AFInity: Chinatown
By Kim Hollis
November 13, 2009

Really, though. What is the big deal about wire hangers?

We're a list society. From Casey Kasem and the American Top 40 to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die to BOP's very own Best Horror Films (one of our most popular features ever), people love to talk about lists. They love to debate the merits of the "winners" and bemoan the exclusions, and start the whole process again when a new list captures pop culture fancy.

Perhaps one of the best-known, most widely discussed lists is the American Film Institute's 100 Years... 100 Movies. A non-profit organization known for its efforts at film restoration and screen education, the AFI list of the 100 best American movies was chosen by 1,500 leaders in the movie industry and announced in its first version in 1998. Since then, the 100 Years... 100 Movies list has proven to be so popular that the AFI came forth with a 10th anniversary edition in 2007, along with other series such as 100 Heroes and Villains, 100 Musicals, 100 Laughs and 100 Thrills.

In addition to talking about which films are deserving of being on the list and bitterly shaking our fists because a beloved film was left out, we also love to brag about the number of movies we've seen. As I was looking over the 100 Years... 100 Movies list recently, I realized that I've seen 47 - less than half. As a lover of film and writer/editor for a movie site, this seemed like a wrong that needed to remedied. And so an idea was born. I would watch all 100 movies on the 2007 10th Anniversary list - some of them for the first time in as much as 20 or more years - and ponder their relevance, worthiness and influence on today's film industry. With luck, I'll even discover a few new favorites along the way.

#21: Chinatown

It seems all but impossible to discuss Chinatown without at least giving a cursory comment on director Roman Polanski's legal issues, which have come into focus again recently with his arrest in Switzerland and potential extradition to the United States. The simple response is that he needs to serve his time, which at this point would mostly be for fleeing before sentencing rather than for the actual crime. I know there's a lot of hand-wringing about the whole situation, but we'd expect any regular Joe to have to pay the price in a similar case and the fact that Polanski is an artist (who had a number of terrible life events that may have contributed to his state of mind and his actions) doesn't place him above the law. I won't even get into the argument about the nature of the crime itself until I get to the conclusion of this piece, as I have some pretty strong feelings that I think are better discussed at another time. For the sake of AFInity, I'm looking at Chinatown from a purely aesthetic standpoint, which is surprisingly easy to do, perhaps because it's such a masterpiece.

Admittedly, I greatly enjoy noir films to start with. Oddly, though, my experiences with movies of the late 1960s and early 1970s is fairly limited, unless they're children's flicks. Having been born in 1968, my opportunities to see such movies were rare anyway, and as an adult, they never really felt like "classics" to me, perhaps because they're too close. Clearly, the AFI disagrees, though, since these two decades have the most representation on the 100 Years... 100 Movies list. I have a lot of catching up to do, clearly.

When my platoon of movie options was laid out in front of me, I saw Chinatown and thought, "Noir, Nicholson...sure, why not?" I was aware of certain pieces of the film. I knew that Jack Nicholson went around with a bandaged nose for a good portion of the action, and I also was aware of the rather famous line, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown" (though without any real knowledge of what the quote meant). I have to admit that I love that the AFInity project is giving me motivation to see movies I've missed, and opening my eyes to a lot of pop culture references that had been going over my head.

Chinatown weaves a complex web. Set in 1937, the story begins when an LA private eye named Jake Gittes (Nicholson) is hired to investigate the love life of Hollis Mulwray, the chief engineer for the department of water and power. After photographing Mulwray with a young woman and exposing him to public embarrassment, he is sued by the man's wife, Evelyn Mulwray - the person he thought had hired him for the job in the first place. Instead, he realizes that he's been had. An impersonator had posed as Mrs. Mulwray for some unknown person's machinations, and things quickly spiral to become far, far worse when Hollis is murdered. The real Evelyn hires Gittes to solve the mystery, and Jake is happy to oblige since his pride and reputation are on the line.

To reveal much more about the story might tarnish the viewing experience for those who haven't seen it. Suffice it to say that things get significantly more complicated as Gittes learns more about the woman for whom he is working, and in the process, we discover some things about Gittes himself.

Robert Towne's screenplay is layered and multifaceted, and if you've never seen the movie, I can promise that you will have no idea where it's going. It's fascinating to me that he was able to draw such inspiration from something that seems as mundane as historical disputes over land and water rights in southern California, because while this is an important element of the plot, Chinatown eventually goes somewhere else entirely. It's not pretty, either. Like films that fall into the noir genre, Chinatown explores the seedier side of humanity, and no character is exempt from pointed scrutiny.

Thanks to masterful performances from top to bottom, the nuances of these characters are allowed to emerge subtly and gradually. Foremost amongst these actors, of course, is Nicholson. A lot of people criticize Nicholson for "playing Jack" in his variegated roles, but I believe that at this point in his career, his characters were distinct and even exceptional. Consider that the Chinatown performance was for a 1974 film, and he played Gittes as a tough, smart cop with just a hint of damage in his background. The following year, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, his Randle McMurphy was a different kind of character altogether - manic, overtly influential and keenly intuitive. Both films are career-defining in their own way, and the notion that Nicholson had two films like these in successive years is staggering. (We'll get to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest later in the AFInity project. I'm looking forward to watching it again.)

The film's other key performance comes from Faye Dunaway, who plays the real Evelyn Mulwray and seems to be the very essence of a "femme fatale". There's constantly a complete air of mystery around Evelyn's thoughts and motivations, but as we learn more and more about her, her behavior begins to make perfect sense. Even when the character seems to be in complete control of things around her (the opening scene where she serves Jake with the lawsuit is a perfect example), there is nonetheless a vulnerability in her eyes that signals the viewer there is a deep and abiding struggle taking place within her soul. In the end, she diverges from what we might expect from the main female character in a noir and proves to be one of the keys to the subversion of expectations that takes place in the story.

As for the great John Huston, his role is small but crucial. His menacing impact is apparent from the moment we see him onscreen, and he scares us even as he impresses us. A modern comparison might be Powers Boothe in Deadwood, as both men play men of influence who are willing to go to any extreme to gain more power.

It's likely that Polanski learned much from Huston, in fact. Huston's first directorial effort was The Maltese Falcon, and one can see the influence of that and other noir films in the atmosphere and thematic structure of Chinatown. Languorously paced, Chinatown has a dreamy feel to it, but rather than acting out a pleasant vision, the characters in this story are living a nightmare in a place that should be closer to Paradise.

I found it somewhat uncomfortable to watch Chinatown in a modern context, particularly as a number of plot elements from the film directly foreshadow events that would occur later in Polanski's life. If we're expected to detest the film's villain (and we are, oh yes, we certainly are), then how do we not also find Polanski to be unforgivable? I would put it to his supporters (and there are many) that they need only watch the director's masterpiece to understand the truly appropriate response to monstrous behavior. I have to imagine that Polanski is filled with self-loathing all the time.

The AFI has lavished heaps of praise upon Chinatown over the years. In addition to being on both the original and the tenth anniversary edition of the 100 Years... 100 Movies lists, it's also included on 100 Years... 100 Thrills, 100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains (the villain is the one that gets the attention here), 100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes, and the 100 Years of Film Scores lists. It's also their #2 mystery film. It's deserving of such accolades and stands apart as an exceedingly well-written and cleverly crafted noir tale. In fact, I'd go so far as to call it a challenging film, but that's a high compliment. Yes, it can be difficult to reconcile our feelings about Polanski's art with our revulsion for his actions. I expect this would be true of a number of creative types throughout history, though. We just don't have the same knowledge of all their foibles and misdeeds.

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