September 12, 2002

Under the Radar

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Cities have souls. Character, history, essence or reputation, call it what you will. That which separates each from the other, so that New York is not Paris, which is not Moscow. Have you ever wondered how cities are born? How they grow so that they cannot be mistaken for one another? Roman Polanski’s Chinatown is many things, and one of them is the origin story of the city of Los Angeles. L.A. is the bastard child of cities, half improvise and half compromise. Chinatown (which isn’t so much a place as a state of mind) relates how the city grew around a rotten center, so that it fell at the moment of its birth.

Watch the film twice. The first time you see it, glory in Robert Towne’s steel trap of a screenplay which takes two hours worth of seemingly unconnected events and transforms them into something as inevitable as Greek tragedy (and this is the only hint I will give to the film’s killer plot twist). Once you’ve caught your breath, and have convinced yourself that you actually saw what you thought you saw, take another look and witness how a skilled director, cast and crew can create a world utterly complete unto itself. Polanski’s masterpiece is a neo-noir set during a heat wave in 1930’s L.A. It opens, as almost every detective movie ever made has, with a mysterious woman walking into the hero’s office. In this case, the PI is a former cop named J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson proving that his underplaying is just as effective as his scenery chewing) and the woman is Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray (Ida Sessions). Mrs. Mulwray is the wife of that Mulwray — the head of the water and public works commission. She thinks her husband is cheating on her. Gittes investigates and finds Mulwray with a young blonde. It’s all very simple. Except that Hollis Mulwray is a good, decent man (enjoy him while you’ve got him, he’s the only one to be found in the movie) and the photos Gittes takes end up on the front page without him placing them. Then the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway, flawless) shows up and is not amused. Shortly thereafter, Hollis turns up dead- drowned in a city built out of a desert during a draught. And Mr. Gittes begins to see that nothing is that simple.

Towne spins the plot out from there, starting from a small, seedy affair to have his story encompass the single worst parent in film history (John Huston), dead men who buy farmland and an endeavor to bring water to the city, or the city to water. Towne was inspired by the rape of Owens valley in 1908, which resulted in the creation of the San Fernando Valley and made L.A. a viable metropolis. To represent every conniving business man and city official we have Noah Cross (Huston). Cross is the film’s pure incarnation of evil and as such, he gets Towne’s best lines. When told he is respectable, he answers “I’m old. Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough,” using his charm to defuse Gittes insinuations. Gittes persists in his suspicions, however, due in part to the fear the old man seems to inspire in his daughter: Evelyn. Gittes turns out to be right, of course. The scene where he learns just how right he is about Cross is simply the best plot twist ever. It towers over all the Kyser Sozes and dead people in the world because the revelation really has very little to do with plot and everything to do with character and ugly, dark wounds that won’t heal.

What really makes the film work is the attention to background detail. The film is sun drenched gothic, where the bodies are buried so deep they don’t need to be hidden by night and shadow. This movie is incredibly creepy at times because everything is just a bit off from normal. The subtle wrongness is perfectly encapsulated in Evelyn; whose face is always a little too made up (Dunaway looks unearthly, her face a vaguely oriental mask) and has an odd defect in her eye. Every event complements every shot and acting choice until the film is a flawless unit.

Although the film was nominated for 11 Oscars it is almost obscure today. I think the reason it has been forgotten when other dark auteur films from the same era are remembered is because the others (Taxi Driver, The Conversation, etc) are Hamlet-esque tales with a flawed hero but an enduring society. By comparison, Chinatown is King Lear: it presents a family gone so wrong that it poisons the very world. There can be no restitution made for crimes of this magnitude and so the corruption remains in the very heart of the city itself.

Archived article by Erica Stein