[17 November 2009]
Given the coincidence between Roman Polanski’s arrest in Switzerland and the release of Paramount’s Centennial Collection DVD of Chinatown, there is some temptation to read the film through the lens of the director’s crimes and personal life, especially with the movie’s dramatic themes of rape, wealth, and privilege. But the truth is, I hardly thought about Polanski the private person and fugitive at all while viewing the new DVD, even when he showed up on screen.
This isn’t surprising. Chinatown is one of three movies that I will cite as my favorite when asked. I’ve seen it multiple times, and for me, it exists in a world quite separate from that of its creators’ lives. It is also a film that belies the statement of authorship that appears above the title, which proclaims it to be, “A Robert Evans Production of a Roman Polanski Film”.
To begin, the success of Chinatown as cinema is clearly indebted to Robert Towne’s smart, wry, and layered writing. The Centennial Collection DVD acknowledges this by featuring the screenwriter, in dialogue with David Fincher, on the commentary track.
Like so many great Hollywood films, Chinatown is full of great lines, and the fact that most are hard to quote out of context—“I damn near lost my nose, and I like it. I like breathing through it.”—is suggestive of how tightly constructed and organic the elements of Towne’s script are.
Despite bringing film noir into the daylight and into color, Chinatown is among the darkest of Southern California tales, condensing the history of Los Angeles’ water grab into a family drama of control, abuse and incest, one where power politics grows from, and feeds back into, dysfunctional familial relations.
The classic noir protagonist is an ‘everyman’ who finds himself caught in the deceptions and schemes of those far wealthier and more powerful than himself. Towne’s p.i., J. J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), fits this mold, but his ensnarement by Noah Cross (John Huston) and Evelyn Cross Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) not only pulls him into the family’s twisted relations and power plays, it also leaves its mark on his body and person, most notably in the form of his slit nose, courtesy of the little tough played by Polanski. In this way, he prefigures other iconic noir characters like the Coen brothers’ and Jeff Bridges’ much battered and abused Jeffrey Lebowski.
The look and feel of Chinatown has become standard for other daytime, color noirs. Here the sunny, blue L.A. skies are ironic counterpoints to the dark corruption of the city’s politics and supposedly happy families enjoying the last outpost of the American dream on the dry western edge of the continent. The sun also creates shadows after all, and John Alonzo’s photography sets a dark tone for southern California despite all the brightness. Watch virtually any post-Chinatown L.A. noir and you’ll immediately recognize the irony in the daylight and the sunny twist on the genre’s play with light and shadow from the earlier film.
Jerry Goldsmith’s mournful score is hard to shake after watching the film, and while it hasn’t been as universally influential as Alonzo’s photography, that the composer was also hired for L.A. Confidential (1997), among the best of Chinatown‘s progeny, is a measure of how perfect his compositions are for the original work.
Nicholson, Dunaway, and Huston can also lay claim to authorship of the film. Towne’s dialogue rolls effortlessly off of Nicholson’s tongue, and from the mouth of the street smart Gittes. Huston is simultaneously pathetic and one of the great villains of Hollywood film. Dunaway is relatively easy to lose sight of, but watch closely, and you can see Evelyn Mulwray as always thinking, constantly deciding between fight or flight. The movie is unimaginable without these three stars.
None of this is to suggest that Polanski doesn’t deserve his name above the title, and above the names of the two leads. To pull all of the above elements together in such a near perfect way, and to bring Towne’s script to vibrant life on screen, required a skilled director, someone to look after the whole with care, artfulness, and intelligence. Polanski did that. But there is no reason to fixate on the film’s (in)famous director while watching and assessing the meaning and significance ofChinatown.
The two-disc Centennial Collection DVD set includes a commentary track with Towne and David Fincher. The two men dialogue about the movie, about the city and its history, with Fincher taking the lead, acting both as a fellow professional and as a fan. Disc two includes a new documentary about Los Angeles and water, “Water and Power”, featuring Towne, and a series of short features on the film, starting with “Chinatown: An Appreciation”. This extra offers reactions and insights from contemporary filmmakers, most prominently directors Steven Soderbergh and Kimberly Peirce. It is a nice companion to the commentary with Fincher and Towne.
The other features, “Chinatown: The Beginning and the End”, “Chinatown: Filming”, and “Chinatown: The Legacy”, are also available on the earlier “Special Collector’s Edition” of the film. These address the making and reception of the movie, and include reflections from many of the principals involved in the making of the film. The second disc also includes an original trailer.
As much as I think of Chinatown as a collective work of brilliance, I am less quick to name it as my favorite as I once was. Certain pieces, such as the obligatory sex scene between Nicholson and Dunaway, or the vaguely Orientalist framing of ‘Chinatown’, have worn thin with time, but even these have arguable merits.The post-coital dialogue between Gittes and Mulwray, the interplay of their faces, bodies and cigarettes, almost rationalizes, or at least excuses, their perfunctory romance.
And while choosing Chinatown as a signifier of L.A.‘s corrupt heart may play with ethnic stereotypes, maybe that too is meant to be taken as part of the city’s shame. Whatever flaws it carries, Chinatown is essential viewing for anyone who loves film, especially film as a collaborative art and craft.