!

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    1. Poseidon
      Terrific to hear from you! I know you're a big Dunaway fan...and ‘70s Dunaway—Chinatown, Bonnie & Clyde, Puzzle of a Downfall Child, and The Thomas Crown Affair—is Dunaway at her “star quality” best.
      She’s fairly luminous in CHINATOWN, something I was made even more aware of when collecting screencaps and imagining how long it must have taken for some shots to be set up (those where the light hits her eyes at just the right angle). The movie looks outrageously beautiful in Blu-ray.

      Based on the level of her impact, I'm still surprised by how little Dunaway is really on the screen in CHINATOWN (and although Fonda denies she was ever made a solid offer for the role, I still lean towards believing the rumors that she turned it down because the role was too small). As should be the case with a character like Evelyn Mulwray, the memory of her linger in scenes where’s she’s not even present.

      I do love this movie dearly, and the answer to the mystery as to why it took me so long to write about is perhaps a reason you're familiar with as well. Some movies are a tad over-represented online. There's so much written about them (THE GODFATHER, THE WIZARD OF OZ, PSYCHO) that it's a challenge to feel I’m adding anything new to the discourse.
      I was inspired to write about CHINATOWN now after all these years is because of reading that fabulous book about the making of CHINATOWN, and later hearing that Ben Affleck was to direct a film of same. I wanted to commit my thoughts on CHINATOWN into this, my “internet film journal” before they became forever marred by whatever’s coming.
      Thanks for the kind words and for reading this post, Poseidon, I'm very happy you enjoyed it and especially for taking the time to comment. Take care!

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  2. Ken,

    Chinatown is one of my all-time favorites too. I first saw it (at age 16 as with you) at a revival house screening; I had been reading Syd Field's screenwriting guide which includes lots of excerpts of Towne's screenplay as a model of film-writing technique.

    Because of Polanski's abusive behavior in his private life, I have to concentrate on his great skill as a film director whenever I watch his movies. His use of tracking shots in film like Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby have never been bettered. (I finally saw "What?" for the first time recently. It's cute, but one gets the impression that Polanski assembled his cast and crew on that splendid location and had everybody "wing it." It's watchable, but probably his most inconsequential work.)

    I enjoyed your photo comparisons. Paul Jenkin's cop looks EXACTLY the same in both shots, haha. The Jane Fonda photo still is startling, but I think Faye wins the style "contest" with her pencil-thin eyebrows and those facial bones! And I didn't realize that Allan Warnick's sniffy clerk was in The Two Jakes as well.

    Mark

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    1. Hi Mark
      Your bringing up the name Syd Field sparked something that sent me to Google, and as soon as I saw the typewriter on the cover, memories returned of reading Fields' “The Foundations of Screenwriting” back when I was in film school. I guess it was 1979 or 80, but so many people in my screenwriting class were reading it, you’d have thought it was the appointed textbook (I'd forgotten parts of Towne's screenplay were featured).

      And imagine seeing CHINATOWN at the same age, too! Great you got to see it at a theater with an audience. Hope all the plot points had fully entered into common knowledge by then. If you were like me at 16, CHINATOWN offered much to please the adolescent sensibility. It was a serious film with many layers to scrutinize and analyze. I personally loved all the recurring motifs and symbols (eyes, the flawed pairs, water, etc.) it offers a field day for a young person’s imagination and desire to be immersed in a movie experience.

      And I know what you mean about needing to keep a separation from Polanski the man and Polanski's work. His work is technically brilliant, but like when I watch John Wayne in TRUE GRIT…I can’t let myself think about the man, I think about the art.
      And what can one say about Polanski’s WHAT? After years of avoiding it, during lockdown I finally settled down and gave it a look. You say it perfectly…it’s a watchable film, but it’s essentially the Polanski version of one of those Adam Sandler movies that exist purely because somebody needed a working holiday. I haven’t seen PIRATES, but so far WHAT? Rates as my absolute least favorite of his films.

      I’m glad you liked the comparison photos. The fellow playing the cop DOES look exactly the same in both films, and Fonda, as marvelous as she would have been, just doesn’t have that extra “something” that Dunaway brings. Back when there was talk of making an American version of the French film “8 Women” I held out the hope that they might cast Fonda and Dunaway in the roles occupied by Catherine Deneuve and Fanny Ardant.
      happy to hear CHINATOWN is a favorite of yours as well, and that its clearly holds a special allure for 16-year-olds. Always appreciate your comment contributions and kind compliments. Thanks, Mike!

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    2. My apologies to Paul Jenkins, wherever he is, for misspelling his last name in my first post. I also meant to mention how much Chinatown is revered among the 1940s/50s film noir crowd; it's mentioned right up there with The Big Sleep and Double Indemnity.

      I think I've mentioned in previous comments how much the years 1980 and 1981 meant to me as a budding "cineaste." Apocalypse Now, All That Jazz, The Shining, The Stunt Man, Altered States, Dressed to Kill, Excalibur, An American Werewolf in London and others really enthralled me as brand-new movies at the time, and I also got heavily into older films such as Chinatown too. What's weird is that there were a lot of big 1970s films like The Godfather, Shampoo, and Network - to name three - that I first saw in the early 1980s, but I had known of their titles and their basic premises for quite some time, yet Chinatown escaped my attention until 1980 or so. Therefore, at first, I thought it was a relatively obscure '70s movie until I discovered that it was a commercial and critical hit, nominated for many awards, even Mad magazine spoofed it! I envy you for experiencing so many of the great American films of the late 1960s and 1970s firsthand, whereas I arrived just as that era was ending!

      I appreciate how I can ramble on in these comments. ;)

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    3. That's an excellent point you bring up --that CHINATOWN is currently revered as noir in its own right, not as a tribute or copy. It succeeded in its original objective to be the "real thing."
      All the more remarkable because in the end, only time decides these things (I had a recent discussion with a friend about how the reaction to SHAMPOO during its release [critics deciding it would be a film to define tour decade] never quite lived up to that prediction in the minds of the public).

      I tend not to give the '80s its proper due, but you reminded me how many amazing films came of at the start of the decade, making it a good time to be a budding cineaste. Anything can spark a love of movies, but I think a lasting respect and admiration for films comes from being lucky enough to experience a few great ones during our most impressionable years. I'm glad the early '80s was that for you.
      And I'm certain readers here appreciate your enthusiasm and interest, and don't see it as "rambling." I know I don't. Thanks, Mark!

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  3. I do love your essays! I saw Chinatown in the theater when I was 19. Mesmerized from the opening notes. This may be my absolute favorite soundtrack. So evocative and moody. The casting, costumes, cinematography ... everything was delicious. And you are so right - there was no one else other than Dunaway that could have captured Mrs. Mulwray.

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    1. Bella
      Oh, my...what a lovely way to start any comment!😁
      Thank you. Yet another fan of CHINATOWN who discovered it in their teens. The film's soundtrack is rightfully considered a classic, its so beautiful and melancholy. learning how quickly it was whipped up is something of a shock. Somewhere on YouTube they have CHINATOWN's original, discarded soundtrack. Listening to the tow you hear two fine compositions, but only one that truly suits what CHINATOWN became.
      Thank you for reading this post and commenting. Your concise summary of CHINATOWN's merits reminding me why it took so long to write about such a favored film: when every aspect feels ideally suited to the whole, it's hard to know what else to say after you've said "perfection!"

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  4. Argyle here. That was a marvelous essay, Ken. It's a film that's so "good" it's almost hard to talk about. I saw it first in maybe '76 or '77 at college. I was dying to see it, and of course it went right over my head. But I knew I would have to see it many times and I have. I still struggle to keep things straight which I enjoy and keeps it fresh. That also keeps it easily in league with The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, and The Last Goodbye. But Chinatown is also tragic and doesn't let you off. For me, that addresses the Polanski "problem". I feel, unlike Woody Allen, he has always directly addressed in his work the complexity of humans, motives, and behavior. He has tried to illustrate the condition of humans doing the wrong thing, harming others, harming themselves, harming the innocent. The character of the daughter - what can one say? The utter conviction of John Huston's character (and the utter perfection of Huston's casting with all we think we know about him and his history.) I don't think I'm excusing Mr. Polanski, but it is not, for me, a question of separating the man and the artist - he connects it completely and I so respect that. So many of his films are tortured by choices made - Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, Knife in the Water, Tess, The Pianist - a recognition and a grappling with the failures of men often driven by the pursuit of power over others, usually women. He struggles with the theme that has cursed him.
    Faye Dunaway is sublime in this. She has a kind of strength (so different from Fonda's more conventional strength) that is powered by will and damage as powerful and mesmerizing as the men. I think it's just part of Faye's own character.
    I am still captured and hurt by this movie when I see it.
    Thank you, Ken!
    Bill

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    1. SPOILERS IN THE REPLY
      Hello Bill
      I’m very happy you enjoyed this. I thank you. And I thank you for your observative remarks regarding CHINATOWN, the Polanski problem, and the issue of art and the artist. As with everything in life, one doesn’t need to be perfect and blemish-free to have insights and empathy about the human condition. The source of art is varied and complex, far too layered a conundrum to reduce exclusively to morality and goodness of character. Whether or not one wishes (or needs) to separate the art from the artist is personal and shouldn’t be influenced by anything outside of that individual's conscience.
      I forget who said it, but I’m a firm believer in the axiom “Don’t listen to the storyteller, listen to the story” because I think the beauty of art is that the artist can say and include things in their works that they are unaware of.
      I think that is the case with Polanski. I agree with you in finding nearly all of Polanski’s works to be revealing and interested in the complexities of life you so succinctly spelled out. I’d rather dwell on the humanity of his films than ruminate on how contradictory his private life may be to the respect he shows the weak and powerless in his films.

      I love Jane Fonda, but she’s a tad too canny and sane for how I envision Evelyn Mulwray. Dunaway is perfection. And to respond in this reply to your second, comment, I find it fascinating to think about how, had Jake left Evelyn alone when she begged him to, she and her daughter might have escaped. I feel the ironic tragedy lies in Jake (the man who tries to save her) being the one who is really responsible for her death. Next time you look at it, note how in the film’s final third, it is Jake (tired of Evelyn’s lies) who sics the police on her and also winds up being the one to lead Cross to where she is very close to getting away.

      Had Jake only learned his lesson from his first run-in with Chinatown and done “as little as possible” in the Mulwray case, she would be alive. That’s the part that hit me in the gut when I first saw it. Nothing can be sadder than a person of sincere principle trying to help, only to be the instrument that ensures that evil triumphs.
      I’ve no idea how introspective Polanski is (a client friend of mine starred in one of Polanski’s latter films and came away with the firm conviction “never meet your idols), but I know CHINATOWN is a deeply humane film. Painful and real in a way that reminded me of THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY?

      Thank you, Bill for sharing such a personal and insightful assessment of the qualities in Polanski's films you respond to. CHINATOWN is indeed a film so good that it leaves you with little to say. Having the experience is what counts. Always a kick hearing from you. Take care!

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    2. I've had to re-read your first paragraph of reply several times it's so full important ideas. "... one doesn’t need to be perfect and blemish-free to have insights and empathy about the human condition." And that it's a personal choice of conscience how to consider or not an artist and their work. Also "... listen to the story." Thank you for these insights.

      I had sensed but never had it put into words that Gittes' desire to get involved and help Evelyn is the engine of so much of the tragedy. It seems so clear to me now. I think as I watch "Chinatown" I am so exhilarated by the mood, the beauty (that screen cap of Hollis Mulwray for example), the desire for complexity that is MORE than satisfied, the inexplicable details that I know are significant (the spectacles in the pond) but are so evocative on their own even without understanding, that for me the themes stay under the surface. This is not a criticism but a praise. I appreciate your ability to articulate so much of the meaning.

      On a simpler note, do you know if the little apartment court where Gittes' buddy lives still exists?

      Argyle / Bill

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    3. Hi Bill
      You're very kind. Sometimes when I reread my own comments (often written hastily) I think I don't always get my ideas across very clearly. It does sound as though you made sense of what I intended to convey.
      Ithink it's a topic worthy of an essay...too complicated for a comment reply.

      CHINATOWN is so densely plotted that I had to see it several times before all the pieces started coming together. And even now I can watch it and note things I hadn't understood earlier. It's rare for a film to be that rich in content and as trusting of an audience's intelligence.
      When I re-watch it I either find myself wishing that Evelyn would just tell Jake the truth so can really help her, or that Jake would stop pressing and making things worse.

      As for your question about Curly's house, yes it still stands. Take a look at this great site devoted to CHINATOWN filming locations: https://la.curbed.com/maps/chinatown-filming-location-map

      Thanks, Bill!

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  5. Argyle again. SPOILER ALERT! I'm continuing to think about Evelyn Mulwray. She was abused. Her life has been horrible, but she is determined to correct it. She is battling an inscrutable monster (imagine HIS movie - that's what should have been made.) But she is so damaged she cannot be wise enough for events. Her flawlessly masked desperation gets the best of her deep intelligence. Her plan collapses and she tries to flee and is killed. (Sorry but does her father shoot her?) And even death is not the end, as her daughter is present at her death and is brought back into the monstrous fold, no one the wiser. It's incredible. It's beyond just a movie.

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    1. SPOILERS HERE ALSO

      Argyle - it's actually that one cop who Jake has been having an snark contest with throughout the whole movie. He shoots at the fleeing car and either gets in a lucky head shot or causes the car to crash and Evelyn bashes her face against the steering wheel/horn. (This is foreshadowed earlier when Evelyn beeps the car horn by accident when talking with Jake.)
      And, yes, the sight of the evil John Huston character comforting the hysterical girl - and Jake can't do a damn thing about it - is an intensely frustrating conclusion to this tale.

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    2. Thank you, Mark! Yes - it's like John Huston's character manages to stay above the fray which is so chilling.
      Argyle

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    3. SPOILER CITY, FOLKS
      Thanks for responding to Argyle's question about the film's devastating conclusion, Mark.
      Just wanted to add that Detective Loach's shot is through Evelyn's left eye. The one with the flaw in it, the one she forshadowingly daubs at after her rescue of Gittes at the retirement home. I bring up the specifics because over the years fans of CHINATOWN have taken note of a "flawed pairs" visual motif throughout the film--the broken lens on two watches, the broken taillight, the cracked lens on the bifocals--- that Towne disavows (somewhat disingenuously, as they are apt to be contributions of Polanski) as being intentional.

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    4. Ken, you're right about the shot - I just don't like to give that loathsome Loach credit for his marksmanship. ;)

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    5. Well, Mark
      I don't blame you! I don't know if you saw THE TWO JAKES, but if it's any consolation Towne allows Gittes to enact a little revenge on Loach's son (David Keith).

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  6. Fascinating review!
    Now I feel extremely guilty that I have never seen Chinatown.
    I will have to see if my library carries a copy of the DVD

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    1. My sincere thanks, John.
      I'm happy if this piece peaked your interest in the film, but you have no reason to feel guilty about not having seen it. Indeed, you're in the enviable position of discovering this movie at a time when digital technology has it looking and sounding better than it ever did in the theaters. If you should check it out one day, here's hoping you enjoy it as much as I do! Cheers!

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  7. It's always a treat when one of my favorite writers takes on one of my Top 5 favorite movies!

    And you managed to exceed my expectations Ken - you've provided enough contextual nuance(s)to demonstrate excellence when viewed through diverse prisms.

    Polanski certainly met his own brief: “A film about the ‘30s seen through the camera eye of the ‘70s.” ...to the point that I see it as anti-noir, based on my own take of what makes a film noir. As for the performances, I'd have to say that Dunaway's performance is what glues the film. She's Dietrich to Polanski's von Sternberg.

    Again through my own prism, it's the primal disturbance of water theft which sets up an underpinning mood for digesting the film in terms of what's existential & what's not.

    Thanks for your to-be-expected insights: I revisit "Chinatown" regularly because it's one of the best movies ever made IMO!



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    1. Hi Rick
      Blushing profusely here…Thank you very much.
      So CHINATOWN is one of your Top 5 favorite films! Not difficult to understand why at all. In reading about the making of the film, the most constant through-line is how deeply invested everyone was in making a good film. So much time taken, so many tears, yelling matches, and close calls (the Goldman’s iconic score was an 11th-hour addition is remarkable to me).

      I of course emphatically agree with you about Dunaway’s significance to this film. And the Dietrich comparison is perfect.
      Equally perfect is your use of the word “prism” for describing the many ways through which CHINATOWN can be viewed and interpreted. It’s an ideal word reflecting the multifaceted experience of watching a complex film. The word seems to accept and allow for one film to be seen and understood in several different ways, all of them valid.

      The prism through which you view CHINATOWN is tantalizingly hinted at in your feeling that the film is an “anti-noir,” and in your reference to the water theft element of the plot and the underpinning mood of the film. One day we shall have to discuss your thoughts on this, Polanski’s last American film. Until then, thank you for reading this and contributing your thoughtful content to the comments section.

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  8. Of all your fab reviews, this essay hits it out of the park! Reading your pieces is like eating a delicious many-layered cake.

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    1. Hi!
      It's always been my sincere desire to simply use this blog as a record (for the sake of my fading memory) of my personal memories and impressions of films I love. That my ramblings can sometimes be found entertaining or entertaining to others is still comes as a pleasant surprise to me. You've made my day with your incredibly kind comment.
      You mentioned cake...and you made me feel like it's my birthday! Thanks a million for reading this post and taking the time to comment in so generous a fashion.

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  9. Hi Ken

    Great essay as usual and it brought back so many memories of seeing it for the first time when it opened. Faye Dunaway was the first actress whose movies I actively sought out–even if it meant driving 60 miles in my dangerously unstable Corvair to see The Extraordinary Seaman.

    I was wondering if you ever read David Thomson’s novel Suspects which is populated with interconnecting characters from film noir, and the fringes of film noir? Spanning decades, it’s kind of a “meta secret history” (is that a thing?) that creates a world of its own (Noah Cross has an affair with Norma Desmond, for instance, and you’d never guess who their son is). Jack Gittes also make an appearance as does Laura Hunt and Waldo Lydecker, John Klute, Harry Lime and dozens of others. It’s not completely successful but it’s fascinating. And one of its surprises is who’s narrating it and why.

    And now that The Deadly Trap (Faye Dunaway, Barbara Parkins, Frank Langella) has recently been issued on Blu Ray, I would love to read your thoughts on it someday. Thanks Ken!

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