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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on DVDs. Chinatown.

Chinatown (Four Stars)
U.S.; Roman Polanski, 1974 (Paramount)

“Forget it Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
Those are the last words — chilling, evocative, wised up — of Roman Polanski and Robert Towne’s Chinatown — that great dark tale of politics, murder, and family secrets in ‘30s Los Angeles. No matter what you think of Polanski and his arrest and extradition problems — and I bet they’re more complex than most of the  cut-and-dried “He’s persecuted” or “He’s a fugitive schmuck”  analyses offered by friends or foes — the director’s 1974 private eye movie classic Chinatown is still some kind of masterpiece of neo-noir.

The movie, one of the big commercial-critical hits of its era, was a career peak for director Polanski, the matchless screenwriter Towne, and the superb star team of  Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston.

It‘s a picture that seems close to perfect of its kind and one of the ‘70s films I love best. Gorgeous and terrifying and sometimes funny as hell, Chinatown tells a romantic/tragic/murder mystery tale of official crimes and personal corruption raging around the real-life L. A. Water scandal, with private sin and public swindles steadily stripped bare by J. J. Gittes (one of Jack Nicholson‘s signature roles), a cynical, natty, smart-ass Hammetesque shamus, with a nose for corruption and a hot-trigger temper.

Gittes is an anti-Philip Marlowe detective. He’s proud of taking divorce cases (Marlowe disdained them), and he’s not too queasy about selling out. He’s also much less sexually reticent than Raymond Chandler’s pipe-smoking knight of the mean streets — though he cracks just as wise. Fundamentally, Gittes is a survivor. He likes his nose, he likes breathing through it, but he finds it increasingly hard to keep it unbloodied and out of rich L. A. people’s business as he keeps digging deeper into what starts as a simple infidelity investigation and then broadens to include a vast conspiracy, intertwined with the deadly history of immaculately evil nabob Noah Cross (played by the devilishly genial Huston) and his desperate, wounded daughter Evelyn Mulwray (Dunaway) — a nasty web that includes Polanski himself as the cocky little fedora-topped Cross torpedo (with a Polish accent) who calls Gittes “Kitty-Kat” and slices up his proboscis for a memento mori.

Chinatown — with splendid Richard Sylbert production design, gleaming John Alonso cinematography and a really haunting Jerry Goldsmith score — wafts us back to L. A., downtown and Silverlake in the ‘30s: the era of  the Depression and jazzman Bunny Berigan‘s sardonic lament “I Can‘t Get Started.” It was also the heyday, of course, of the hard-boiled, lean and mean “Black Mask” style  thrillers of Dashiell Hammett and Chandler, hard-boiled, high-style fiction that Towne, at his absolute best, pastiches to a fine turn and that Polanski, at his best ( the championship form of Cul-de-Sac and The Pianist) makes come shatteringly alive.

The movie has great dialogue, great acting, great direction, and an unmatchable blend of wised-up savvy and yearning romanticism. The bleak ending (Polanski‘s idea) cuts you to the heart. Temper tantrum virtuoso Nicholson has some of his best blowups. And The supporting cast — Polanski, Burt Young, Diane Ladd, Perry Lopez, Dick Bakalyan, Roy Jenson, James Hong, Bruce Glover, Joe Mantell and John Hillerman (at his smarmiest) — are pretty damned wonderful too.

In fact, this is a movie that — not counting Gittes’ slit nose — has no perceptible flaws: a classic you won’t, can’t, never will, ever forget. Chinatown reminds you of how jack Nicholson single-handedly almost, shifted the ground of the movies, and changed our conception of what a movie star was, in the early ’70s. It reminds you of how vulnerable faye Dunaway ciould be, of what a sly old movie fox John Huston was. It reminded you of how great films can be when they have really wonderful, beautifuklly crafted, verbally agile scripts (like Towne’s here). And it reminds you that Polanski is a filmmaker who’s maybe faced such terror, darkness and despair in his own life — from the Holocaust to personal tragedy –that he can, brilliantly and memorably, turn fear into art.

2 Responses to “Wilmington on DVDs. Chinatown.”

  1. Nic says:

    second that notion

  2. Mimi says:

    I’ve always felt that Chinatown and LA Confidential are two of the most perfect films ever made. I already own DVD’s of both and watch them at least once every few months to remind myself that good movies can be made, just aren’t any more.

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Wilmington

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You worked as second AD on Jerry Lewis’ The Day the Clown Cried,  about a clown entertaining Jewish children in a WW II concentration camp. 
Yes, and I never saw the film. I was just the second assistant and it was an incredible fairytale for me, to work with Jerry Lewis. Jerry Lewis, along with Louis de Funes—who, by the way, had a very similar career to Jerry Lewis. He was a huge comic in France, but never, ever until now, 20 years after his death, recognized as a great actor. But they both made me laugh as a child. Jerry Lewis did everything: he did stand-up. He could act. He could sing and dance. He’s a photographer. He’s a director. And his films, when you look at them, are extremely daring and inventive. So he was someone that I wanted to emulate, in a way. The cinematographer of the film, Edmond Richard, who had shot a film I worked on directed by Rene Clement, called Hope to Die, with Jean-Louis Trintignant, Aldo Ray and Robert Ryan. It was like I had been invited to the court of Queen Elizabeth. It felt like a real achievement. I tried to work as hard as possible, and be very speedy. Like the weather, you don’t wait for somebody to ask. The moment the director says “I would like to have a…” you know what needs and get it for him. The greatest moment on that set for me was, one day Jerry Lewis got really upset with his crew, and went off on them, saying “You’re all too lazy. You don’t work hard enough. There’s only one guy who understands!” And he pointed to me. I only worked on the film for 15 days, at the circus in Paris. I never heard a thing about it after. I knew it was bogged down in lawsuits after it was finished, but it was an important moment in my professional life. I worked with a lot of amazing people before I directed my first film. I was an assistant director for twelve years. It was a great training ground, watching those masters work. I have many great memories. I started making films very late, you know.”
~ Jean-Jacques Beineix

“A shot is a story. A shot on its own should be a piece of a story. Which is why I talk a lot about watching films, even the films we’re working on, with the sound off. Just to analyze how the film works, because a film should work for an audience without any sound. The biggest problem I see is that someone may have a superficial understanding of what a shot is propositionally, but they don’t have an understanding of how all of these shots are part of a family that needs to connect, and so you’ll get something that’s like a sentence arranged poorly with six nouns in a row. That surprises me, because I think that’s something that can be learned. Some things can’t be, but that can. It’s a grammar. In a classroom I could walk somebody through the difference between a sequence in which the filmmaker has a deep understanding of how images connect, and someone who doesn’t. It’s not really an intellectual process. Some people are just born with it and are just sort of savants at that deep mathematical understanding of shot construction.  I’m better than I used to be, but there are some people I’m just never going to catch. Spielberg. His staging ability. I’m never going to catch him. But when you’re trying to figure out how to get better—I’m not competitive in the sense of looking around at other filmmakers and comparing myself to them. What I do have to think about in trying to navigate myself through a career is: what can I get better at, and what do I have that I can enhance that somebody else doesn’t have?”
~ Steven Soderbergh