Favorite Films: Chinatown (1974)

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.

Favorite Films: Chinatown (1974)

Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson in Chinatown

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.