August 11, 2011

#21: Chinatown

"Forget it, Jake: it's..."

Roman Polanski's 1974 neonoir thriller Chinatown is like a mash-up between the the great film noir stories of the 1930s and 40s and the modern surrealism of David Lynch. It's set in the 1930s in Los Angeles (roughly where many of Lynch's films take place) but it never feels quite like it gels into its historical setting, feeling instead totally contemporary, maybe because of the recognizable stars and modern, Brando-esque line deliveries. All that aside, it's a thrilling, complex story, seen through the eyes of a private eye.

Company: on my owwwwn

Cuisine: just Jif. I'm without a car this week and last, and as such haven't had much time at the grocery store to obtain snacks.

The story opens on J. J. Gittes (Oscar nominee Jack Nicholson, cementing himself as a leading man), a private eye confronted by a woman named Evelyn Mulwray (Diane Ladd, wonderful) who suspects her husband of infidelity and wants him followed. Things are initially complicated when the real Evelyn Mulwray (a stunning Faye Dunaway) threatens Gittes with a lawsuit for investigating her husband without reason. And this is just the beginning of the complications, all of which are revealed to us at the same time that Gittes discovers them.

The real story revolves around the dispute over land and water rights in the city of Los Angeles and the surrounding area in the 1930s, which was apparently a thing. Fun fact: the head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power at the time this movie takes place was a man named William Mulholland, whose legacy to the city was such that he has a street named after him -- Mulholland Drive -- inspiring the title for David Lynch's own surreal neonoir thriller!

With so many plot twists and tricky lilts in the story, it would be exhausting to try to synopsize (shut up, that's a word!), but I'll try to hit key points. Evelyn's husband Hollis is discovered dead, perhaps murdered for what he knew, in a reservoir outside the city. But Gittes, like most fascinating cinematic detectives, can't let sleeping dogs lie -- and gets his nose sliced up for his nosiness. (Oops.)

Investigating this scheme is no easy task, given that nobody seems to be telling the truth, and at some point the audience starts to accept that nothing they're being told could be completely true. Part of Polanski's genius is that while the story is linear, the way the murder scheme unfolds for the audience is anything but. Nicholson, in his fourth Oscar-nominated performance, is adept at holding our attention while simultaneously withholding the conclusions he's drawing from the information we are being presented. Polanski doesn't make this easy for us: in the scene pictured above, a young Mexican boy riding a horse comes into the story and has a short conversation with Gittes. What are we to make of this? The director and the actor hide it from us until we can put the pieces together ourselves.

And has there been a more secretive, seductive femme fatale in modern cinema since Faye Dunaway? That jawbone, that bone structure, those smoky eyes, the hand holding her cigarette curled into a claw -- she's a vision, and luckily for Polanski (who had originally considered Jane Fonda, who would have been wrong for the role in my opinion), she acts the hell out of it.

As if the fact that she's played by Faye Dunaway wasn't a tip-off (see also: this), something is not quite right about Evelyn Mulwray's story. But Gittes is slowly falling for his femme fatale, and the penis in his brain is clouding his better judgment. What kind of story would it be without that teensy complication?

And if it weren't for his love and pity for Evelyn, he probably wouldn't have gotten as involved as he did -- and once he's in it, there's no way out. Hollis Mulwray was murdered for knowing too much, and now J. J. Gittes knows too much -- is there a way out? Not without a horrific family secret, a couple more murders, and an ultimate sense of futility at the film's end -- all accompanied by what I think is the film's greatest asset: the phenomenal, relentlessly weird and hypnotic score by perennial Oscar nominee Jerry Goldsmith (Alien, The Omen, etc.) Maybe I'm a little obsessed with the Lynch comparisons, but it stands to reason that Lynch once said this is his favorite film score of all time. Seriously. Just go listen to it. AND he only had ten days to write it. And it's in the AFI's top 25 film scores of all time. So. Yeah.

And what a visually, aurally striking ending when all the secrets have been exposed, accusations have been made, and shots are fired. Oh wow. That moment above. Oh wow. While the film as a whole occasionally lost me, the payoff alone makes me want to watch the whole thing again at some point. Good ol' Roman Polanski. His personal history alone makes me want to do a retrospective on his filmography. I need to start eliciting more ideas for new projects after this one now that I only have TWENTY MOVIES LEFT suckas!

Yes. Anyhow. Onward. Next up is one that will feel weird to watch during the summer: It's a Wonderful Life.

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