Noah Cross: See, Mr. Gitts, most people never have to face the fact that, at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of…anything!
I recently revealed that Sleuth (1972) was my favourite film, and I hope that Picturenose regulars will forgive me for a comparable piece of heart-felt appreciation when I say that Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) is, perhaps, the finest film ever made. Yep, that’s what I said.
It’s that time of year, thankfully, when TV channels sort of remember that they’re supposed to be providing a public service, and show films like this as part of the festive package, which can only be for the good. And how much better does cinema get than Chinatown? No, but really?
Sure, you can cite The Godfather (Parts I and II, 1972, 1974), you can give me your Casablanca (1941), your Citizen Kane (1945), and a good number of Hitch’s offerings (with North by Northwest (1959) or Psycho (1960) probably leading the field) but, in terms of its combination of faultless mise-en-scène, acting so good it’s frightening, a script from Robert Towne that simply IS the finest in all cinema and a mood that captures not only the finest noir excesses but also the existential horror at the heart of everything, Chinatown has no equals.
I’ll provide a much-truncated synopsis before carrying on with the hyperbole, if that’s OK with you – Jake (J.J.) Gittes is a former cop turned slick, up-market private eye with a wealthy client list, who’s more than a little keen on publicizing both himself and his clients in the desert community of Los Angeles in the 1930s. He’s on to a seemingly by-the-numbers adultery investigation, involving under-fire head of Water & Power Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) and his wife Evelyne (Faye Dunaway), who is also the daughter of water magnate Noah Cross (John Huston) – apart from the big local celebrities, it seems to be little more than a run-of-the-mill affair, until Mulwray turns up dead. Blood and water really don’t mix too good, as Gittes is about to discover…
This film is about so much more than what’s on the surface, that mere critical appreciation doesn’t come close, even if it’s as well written as mine. You’ve just got to see it – in my review of There Will Be Blood earlier this year, I compared Daniel Day Lewis’s turn as Daniel Plainview with that of Huston as Noah Cross. Well, while Lewis is every bit as brilliant as I claimed, having recently watched Chinatown again I must recant, in that no-one, repeat no-one, has yet delivered a performance as Huston does here that comes as close to the heart of villainy, for as long we have watched shadows flickering on a wall for entertainment. Apart from maybe Alan Arkin as Harry Roat Jr from Scarsdale, in Wait Until Dark (1967), by Terence Young. But that’s my final offer. Anyway, Huston is simply that good. His character, Cross, is terrifying – see the dialogue that opened this review and, while we’re at it, here’s another offering:
Jake Gittes: I just want to know what you’re worth. Over ten million?
Noah Cross: Oh my, yes.
Jake Gittes: Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can’t already afford?
Noah Cross: The future, Mr. Gitts, the future.
He’s hard-boiled, is Gittes. He doesn’t take no for an answer, but he is not corrupt. When he realizes the extent of Cross’s evil, he is powerless, despite his very best efforts, to prevent the tragedy that ends the film. Chinatown, like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), is one of those titles that refers not only to a place but also a state of mind – Chinatown is Jake’s past. He talks about how he tried to prevent a woman there from being hurt and ended up making sure she was; about how they (the police) tried to do ‘as little as possible’ because to do anything more would result in innocent people getting the shitty end of the stick. This was the reason he left the force, and it foreshadows the film’s brilliant, terrible and inevitable conclusion.
‘Chinatown’ is what haunts Gittes, and it’s part of a vicious cycle of the rich and powerful dominating the poor and disenfranchised. Sound familiar?
For those happy few who have not yet seen Polanski’s masterpiece and have it to look forward to, be assured that it’s not all doom and gloom – the director of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) plays the noir and neo-noir notes like a virtuoso, both with homage and pastiche. For example, name another hard-boiled dick you can remember who spends a good half of a film looking ridiculous because a vicious gangster crony of Cross’s (a chilling, blackly amusing cameo from Polanski himself – You’re a very nosy fellow, kitty cat. Huh? You know what happens to nosy fellows? Huh? No? Wanna guess? Huh? No? Okay. They lose their noses) – has taken a knife to his nostril, forcing him to sport a distinctly un-cool bandage?
So, for Chinatown debutantes, I invite you to settle back, while pouring a good bourbon to be enjoyed near a Christmas fire, and let it take you away.
Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown… And is that not the finest last line in film history?