"Forget it Jake; it's Chinatown."
Has another American film ever wrapped itself up so neatly in one last line? While the coda never attained the mythological status of "Rosebud," it's at least as worthy of rumination. Who hasn't, after all, been caught in circumstances where the game is rigged, you can't win for losing, and only the good die young -- at least metaphorically? Where personal depravity festers into institutional corruption? Though the historicity of the film is at best vague, the message is anything but: that the needs of the many are always subordinate to the solipsism of the rich and powerful, and those who stand in their way are going to get plowed under. Or at least wind up with a sliced nostril.
So director Roman Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne's 1974 film offers us all the trappings of classic film noir -- but in color. The plot: J.J. "Jake" Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is an ex-cop and current private eye in 1937 drought-stricken L.A. who gets lured into a case ostensibly concerning marital infidelity. The plot then thickens -- or dampens, rather -- revealing a conspiracy involving water and where it goes. As he navigates his way through an array of self-interested liars, Gittes, naturally, plunges into a rabbit hole of intrigue, greed and corruption. There is also a murder, a crooked ex-sheriff, thugs, benighted cops, and a beautiful woman (Faye Dunaway), along with a jazzy music score and gorgeous cinematography evoking a romantic past.
But this is no ordinary noir. In this New Hollywood, era, comforting genres got turned on their heads, and revisionist films like Bonnie and Clyde, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and The Long Goodbye subverted old tropes while exploding audience expectations. The precipitating event in Chinatown -- a dissembling woman hiringa private dick -- echoes Brigid O'Shaugnessy working Sam Spade at the start of The Maltese Falcon, that archetypal noir. But where Bogart's Spade kept turning the tables on the rogues gallery attempting to ensnare him, Gittes is a man who makes a habit of arriving a day late and a dollar short. The fact that he can handle himself belies the fact that his idealism makes him ill-suited for the business. And can you imagine Bogart or Mitchum indulging in the kind of ingenuous delight Nicholson displays in his eagerness to tell a dirty joke? Or that any of the image peddlers in the heyday of noir would have signed off on their leading man walking around for a good chunk of the film with his nose covered by a large bandage?
Meanwhile, Faye Dunaway's Evelyn Mulwray lies and evades, following the classic femme fatale script. She's too sexy to ignore but too dangerous to trust, right up to the denouement, when.... bam! We find out that the mystery woman Gittes has been chasing is in fact Evelyn's own daughter by her father (John Huston). One can only imagine how audiences responded in 1974, when incest was not a topic of talk shows and self-help books. Here, the repressed emotions and transgressed taboos that classic Hollywood excelled at subversively communicating under the stricture of the Production Code are brought out of the two-toned noir shadows and thrown into colorful stark relief, and the audience gets the same rough education as Gittes. "My father and I ... understand?" Evelyn asks him, disgust suffusing her voice, after Gittes has slapped the truth out of her. "Or is it too tough for you?" That's a question for us, as well. Do we, like Gittes, have the stomach for anything stronger than subtext in our on-screen fantasies? Where the femme fatale is not the root of original sin, but a broken victim?
The ending, which Polanski had to fight for, is one of the bleakest in American cinema. When Huston's Noah Cross drags his daughter/granddaughter away, the failure of our detective hero is complete, and we know that history will repeat in Cross' perverse sexuality and in his successful financial scheming. If Gittes has solved any mystery, it's only that in the face of powerful forces you don't understand, it's better to do "as little as possible," as they used to say on his old Chinatown beat.
What else makes the movie great? The rich sepia-toned cinematography lends a parched but beautiful look to a story with a backdrop of drought. The atmosphere is grim; everyone's suspicious, wary, or cranky. And the acting is out of this world. Nicholson's Gittes is another in an extraordinary run of indelible performances over a six-year period (Five Easy Pieces, Carnal Knowledge, The King of Marvin Gardens, The Last Detail, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). Dunaway may go him one better; in a star turn of supreme intelligence, her fragility comes into focus only after her horrifying secret is revealed. At one point she stumbles over the words "my father," looking blankly into the distance, the familial term seeming to confound all reason. Later, while naked, she covers herself up at his mention.
With good reason. "I don't blame myself," the robber baron and pedophile says about the sexual abuse of his daughter. "Most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they're capable of anything." John Huston as Noah Cross lends the type of megalomania that can only come from personal experience. Yet something comical stirs amid the monstrousness -- he's a ruffian who has terrorized his way into high society but can barely conceal his pirate's heart. At the end, when he is shot point blank, he naturally suffers only a flesh wound. A mere bullet, it seems, cannot defeat such an embodiment of avarice.
Because this is Chinatown.