Friday, December 13, 2013

Watching CHINATOWN (1974)

It's a film that truly earned the title "classic" not just because it's more than 20 years old.  If you get cable, TCM is airing Chinatown starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway at 1:00 am Eastern/10:00pm Pacific tonight.  If I was asked for a list of my Top Ten Favorite Films, this Roman Polanski feature would be on the list.  I heard Martin Scorcese once describe the 1940s movie, Leave Her To Heaven, as "film noir in Technicolor."  The same applies to Chinatown.  A key character says, "You may think you know what you're dealing with but, believe me, you don't."  That statement is really the guts of this movie.  If you've seen it, you know what I mean.  If you haven't seen it, you should.  We got some good movies in the 1970s.  This was one of the best.
Los Angeles in the 1930s.  You've got well-dressed but occasionally crude J. J. "Jake" Gittes, a private investigator on a tough case, and the glacially elegant, tasteful Evelyn Mulwray, a wealthy widow.  Two alienated souls, two broken hearts and two faces that will be scarred as the murder mystery unravels.  Faye Dunaway, before her Kabuki-like mad 1980s performance as Mommie Dearest, gave two of the signature Hollywood movie performances of the 1970s delivered by an actress or actor.  She was brilliant in Network and here in Chinatown as the complicated Mrs. Mulwray.  Despite her rich exterior, there's something a little off-key about her.  Like that business with her eye that Jake notices.  He sees "something black in the green part."  She tells him "It's a flaw in the iris."

No one could have played Evelyn Mulwray better than Faye Dunaway did.  No one.  Look at her as the rural, poorly educated waitress-turned-bankrobber in 1967's Bonnie and Clyde and then look at her in Chinatown.  Both performances brought her Best Actress Oscar nominations.  Notice her different vocal work, mannerisms, motivations and physical carriage as Bonnie Parker and Evelyn Mulwray.  She made fabulous fashion statements as both characters too.  Faye could work a wardrobe.
When Mrs. Mulwray sees Jake for the first time, she's standing behind him.  He's telling his buddies an ethnic sex joke about a Chinese man.  The joke will be on Jake at the end in Chinatown.  Minority stereotypes are punctured.  The "Water bad for glass" line is genius.  What I wrote about Dunaway as Mrs. Mulwray goes for Jack Nicholson as the private eye.  No one could have played Jake Gittes better than he did.  No one.

"Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water."  That's the sentiment of Noah Cross, the corrupt multi-millionaire played perfectly by actor/director John Huston. (Huston directed The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen and Prizzi's Honor.)  Cross is a powerful tycoon who has become respectable in Southern California.  Noah Cross says this:  "Of course, I'm respectable.  I'm old.  Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough."
He's Evelyn's father.  He'ss like that "something black in the green part" of her life.  He's a dark Noah, a wicked modern day corporate prophet who wants to control the water in his religion of greed.  Evelyn has literally been double-Crossed in that relationship.
This year, we still felt the brutal grip of the Great Recession.  Millions of Americans who thought they were doing the right thing by being hard-working employees and responsible citizens were out of work, their savings had been drained, their unemployment benefits expired and they found it hard to find new work.  Homes were foreclosed.  But Corporate America seemed to make it harder to be a member of the middle and working class.  You needed one job for the rent money and a second job for food and clothing.  Meanwhile, we read about corporate CEOs getting millions of dollars as bonuses while we slog through some of the harshest economic times since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Chinatown feels almost fresher and more relevant today.  Noah Cross' financial practices and motivations are shady.  Working class citizens will be hit hard in the wallets.  He takes no responsibility  for any mess, any hardship that he's caused.  When an angry Jake Gittes says to Noah Cross, "What could you buy that you can't already afford?," he could be addressing some rich corporate types today who are getting richer while they cause the poor to get poorer.

I saw Chinatown for the first time within two weeks of its opening at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood.  I was on vacation from school and hopped on RTD (the bus) from South Central L.A. to Hollywood.  Just knowing that Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway were the stars was reason enough to transfer on the busses to see their new movie.  However, the reviews were really good.  Also, back then, reviewers had the grace and talent to review the essence of the movie without giving too much away.  Movie-goers could pay full attention to a 2-hourlong film.  Or longer even.  Ever been on Twitter?  That kind of attention is a dying art.  Folks can't watch something for more than ten minutes without having to tweet a comment.  They tweet wisecracks.  They tweet spoilers.  I had no idea what to expect other than a complex murder mystery that carried on the grand tradition of private eye classics like Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941).

I saw an early afternoon screening on a weekday.  When the movie ended and the closing credits started to roll, that average movie audience broke out into enthusiastic applause and cheers.  I'd never been in an audience of paid ticket-holders at a Hollywood movie who broke out into that kind of applause at the end of a mature movie.  Some folks gave it a standing ovation.  Then a guy in the back shouted, "It's a movie!  They can't see you standing up!"  Nevertheless, that audience was part of the thrill of experiencing Chinatown for the first time.  A bunch of strangers in the dark became a community of attentive and appreciative fans who fully connected to that work of film art.

Chinatown.  Excellent movie.  Excellent acting.  Excellent script.  And I saw for the first time with an excellent audience.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the write-up on my favorite movie of all time. I had no idea it's in your top 10 favorites of all time. Wow! I know you like the movie but I had no idea you liked it that much. I would love to see a 40th anniversary screening of the film happen in L.A. with the stars, Nicholson and Dunaway, and producer Robert Evans & Robert Towne in attendance. If it were to happen, I would make a special trip out to Hollywood just to attend the event. I have Towne's screenplay of the film and read it many times. I think it's the best script ever written. The 70's decade was the best decade of films ever. It produced some of the most memorable movies ever made and CHINATOWN was right in the thick of it.


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