One of the most poured-over classics, with even a recent book (The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood by Sam Wasson) devoted to its undiminished lustre. Consequently, it can be more interesting to trawl rare divergent takes on such hallowed pictures. Not that Chinatown doesn’t deserve its rep, but the chorus of approval can drown out any other consideration, yielding a wash of rather vanilla views (look at The Godfathers I & II, and III – uniform in their yay, yay, nay consensus).
Those who did offer an objection, did so on the basis of execution rather than content. Gene Siskel complained about Polanski’s direction: “The opening shot of almost every scene has been so artificially overcomposed as to make one aware of Jack Nicholson wearing ’30s clothes while standing in a room decorated to look like a ’30s room while talking to stereotypes plucked from an assortment of ’30s movies”. It’s interesting now to consider such an anomalous position, as Chinatown’s visuals are far from the costume-box fakery of They Live by Night, Mobsters or even The Untouchables.
It’s true that Polanski’s compositions are meticulously designed, but he isn’t dealing in tableaux either; the period-modernity of Chinatown is key to its rep, taking yesteryear’s noir and reframing it in (then) contemporary terms. Not with the tilting abandon of The Long Goodbye’s Marlowe, but rather the perspective on the socio-political canvas (noir’s brightest tended to revolve around personal rather than establishment corruption) and the different insights freedom from Hayes Code strictures and anamorphic widescreen colour could yield.
The irony is that Robert Towne – aside from rightly sharing credit for the industry that produced the original screenplay with long-time collaborator and sounding-board Edward Taylor, if The Big Goodbye’s testimony is any witness – needed heavy editing and honing from the director claimed to have undermined or reduced his work. This included nixing the voice-over narration, presenting as it did godlike oversight rather than a confused detective in the middle of a sprawling mess (compare and contrast with The Two Jakes). Pauline Kael, per The Big Goodbye, issued “a singular rave for Robert Towne”, one that mostly came via her later review for Shampoo, which “got Los Angeles better than Chinatown”.
Such raves for Towne – which went to his being the sole Chinatown recipient on Oscar night – would belie his subsequent career, largely hanging slipshod on the peg of uncredited script-doctoring and later a series of unexceptional ’90s gigs for Tom Cruise. Kael felt “You can feel the conflict between the temperaments of the scriptwriter… and the director…” In each instance, this was to the detriment of the scriptwriter, producing a movie with a “beautifully structured script and draggy, overdeliberate direction”. She said of Schlesinger’s 1975 film, “If The Day of the Locust and the mauve, nightmarish Chinatown could exchange their atmospheres, they might both be better: the water-rights and real-estate swindles that formed the plot of Chinatown could have been clarified if the film had a realistic base… while Locust… should be the hysteric’s view of L.A.”
Which is curious, as Polanski expressly stripped back all the water-rights and real-estate swindles material; what I’d grant Kael is that side of the film only really slots into place with subsequent viewings. However, Polanski was right not to get bogged down in it, to ensure it was – in terms of narrative weight – a means to an end (Towne notes on the commentary track that he was unsure at first which should come first, the incest plot or the water plot, even though, with hindsight, it’s obvious). Kael wants the picture to be less Polanski, basically, to be less “gothic and creepy” and “suffocating”. She considered Polanski got in Towne’s way and “never lets the story tell itself. It’s all over deliberate, mauve, nightmarish; everyone is yellow-lacquered, and evil runs rampant. You don’t care who is hurt, since everything is blighted”.
Again, Kael has something here – she’s correct to identify an impassive observer in Polanski, in terms of the fates of the characters – but the conclusions she draws are misplaced. What she’s really objecting to is that Chinatown, per Polanski’s vision, denies hope and encourages bleakness; Kael projects this – as a counter to her own good taste – on the declining standards of the audience as a whole. She delighted in Towne, a “real writer” (“a flaky classist”) whose heroes were “romantic damn fools who ask just what they can’t get”, whose original conception ended the picture “logically”, not with the attitude of a “gothic-minded absurdist” (her take is, then, that the ending is absurd, because the game surely cannot be so hopeless; the only course is to be romantic, a logical classicist). “Towne doesn’t pull everything down like that” she protested of Polanski’s baser instincts.
Kael opined that “At showings of Chinatown the audience squeals with pleasure when Faye Dunaway reveals her incest” They do? Or did? Is this Kael revealing her distaste at the exploitative subject matter? Or is she offering an insight into this assumed release, that Cross is correct – “I don’t blame myself. You see, Mr Gittes most people never have to face accept that, at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything” – and the knowledge that they aren’t as bad as that guy is in some way cathartic (Polanski himself, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, would later embrace Cross’s self-denial and received consequent vilification and abrogation).
She further despised the way “Nostalgia (for the thirties) openly turned to rot, and the celebration of rot” and how “he shoves the rot at you, and large numbers of people seem to find it juicy”. My reaction would be that Kael confuses the takeaway with the message – which is, after all, the message of many pictures of the period – that the establishment is inherently corrupt: “Audiences now appear to accept as a view of themselves what in the movies of the past six or seven years counterculture audiences jeered at Americans for being – cynical materialists who cared for nothing but their own greed and lust. The nihilistic, coarse-grained movies are telling us that nothing matters to us, that we’re all a bad joke”.
It’s an assumption of the audience’s value system – not as moral as Kael, obviously – and an assumption of the response – that the content is titillating – when really, what Kael is objecting to is the idea that Polanski is telling the truth. Nihilistic, yes, but that doesn’t speak to how an audience reads it. Polanski and Towne shine a light on the system, and if there’s a reflection of the audience in it, it’s in its powerless incapacity (like Jake Gittes) to do anything about it. Kael wants Towne’s romantic strains (Evelyn kills her father), and has sour grapes at Polanski for turning the vision to such hopelessness. Her takeaway is “nothing matters”; more accurate would be recognition that it does, but what can one do about it? Such impotence is, after all, never more pressing and problematic than in current times, when the rot is in its plainest view ever, and the “logical” conclusion in no way forthcoming.
Gittes: Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?
Cross: The future, Mr Gittes! The future.
Even in her objections, Kael had to admit “And yet the nastiness has a look, and a fascination”. Chinatown’s world is of corruption for the sake of corruption, where evil incubates because it can, because its habitat is power. Right from the start, Jake is warning imposter Evelyn she might be “better off not knowing” (about a cheating husband), and in turn, receives warnings that “You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but you don’t”; Jessica Winter in Time Out suggests “he’s a hard-boiled private eye who gets everything wrong”. Not everything, but crucial details, and where it counts, he’s not cynical enough. “He owns the police!” Evelyn tells him, and Jake’s forlorn protest “He’s rich! Do you understand? He thinks he can get away with anything” is only deficient for failing to account that there’s no thinking involved; he can get away with anything.
Wasson accounts for Polanski’s poisoned worldview as a consequence of the Manson murders and the loss of Sharon Tate and his unborn child; this feeds into the burgeoning cynicism of the ’70s that Kael so objected. These “cynical materialists” would be born anew as uncynical ones in the following decade, where materialism became its own end, a bright and shining star to follow, greed being its own reward (“at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything”).
The mistake would be to view this course as random and unmotivated, that the machinations of the Tavistock Institute, buoying sexual freedom and rebellion, division between the generations and impossible dreams of a united world, should be so brutally dashed by a “random” psychopath who shifted the gears of society in a new direction, that it wasn’t, to a great or lesser extent, coordinated and premeditated. The ins and outs of who knew what and was or was not complicit in such actions are currently, of course, as officially murky as the plot Kael wished Polanski had taken the time to illuminate. But the point is that we’re pushed to the place where we have to forget it, because it’s Chinatown. And having forgotten it, embrace a world of microcomputers, legwarmers, Wall Street booms and yuppiedom. In that respect, Chinatown forms something of a recursive Escher print, reflecting and commenting on the very process of which it is an interwoven part.
There’s no stopping Cross (the Elite), enabled to appropriate funds from the city, to control the police, to commit the most degraded and repellent acts. And the mantra looms large, for it is less a warning than a mission statement of those who control: at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything. Towne suggested Chinatown shone a light on the kind of evil pre-WWII society was not used to dealing with, a man oft-quoted as raping the land and raping his daughter (Towne says that, but Kael says it too), but the only difference is the light, not the presence of the evil.
Of course, Huston looks the part, which may be down to all the persistent allegations of his having also acted it in real life too, throughout his Hollywood life (which, ironically, included directing The Bible: In the Beginning…) and via George Hodel’s daughter (Hodel was linked to the Black Dahlia case). Chinatown seems particularly relevant in that regard, almost a (sub)text book one: forget it… it’s Hollywood. The main players – Polanski, Huston, Nicholson – have all been linked with admitted or alleged depravities, Polanski’s in plain sight for decades: as noted above, his most infamous 1977 act taking place at Nicholson’s house. Nicholson’s alleged predilections have been turned into “loveable old Jack” but include (again alleged) serial domestic abuse and using up and spitting out Lara Flynn Boyle (making his documented – by Wasson – reluctance to slap Dunaway for Chinatown somewhat ironic).
Huston, by many accounts, was the most depraved of those involved in Chinatown, his character’s incestuous relationship(s) suggested to have reflected one with his own daughter (Anjelica, who has been alternatively alleged as a key Hollywood power person, a high priestess of satanic Hollywood, had an on-off thing with Nicholson for many years. She was also at the scene of the Polanski crime).
None of this, Polanski aside, is in Wasson’s book. Wasson does, however, detail the accusations and rumours that surrounded the director at the time of Sharon Tate’s murder (indeed, it’s one of the areas he draws on to present a constructive “defence” of mitigation by diminished mental responsibility for Polanski’s admitted crime). While Wasson doesn’t mention it, it has been suggested Tate’s murder represented a ritual sacrifice – one of Hollywood’s ongoing pastimes – with the understanding that her husband would benefit in (greater) fame and fortune. The guilt part, Roman wasn’t expecting so much.
Chinatown received eleven Oscar nominations, equalling The Godfather Part II. The latter won six of its, and in four of those categories (Picture, Director, Score, Art Direction), Polanski’s picture was arguably the second choice. The one that most baffles now is Art Carney’s Best Actor for Harry and Tonto, but whether it would have been Nicholson or Al Pacino (The Godfather Part II) or Dustin Hoffman (Lenny) is debatable. Beforehand, New York Daily News had it that “Not since Ray Milland guzzled his way to an Oscar in Lost Weekend has an actor been such a sure bet as Jack Nicholson”. And if he had, would he have done the double the following year for the arguably more iconic performance as Randall P Murphy? There’s the perversity of the choices too; for a third of the picture, Gittes sports the biggest bandage a lead has seen since Claude Rains in The Invisible Man. Dunaway’s behaviour may precede her performance, but on repeat visit, it’s the one that most grows in stature.
There are lots of sources to be had on Chinatown. Robert Evans’ self-aggrandising largely demerits any faith in his account. The Edward Taylor material in Sam Wasson’s The Big Goodbye is fascinating, but too much of the author’s “dramatising” of his cast’s lives and processes is melodramatic and pulpy, in particular his insights (and thus excuses) into Polanski’s behaviour.
I revisited the Blu-ray Commentary track, which isn’t the most illuminating, since a director (David Fincher) is quizzing a writer he knows has been rewritten, commenting on the direction, and noting errors and how he would have been more meticulous (“I would have reshot that scene”). The idea of a (announced) Chinatown prequel series is entirely unappealing, with Fincher’s deadly digital and unfeeling rigour (in that sense, he’s a good fit for Polanski continuity, but icy more than ruthless). As for Batfleck writing and directing a film based on The Big Goodbye, no thanks. Forget it (unless that Big Goodbye draws in some of the many webs of allegations, and for that, we’d need to be in the territory of imminent tribunals). Chinatown could only yield more by delving further into the “rot” of the system. A less-jaded Gittes, regardless of documenting his undetailed encounter there, couldn’t possibly do Chinatown’s legacy justice.
First published by Now in Full Color on 26/03/22.