Sunday, March 27, 2011

Chinatown - No escaping the past - or the future

Throughout many of Roman Polanski's films, one of the primary situations is that of the main character seeking the truth. Think of Richard Walker in Frantic (1988), who must fight red tape from French police as well as from US State Department officials as he tries to locate his wife, who has been kidnapped on a trip to Paris. Or the Ghost in The Ghost Writer (2010), who during his employment, decides to learn why the man he replaced was killed and then chooses to discover what wrong doings were appropriated by his current employer, an ex-prime minister of Britain.

While the main character in each of these films ends up with varying degrees of success, neither man can view his immediate world - or the world at large - in the same way again. Each is trapped in a whirlpool of events that spin out of control. The only way he can learn the truth (or come as close as possible) is to accept this fact and move on with his life.

This is certainly an overriding aspect of Chinatown (1974), where private eye J.J. Gittes has to learn why  a city official was killed soon after news broke out that he was having an affair. Gittes, despite his knowledge after years on the job, truly has no idea how convoluted this case will become. He starts out by following the public servant (Hollis Mulwray, the water and power commissioner), as he has been hired to learn of his extramarital activities. Yet in reality, the man is not having an affair; indeed the woman that hires Gittes is not even the commissioner's wife.

Gittes was once a policeman in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles, where he received advice telling him to do "as little as possible." In other words, accept the madness you will witness from day to day, as you live in a world without rules or at least a world where the rules make little sense.

We learn more about Gittes' experiences in Chinatown later in the film after he romances the real Evelyn Mulwray, who now aides the detective in his search for the reasons behind her husband's death. When she asks him about his past troubles in the district, she poses the question, "Was there a woman?" He replies that he was there to protect a woman and make sure she wasn't hurt, but "wound up making sure she was." It is a haunting foreshadowing of how this film will conclude.

Polanski's camera in this film is often on the move perched over the shoulder of Gittes, as we snoop on events and characters just as he does. Director of photography John Alonzo selected a 40mm lens for many of the shots, stating that the images from this lens more closely resembled what the human eye sees in real life. This combination of technology along with the brilliant compositions add a subtle edginess to the work and the wide screen format often features horizontal images - such as the virtually dry river bed where water is being diverted in a drought - that make us feel a bit uneasy and nervous as we watch. This is arguably Polanski's most accomplished visual work, perhaps only matched overall by The Ghost Writer or Tess (1979).

As is usual in a Polanski film the evil lives on. The director famously altered the final sequence of Robert Towne's script; the writer had Evelyn escape, but Polanski insisted that she must perish, if the story was to make any sense. (Towne in subsequent interviews has admitted that this change worked beautifully.) Gittes is back in Chinatown, as he is forced to lead the evildoer, Noah Cross, to see Evelyn one last time. This meeting between Evelyn and Noah is a meeting between order and chaos, between reason and madness. Cross has told Gittes in a previous scene that all of his evil deeds are done with the thought that he will be able to buy "the future." For Gittes, the present recalls the past, as he once again is supposed to make sure that he protects a woman, but ultimately winds up "making sure she is hurt."

"Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown," is the last line of the film, spoken to Gittes by one of his associates. Yet the reality of the situation is that he cannot now and never will forget what happened there; Chinatown becomes not just a place, but a sense of loss. Gittes, a prototypical doomed Polanski character, cannot escape his past nor will he be able to escape a future filled with the disorder that is the basis of his - and our - world.


  1. Tom, I loved your review. I've never considered Chinatown the best Polanski film (in my own hierarchy of his movies it never makes even top ten, even though it was recently declared the best film ever made by a panel of UK critics), but reading what you wrote makes me wonder how much I am missing. I definitely will re-watch it now.

  2. Jean:

    That's the beauty of film criticism- each person finds films they love. I saw Chinatown when it was released and now watch it at home several times a year. I am always under its spell. A great screenplay, score, cinaemtography, editing, acting, set decoration, et al, but it's Polanski's direction that has kept this film fresh as well as stimulating all these years.

  3. Man, now I really want to watch Chinatown again. It's that kind of quiet, eerie film that just grows on me, even though I've only seen it once. It seems to be an all-around perfect movie: I can't find anything to gripe about in Towne's screenplay (even when combined with Polanski's last-minute revisions), nor with Alonzo's cinematography or those performances by Nicholson, Dunaway, Huston, etc. One reason might be because it's film noir, and it's generally hard to make a bad modern noir movie even if the plot is so convoluted--think De Palma's The Black Dahlia.

    Yet Chinatown seems to have endured because it's more like tragic noir. Noah Cross wins in the end. Jake can't secure justice because, well, that just isn't his world. Nor does the Ghost belong in Adam Lang's company. Nor does Macbeth belong in a high position of power. Makes me wonder what Polanski is going to weave out of Carnage once it's finally released.

  4. Adam:

    I like your train of thought here about Jake not belonging in this world. In Polanski's films, the good among us seem to be doomed. It is the Noah Crosses of this world that win out.

    Nice parallel with the Ghost and Adam Lang as well. I never thought of that.