The MoFo Movie Club Discussion: Chinatown

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OK folks! As usual this is a spoiler free zone so if you've yet to see Chinatown you may want to back right on out of here now because we're going to chop this bad boy up and then some, dig?

Now then, on with the show!

Chinatown (Roman Polanski - 1974)




I would agree with anyone who says (including the writer himself) that you get more and more from this film the more times you watch it.

This movie has a tremendous story and an excellent cast to carry it out. It's interesting, isn't it, how many good to great films were crafted with particular actors in mind while the writer is constructing a script. Robert Towne who penned this one specifically had Jack Nicholson in mind when he wrote this movie and boy did it ever work out. Now, I'm not so sure that this flick propelled Nicholson to super stardom but it certainly didn't hurt any. Jack is a great actor and a movie like this just lets his talent shine.



Now, I'll be the first to admit that I have a pretty limited knowledge of what makes a noir film tick or for that matter what a noir film even is. But I think I can pretty safely say that not only is this a noir film but its one of the very best out there... ever. Due in large part to the story and how it gives you more every time you see it, as it has done for me. Agree or disagree?

I found the little interview with Roman, Robert Towne and Robert Evans after the show to be be pretty interesting as well. I got the impression that although Polanski sort of downplayed how hard he had to fight for the ending of the film he wanted. It seems that after many years have gone by the producer now really likes the film and respects Polanski for the fantastic director that he is. Not a bad actor either, he has one of my favorite lines in the film actually...


"Hey there, Kitty cat."


To be honest though, even though this film is about as far away from your "typical Hollywood" ending as one can get it feels a little rushed to me. We followed Gittes through the whole journey to the truth and then the movie comes to a rousing and very abrupt ending with a quick death and a very evil man escaping with his victim to do god knows what to again. All of which happened so fast in order for us to get to the great final line of the film.


"Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown."


But perhaps I'm wrong and it's exactly the way Roman wanted it so people like myself could spend hours and days (years?) speculating about it. Were the cops on the take? Did Cross pay them to kill his daughter/mother so he could escape with his other daughter? It seems feasible to me. But I also tend to believe in the dark side of things before coming over to the lighter side.

If I continue on I may start to ramble too much (or more than usual depending on where you're sitting) so let's throw it open to the masses and see what shakes loose.

Thoughts?
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Chinatown's ending was pretty brilliant. I always felt it to be in the same vein as Vertigo, where the entire film is sort of a MacGuffin. There are any number of ways to interpret the film, which might be more interesting than how I've always viewed it, but the plot (which receives a lot of the praise, I think) is secondary to how important Nicholson's character is and how he moves through such a complicated web.

I've heard a fair amount of complaints about the story being too convoluted, but I always felt that that might be the point. But I could be wrong, who knows.



Bright light. Bright light. Uh oh.
Let me tell you my convoluted, RECENT Chinatown story. I currently have/"had" three DVD players; one doesn't work but it's an awesome VHS player, one plays about half the DVDs I try to play in it, and one, portable one, plays all of them. Well, I loaned Sarah my portable one and now I cannot watch Chinatown on DVD. So I thought that even though I want to watch the DVD, I have it on VHS, so I can watch that one, correct? No way, Jose! I cannot find the VHS one all of a sudden. So, I ask some friends if I can borrow their perfect DVD player, so they bring it over, and even though I can hear Chinatown coming through my speakers, I cannot see ANY of it. WTF? I realize that this doesn't mean that my life is as cursed as Jake's but it's all rather bizarre. Now, I don't live near Chinatown, but I'm less than a mile away from Little Saigon!

I do recall that Chinatown begins with almost a perfect recreation of the best opening credits which a classic mystery NEVER actually began with. The Sepiatone, the fast scroll, Jerry Goldsmith's sexy, jazzy score, the mistaken-identity opening, Gittes' obsession with sex... they're all perfect.

And the film does build and build... My fave mystery (both as book and novel) has always been The Maltese Falcon, but Sam Spade never lets anybody get his number. Scripter Robert Towne lets Nicholson's Gittes fall for Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), and their chemistry is terrific, so by the time we reach the most-Noirish ending of any Noir, our guts are just as busted up as Gittes. The ending is not rushed at all. After all, what do you want to see? Gittes cry and then go blow away Noah Cross like the ending of Taxi Driver? I don't think so, I hope.

I have a lot more to say, but I'll come back after I watch the film. But remember, Curly (Burt Young) rules!
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will.15's Avatar
Semper Fooey

I've heard a fair amount of complaints about the story being too convoluted, but I always felt that that might be the point. But I could be wrong, who knows.
It's a murder mystery. Convoluted goes with the territory. And it's straight forward compared to The Big Sleep where even the filmmakers didn't understand what was going on. And when they asked Raymond Chandler, who wrote the novel, he couldn't remember, either.



will.15's Avatar
Semper Fooey
[quote=Powdered Water;616201]

Now, I'll be the first to admit that I have a pretty limited knowledge what makes a noir film tick or for that matter what a noir film even is. But I think I can pretty safely say that not only is this a noir film but its one of the very best out there... ever. /quote]

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Film_noir

According to the academics who think they have a proprietary right to define it, Chinatown is not film noir because it was made in color and was produced in the wrong decade. But I'm not an egghead academic who makes arbitrary rules for what is and isn't film noir, so I don't have a problem with calling it that.




http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Film_noir

According to the academics who think they have a proprietary right to define it, Chinatown is not film noir because it was made in color and was produced in the wrong decade. But I'm not an egghead academic who makes arbitrary rules for what is and isn't film noir, so I don't have a problem with calling it that.
I can assure you that (pretty much) every film academic considers Chinatown a film noir. One essential part of 70's American cinema and the 'New Hollywood' is as egghead academic John Cawelti (IIRC) says, generic transformation. So the fact that it takes the principles of noir and redefines them makes it even more devoted to the genre than if it were to follow a formulaic pattern. You can see a similar sort of thing work in other genres too, the road movie (Five Easy Pieces, Two Lane Blacktop), gangster (The Godfather), comedy/parody (Mel Brooks' films), westerns (Ride in the Whirlwind, The Shooting) and on and on.



It's a murder mystery. Convoluted goes with the territory. And it's straight forward compared to The Big Sleep where even the filmmakers didn't understand what was going on. And when they asked Raymond Chandler, who wrote the novel, he couldn't remember, either.
Who are you trying to explain this to, exactly? My comment stated that I've heard complaints about how convoluted the story is, which, in many people's opinions, takes away the human and character element. Many of those same individuals view story (in general) as irrelevant when compared to the importance of the character. This isn't my opinion, but I certainly understand where they're coming from.

As I've previously stated, the story itself is just a ploy to throw you off the track from the film's true intent; i.e. a MacGuffin. In my opinion, both can complement each other quite nicely. But in Chinatown's case, one happens to be nearly irrelevant. That's where the brilliance lies in the film, right where Vertigo succeeded as well, and ultimately evolved into a character study.

I simply used those complaints as an example of an incorrect assumption about the film's possible (in my opinion) intent, that's all.



Bright light. Bright light. Uh oh.
I think he means incest.

You know, I've seen this movie so many damn times and the first time I saw it was one of the first drive-ins I went to in 1974, but for some strange reason, I never realized that Nicholson's Jake Gittes acted almost completely like an amateur at the beginning of Chinatown. I mean, Sam Spade seems like a pro in The Maltese Falcon, but when one of Gittes' "operatives" takes photos and shows them to him, Gittes blows him off ("Is that all you got?") and shows no signs of realizing who Noah Cross (John Huston) is.

Then, later on when Gittes is doing his own photographic essays, he knocks down some tiles a la Ben-Hur to try to announce his presence!

The scene where the "real" Evelyn Mulwray shows up is a classic where Gittes talks about "contemplating the moon", but it introduces many of the concepts of Film Noir into modern film usage. "Noir" literally means "Black" in French, but since most film noirs were made and shot in America before the French defined the term, I think that we are allowed to adapt the definition to mean anything which seems to involve a man, a woman, a mystery and something "Pitch Black". I cannot think of a plot more "black" or "noir" than Chinatown, so you will never convince me that it's not a perfect example of film noir. Even though the cinematography by John Alonzo of Chinatown is often crisp and bright, the plotting is dark and murky, but that doesn't mean that Alonzo doesn't go out of his way to use plenty of shadows throughout the film.

An homage to The Maltese Falcon is apparently the character named Ida Sessions. Well, Ida was the name of Sam Spade's partner Miles Archer's wife, and Spade was having an affair with her before Miles got "lead poisoning" and died. Let's see. It's also about halfway through Chinatown that one of the great reveals occurs and I'm talking about the line, "It's bad for the glass."

Gittes may be an amateur as a private dick, but he does go out of his way to sing about what he thinks of the real Evelyn Mulwray - "I love you and just the way you look tonight... "

What do you think of the scene in the bathroom where Gittes finds the flaw in Evelyn's iris? Wasn't that just about the sexiest scene in screen history?

As Chinatown inexorably moves on to its finale, who else is haunted by Gittes' comment that in Chinatown he was trying to keep somebody from being hurt? Chinatown is crammed with scenes which no other film contains. Do any others contain chases through orange fields? How about people getting knifed in the nose and spending 40% of the film with a huge bandage on the nose? Then again, many films refer to something which happened to a character before the movie started, but very few do not reveal what it was that happened [in Chinatown].

There are plenty more things to be said, but I'll hold up for a few days until I see some other comments.



great choice in film, PW.

I have no erudite musings about this movie like all of my post predecessors, and for that i apologize, because it deserves it. first saw this flick trying to pass the time at my library work study job when I was around 14 - it shook me back then for obvious reasons, and I watched it over and over and with other people to try to get a handle on it. suffice to say, it solidified my admiration for all things Jack Nicholson (that and About Schmidt, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Goin' South, and....well you get the picture).

Is it me, or did L.A. Confidential smack of subtle undertones of this movie, as well? I get that LAC was filmed in the noir style, but it reminded me heavily of Chinatown, albeit without the message being as heavyhanded or bleak.
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Oh yeah, L.A. Confidential has a similar vibe. Both, I think, manage to fit the noir genre without it ever feeling forced or deliberate.

I've seen Chinatown before, but I'm going to hold off briefly until I've seen it again, of course. Should be coming my way in a little red envelope in just a couple of days!



I never realized that Nicholson's Jake Gittes acted almost completely like an amateur at the beginning of Chinatown. I mean, Sam Spade seems like a pro in The Maltese Falcon, but when one of Gittes' "operatives" takes photos and shows them to him, Gittes blows him off ("Is that all you got?") and shows no signs of realizing who Noah Cross (John Huston) is.

Then, later on when Gittes is doing his own photographic essays, he knocks down some tiles a la Ben-Hur to try to announce his presence!
This. It was only some years ago that I fully grasped this. At the time, Chinatown took a familiar genre - the detective story -and redefined it. In older movies, like The Maltese Falcon, the detectivecan be seen as a knight in shining armour clening up the mean streets and righting wrongs. The detective's perceptive skills and insight into the human character was just great, noticing things that others completely missed. They knew their trade, almost to a ridiculous extent, as if nothing went passed them.

But in Chinatown, Gittes comes off as a cynic amateur who contemplates what to do: as little as possible or get involved. It was Jake's decision to get involved, which, eventually, led to the terrible outcome. In Chinatown, corruption and evil are ubiquitous, to the extent that it cannot be stopped. As the story develops, it becomes clear that Gittes gradually loses the reigns of control. This is not only due to his lacking detective skills, but simply due to his inability to make a difference as a human being. He doesn't have the power to save Katherine or Mr. Mulwray. Evil prevails.

It's not a pretty message. But then again, life isn't always pretty either.



will.15's Avatar
Semper Fooey
it was Raymond Chandler, not Dashiell Hammett in The Maltese Falcon, that firmly established the private detective as a knight righting wrongs. Sam Spade's motives are ambiguous. Would he have behaved differently if the Maltese Falcon turned out to be genuine instead of a fake? A man who is having an affair with his partner's wife, a woman he clearly doesn't love, is no one's idea of a knight.



Hmm, you're correct. It's been a while since I've seen the Maltese Falcon. Spade does indeed always look after himself in the financial area and his morals can certainly be disputed. However, Spade's competence is beyond questioning, whereas Gittes is not at all.



A system of cells interlinked
[quote=will.15;616344]

Now, I'll be the first to admit that I have a pretty limited knowledge what makes a noir film tick or for that matter what a noir film even is. But I think I can pretty safely say that not only is this a noir film but its one of the very best out there... ever. /quote]

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Film_noir

According to the academics who think they have a proprietary right to define it, Chinatown is not film noir because it was made in color and was produced in the wrong decade. But I'm not an egghead academic who makes arbitrary rules for what is and isn't film noir, so I don't have a problem with calling it that.
And they would be right, if they are talking about traditional noir. Chinatown is THE best example of the Neo-Noir genre, pretty much defining it when it was released.
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Okay, sorry for the delay, MoFos. Been a bit lazy lately.

I first saw me some Chinatown quite a few years ago, but figured I could use a refresher before diving into all this. Per usual I figure I'll just spout off randomly and then go back over other things already said here.



First thing's first: I don't love this film. I'm sure this will horrify plenty of people, but I feel like it's one of those films that was a good deal more impressive in its time. Since then, and when viewed through the prism of what's come after it, the mystery at its core feels a good deal more ordinary. This could, of course, be one of those things that inevitably happens with any classic: it gets copied to the point wherein it looks like a caricature of something it actually created.

But with most fine films (and noir in general, I'd say), the story is secondary to the execution. Or, as Ebert likes to say, "a movie isn't what it's about, it's about how it's about it."

I have to admit, the execution is...I strain for words...efficient? Well, no; lots of shots linger on much longer than seems necessary. Artful? Sort of, but not in an especially noticeable way. Perhaps "plausible" is the word I'm looking for. I was reminded of L.A. Confidential, which looked like noir and talked like noir, but somehow still seemed to inhabit the real world. Chinatown's like that, to me. The noir elements are right there, all the way down to the veiled dame waiting in the Private Investigator's office when he walks in, but it feels more like the source of such things than the copy, and none of it feels obligatory.

I love Giddes' little tricks with the pocket watches and business cards, but I like the exceptions to his suavity more. Things like Giddes' nose injury, his flailing about in the water against the chain-link fence, and getting the crap kicked out of him in the orange grove, all seem to flaunt the smooth P.I. archetype we might expect, all conspire to keep the proceedings from feeling too much like a normal movie.



And, of course, there are lots of nice little twists; the Mrs. Mulwray impersonator, the aforementioned bunglings, and the fact that they're not tracking down illicit shipments of booze or drugs or anything else you might expect.

You've got to give Chinatown points for audacity, too. The dark elements are awfully dark, and it sees its seedy world through to its logical conclusion, movie conventions be damned.

I'm sure repeated viewings will be rewarded, and I might have to oblige on that front (I'm at just two at the moment).



You know, I've seen this movie so many damn times and the first time I saw it was one of the first drive-ins I went to in 1974, but for some strange reason, I never realized that Nicholson's Jake Gittes acted almost completely like an amateur at the beginning of Chinatown. I mean, Sam Spade seems like a pro in The Maltese Falcon, but when one of Gittes' "operatives" takes photos and shows them to him, Gittes blows him off ("Is that all you got?") and shows no signs of realizing who Noah Cross (John Huston) is.
You gotta admit that the pocketwatch trick was pretty cool, though. I kinda like to think that he has the tricks and the guts, but not the smarts or the power. Or the basic knowledge, as you point out.

I cannot think of a plot more "black" or "noir" than Chinatown, so you will never convince me that it's not a perfect example of film noir. Even though the cinematography by John Alonzo of Chinatown is often crisp and bright, the plotting is dark and murky, but that doesn't mean that Alonzo doesn't go out of his way to use plenty of shadows throughout the film.
I agree with this completely. I like to think (though certainly inaccurately) that Polanski wanted to make a point. By making a film noir in a largely sunny locale, he demonstrates that the genre is more than setting. It forces us to define film noir by tone and content, given that we've just seen a relatively bright film that clearly fits the bill.

An homage to The Maltese Falcon is apparently the character named Ida Sessions. Well, Ida was the name of Sam Spade's partner Miles Archer's wife, and Spade was having an affair with her before Miles got "lead poisoning" and died. Let's see. It's also about halfway through Chinatown that one of the great reveals occurs and I'm talking about the line, "It's bad for the glass."
I like this part because a) the accent completely threw me and I remember thinking "huh? What glass?" and b) it's a pretty sloppy move for the murderer, which just underscores how relatively unconcerned they are about being caught.

What do you think of the scene in the bathroom where Gittes finds the flaw in Evelyn's iris? Wasn't that just about the sexiest scene in screen history?
High praise, but her vulnerability is what sells the whole thing. And the flaw, I tend to think, is sort of a metaphor for, well, her. A stain on an otherwise beautiful thing that Gittes gets close enough to see.

That said, I think "Flaw in the Iris" would be a pretty cool name for a band.

As Chinatown inexorably moves on to its finale, who else is haunted by Gittes' comment that in Chinatown he was trying to keep somebody from being hurt? Chinatown is crammed with scenes which no other film contains. Do any others contain chases through orange fields? How about people getting knifed in the nose and spending 40% of the film with a huge bandage on the nose? Then again, many films refer to something which happened to a character before the movie started, but very few do not reveal what it was that happened [in Chinatown].
Yeah, it does invite quite a bit of speculation. I don't know where I come down, though I suppose I'd guess that he merely that he saw a lot of messed up stuff there and learned to ignore it, and that this fact may have gnawed on him enough to create the motive for all the searching around he does during the film. And in the end, he learns that he was right the first time: better to walk away.

I rather like that, in most films, the bad guys tell the "hero" things like "you're in over your head" or "you don't know what you're getting into," and almost invariably they're wrong: the hero may not know what's going on, but they always end up handling it. This time, though, they're entirely right. Gittes never has a prayer of doing anything. They're actually giving the guy good advice which would have spared Mrs. Mulwray's life, and preserved his own.



But with most fine films (and noir in general, I'd say), the story is secondary to the execution. Or, as Ebert likes to say, "a movie isn't what it's about, it's about how it's about it."
Hmm, have to disagree here. The story and plot are what make this film unforgettable. Gittes being the central figure, the viewer knows his as a cynic detective that - granted - has some slick tricks up his sleeve, but comes up short in terms of actual detective skills.

As the story develops, we learn that Gittes was once a polic officer who was fired for getting too personally involved in a case. When Gittes talks to Mrs. Mulwray in bed, he speaks of this past of his. How he tried to save a woman in Chinatown when he was still with the police, but this actually made matters worse for the woman, and eventually Gittes was laid off. So, Jake was then inable to do anything, just like he is today (except he does not know this at the time when he tells Mrs. Mulwray). In this sense, this is a foreshadowing of Gittes' inability to make a difference.

It's just one of those many hints that is dropped as the story develops.

I must admit, it took me 3 viewings to actually realise just how clever and well put together the script is. I've already forgotten quite a lot of the subtle nuances, may watch it again next week and come back with some better constructed thoughts on the story.