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Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)

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.

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, Iva 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].

How about all the fun clues and foreshadowing spread throughout the movie which lead you to the identity of the murderer and the chief baddie in the flick? In the very first scene where Curly [who rules] (Burt Young) looks at the photos which Gittes got of his wife cheating, Curly says, "They don't pay you as much for skipjack as they do for albacore." Later when Gittes looks at the photos of Mulwray arguing with who turns out to be Noah Cross, Walsh says he could only make out one phrase due to all the noisy traffic, "apple core". In Yelbertson's office, there are several photographs of big fish on the walls. Later on, in Yelberton's secretary's room, Gittes sees lots of photos of Mulwray and Cross and learns who Cross is.

Just for fun, the "midget" (Polanski) who slices up Gittes' nose tells him that next time he'll cut the rest of it off and feed it to his goldfish. Later on, Gittes speaks the line, "What do you think of them apples?" just in case you forgot about "apple core". Gittes finally meets Cross and has lunch with him on Catalina Island at the Albacore Club. His lunch is a fish served with the head on. Cross says he prefers them that way and Gittes says that it's fine "as long as you don't serve the chicken that way." Of course, later on we learn that the Old Age Home is "sponsored" and does some work for the Albacore Club. Then we also learn that Mrs. Mulwray is Noah Cross's daughter.

As a side note, in the restaurant where the pianist plays "The Way You Look Tonight" the arrangement seems to highlight how much the melody resembles that of "As Time Goes By" (Casablanca).