AFInity: Chinatown

By Kim Hollis

November 13, 2009

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

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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.

Kim's AFInity Project Big Board

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