Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown
Eddie Muller of the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) series Noir Alley thinks that Chinatown is the greatest film ever made about Los Angeles. I am inclined to agree with him. Last night, I saw it for the nth time and newly appreciated it for its dark beauty.
How is it that the ultimate film about L.A. was directed by a Pole? You might remember that five years earlier, Charlie Manson and his gang brutally murdered Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate, who at the time was 8½ months pregnant. She was stabbed 16 times, killing herself and her unborn child. Polanski was away in Europe at the time working on a film project.
Roman Polanski Playing a Bit Part in His Film
So, yes, I think Polanski had an understanding of the dark side of Los Angeles, which came out in his film. In fact, it was Polanski who insisted that Faye Dunaway gets shot in the head at the end of the movie while attempting to escape her father and incestuous lover played by John Huston. Both the producer and scriptwriter wanted to have Dunaway shoot Huston at the end. Polanski disagreed, saying that his film was not an adventure for children.
Film is a collaborative art form. In consequence, there are so many ways a film can go wrong. This film didn’t. Even after decades, it comes across as fresh, interesting, and somber as it did 48 years ago when it premiered.
I even like the sequel, The Two Jakes (1990) directed by and starring Jack Nicholson.
An interesting side note: I knew the next-door neighbor to the Tate murder house on Cielo Drive. It was inhabited by Richard Anderson, a Hollywood actor who had a long and illustrious career and was also a delightful person.
Los Angeles Central Library at 5th and Flower Streets
Today I took the train in to Downtown Los Angeles (or DTLA, as it is also known) to return some library books and pick up the next batch. For the first time in almost a year and a quarter, I was able to enter the library, hand my returns to a human being, and pick up the next batch. The last time, I had to call on my cell phone and have a librarian come out with the bagged books I had put on hold.
Now the ground floor of the library is open. This includes the book check-in and check-out and the international languages department—oh, and the restrooms. For any other books, I still have to put them on hold using the library’s website.
With my books in hand, I took the Dash Bus B to Chinatown and looked for a promising Chinese restaurant that was open to indoor dining. My old standby, the Hong Kong Barbecue, was still take-out only; but I found a good option in the Hop Woo Chinese Seafood Restaurant, just a few doors down, where I had rock cod in black bean sauce.
On the way back to Union Station, I bought my usual small bag of limes from an elderly woman (only $1 for about eight limes). As the weather grows warmer, I am addicted to fresh-squeezed lime juice with a slight splash of tequila.
I still had to wear a face mask on the train and the bus, resulting in fogged-up glasses, but I am encouraged that sometime soon we will be able to dispense with them. My second Pfizer Covid-19 vaccination was two months ago, so I am hopeful that the worst is past.
I have always loved film noir, a uniquely American genre that reveals the dark underbelly of life in the U.S. It gets particularly interesting when that revelation is from a foreign filmmaker who succeeds in seeing us for what we are. And, of course, although he is a great film artist, Polanski has been driven from our shores for statutory rape several years after his lovely pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was mutilated and murdered by Charles Manson’s followers.
Last night I saw the unrelentingly vicious The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, directed by a Scotsman—Alexander Mackendrick—known mostly for such British comedies as Whisky Galore, The Ladykillers, and The Man in the White Suit. Tonight, after a long absence, I saw Chinatown (1974), one of the greatest (and last) noir masterpieces.
Director Roman Polanski in a Bit Part as a Thug
The film presents us with a conundrum about the strange murder of L.A. water commissioner Hollis Mulwray. Detective Jake Gittes (Nicholson) is hired by a woman posing as Mrs Mulwray to find the woman that her husband is seeing on the side. It turns out that the real Mrs Mulwray (Dunaway) did no such thing. But Gittes begins to uncover so many weird secrets relating to water delivery and real estate chicanery that the ultimate secret finally starts to make itself known. Film director John Huston as multimillionaire Noah Cross plays a pivotal role in pushing the film to its shocking conclusion.
We do not usually encounter a hero who is forced to submit to raw, naked power the way that Jake Gittes is forced to; and that is a more European contribution from the film’s Polish director. We are used to seeing our film heroes prevail against insuperable odds. Of course, that doesn’t usually happen in real life.
Chinatown is a film worth seeing many times. After all these years, I am only now beginning to understand it.
This being Thursday, I visited the Central Library at 5th and Flower Streets, then took the Dash B bus to Chinatown. The last several times I’ve been downtown, I headed to Chinatown and dined at the Hong Kong BBQ Restaurant. Their Spicy Fish Filet with Black Bean Sauce and their Spicy Eggplant with Fish Fillet make for a great lunch. So great that I wasn’t able to finish my dinner.
L.A.’s Chinatown actually shares billing with Vietnamese and Thai restaurants. I always look for the little old lady sitting on the sidewalk who sells a bag of fresh limes for a dollar. There are numerous shops selling Chinese lacquerware, statuary, jewelry, clothing, and other goods.
I used to cook Chinese more frequently than I do now. It’s not great to eat white rice on a regular basis if one is diabetic. So I splurge occasionally and hope the damage is minimal. Maybe the fish fillet makes up for the carbs in the rice.
Things have not always run smoothly with the Chinese population in L.A. In 1871, there was a race riot directed at the Chinese in which about twenty Chinese were hanged from lampposts by a mob of some 500 Angelenos. Not one of the members of the mob lost their lives or served time for their misdeeds. It was probably the ugliest race incident in Southern California’s history, except, of course, what we did to the Indians.
On Thursdays, I find myself taking the Expo Line Train into downtown Los Angeles, or as the locals call it, DTLA. Before the free mindful meditation classes at 12:30 (taught by UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center—or MARC), I spend a couple hours reading in the literature and fiction center on the third floor. Then I make my way to lunch at one of several locations: Chinatown, Olvera Street, Little Tokyo, or the Grand Central Market on Broadway. Sometimes I stop at the Last Bookstore at 5th and Spring. When the afternoons are hot, as it was today, I return by the air-conditioned Santa Monica Bus Line Rapid 10 Freeway Flyer, which lets me off a block from home.
Since I started exploring the downtown area, I have gotten a better, more favorable feel for the city in which I live. LADT is nowhere near as white bread as the outlying areas, and there are interesting ethnic enclaves scattered about.
When it gets a little cooler, I hope to wander farther afield, perhaps taking in bits of Koreatown and Filipinotown.
Today, for the first time in two or three years, Martine and I attended the Golden Dragon Parade in Chinatown to celebrate the new Year of the Monkey. It turns out that I was born in the Year of the Monkey, but according to Chinese astrology, this may not be a lucky year for me. Fortunately, I do not believe in any kind of astrology.
Martine, on the other hand, was born in the Year of the Dragon, which means that we are complementary. But I am convinced that we are complementary for other reasons than those picked by astrologers.
Monkey on Cathay Bank Float
To avoid various construction and marathon race snarls, we took the bus downtown and went to our usual Chinatown restaurant, the Sala Thai on Alpine Street. I had a spicy fish filet with basil and peppers, and Martine had her usual pad see ew with chicken and broccoli.
Even though the parade was fraught with symbolism which we didn’t altogether understand, we had a great time.
I had forgotten all about this photo. Although I cook four or five days a week, we didn’t have anything in the refrigerator on Christmas Day, so we had to go out to eat. Now on that Holiest of Holidays, most restaurants of the Euro-American variety are shut tight; so I suggested that we go to Chinatown, where we were sure to find some good restaurants that were open. (It kind of reminds me of that last scene in The Christmas Story, when the whole family goes out to have Peking Duck after the Bumpus’s dogs had demolished their dinner.) Martine and I have always been partial to a little Thai restaurant called the Sala Thai at the corner of Alpine and New High Streets. It is one of the rare Chinatown restaurants that sports an “A” health department inspection rating (see above). Once you step inside, though, it feels as if you were on a side street in Bangkok.
Fortunately, it was open. So while Martine has a chicken pad see ew with broccoli, I had some spicy fish filet with veggies. It was not quite what one thinks about for a holiday dinner, but it was good. Afterwards, we strolled through several souvenir shops and Chinese bakeries in the Chungking Plaza area.
That evening, we also had an interesting dinner experience. The only place we could find open was a Denny’s in Santa Monica. There was a long line—about three quarters of an hour—before we were seated. Apparently, both the waitstaff and the kitchen were short-handed, not having anticipated a high demand for their food on Christmas Day.
I was ready for New Year’s Day. I had cooked a big pot of a vegetarian curry for the week. It was Monica Dutt’s recipe for Gobi Alu aur Matar ki Tarkari, or, as it is also known, Curried Cauliflower, Potatoes, and Green Peas. I had bought some delicious (and spicy) tomato chutney and garlic pickle at India Sweets and Spices in Culver City the Saturday before, and added it to make a delicious entrée. The recipe can be found on page 126 of The Art of Indian Cooking (if you can find a copy of this now rare item).