Sep 28, 2018
Welcome back to Film Buff Fridays! We’re going with a more recent and widely celebrated noir film, which has also had some social problems since its release. For a few other film noir classics, check out “Sunset Boulevard” (Episode #077), “The Stranger” (Episode #215), and “Touch of Evil” (Episode #229), which also had some social issues with casting. And if you have any favorite film noir classics, let me know at onemoviepunch.com.
Today’s movie is “Chinatown” (1974), the film noir classic directed by Roman Polanski and written for the screen in collaboration with Robert Towne. The film follows Private Detective J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), who begins investigating an adultery case for Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), and stumbles across a wide-ranging criminal conspiracy over water and property rights. The film was nominated for eleven Oscars and won Best Original Screenplay for Robert Towne.
I’m a little nervous writing this review, particularly after seeing Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette” and her scathing and correct attack on Roman Polanski, particularly in the wake of #MeToo and the growing backlash against years of sexual harassment and abuse. I mean, the man drugged and raped a thirteen-year-old girl and fled the country because he was afraid of going to jail. The same man went on to win Best Director for a later film, receive a standing ovation, and having the award accepted by Harrison Ford himself. Whenever folks are shocked by the latest uncovering of how utterly horrific Hollywood can be, especially to young women, I now just shrug my shoulders and point to Polanski. Gee, why wouldn’t women want to report issues in that environment, one that literally cheers a child rapist? So, let’s take it a step further and ask why would anyone want to signal boost Polanski at all, and I admit, I’m not sure doing this review is the right thing. Sure, he was a great director, but he’s also a piece of shit, who is still wanted for crimes in the United States.
But I also know that many of these films were important to film-making as a whole, and that Polanski’s work has had great influence. It would also be easier if the films weren’t so well made, and made during a period before Polanski crossed an unforgivable line. Polanski, in some ways, is to the late 1960s and early 1970s, what Tarantino would become for the 1990s and early 2000s. Both went back to earlier film genres to make their own versions. Both utilize classic and upcoming actors in new, edgier ways. Both love the shock value of overt racism and sexism in some of their work. In fact, one of the absolute worst parts of “Chinatown” is the casual racism towards the Chinese throughout the entire film, which serves no other purpose than to make J.J. Gittes look like the racist, hard-boiled detective he ends up being. “Chinatown” ups the ante on so many levels, even compared to the more salacious pre-code noir films, and being able to get away with more adult-oriented thematic material as film standards began to loosen in the late 1960s. I would argue that was a big reason the film got noticed and also why it appealed to such a large audience and the critics, the same way Tarantino made his splash with “Pulp Fiction”.
Nicholson nails J.J. Gittes, though, a little too well and little too real at times. Faye Dunaway is also great as Evelyn Mulwray, along with the rest of the cast. They all deserved their nominations. The direction was consistent, with great music, but perhaps a bit slow, especially for a two hour, ten minute running time. I did notice more than a few anachronisms for 1938 in the background, along with some of the dialogue choices. And frankly, I wasn’t a fan of the ending, especially Katherine Mulwray (Belinda Palmer) being taken by her father/grandfather Noah Cross (John Huston). It’s messed up, and it completely overshadows the larger political issues at work during the infamous Water Wars, and a plot point quite similar to the second season of “True Detective”. The thing is, the characters are great, and it made me wish they did complete the planned trilogy of films, but the poor showing for “The Two Jakes” (1990) killed that idea. I would even love a J.J. Gittes trilogy reboot that does a better job of contextualizing the sexism and racism, but only if not a single cent goes to Polanski. Because I feel guilty enough just streaming it, especially if any royalties are going his way.
“Chinatown” (1974) is a neo-noir film that takes place amidst the political and familial intrigue of the Los Angeles Water Wars. Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and the rest shine in their roles, even if the story is ultimately tragic and depressing. Fans of neo-noir films will definitely enjoy this film, but may also be put off by the graphic nature of some themes, or for even indirectly supporting one of Hollywood’s garbage people.
Rotten Tomatoes: 98% (FRESH)
Metacritic: 92 (MUST SEE)
One Movie Punch: 7.8
“Chinatown” (1974) is rated R and is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and Hoopla.