May 23, 2009 by abbyo
An occasional feature in which Elliot and Abby write about movies they’ve been meaning to check out for a while, and finally have.
“Chinatown” is a movie that seems very much to be the product of its director, Roman Polanski. While of course we have Robert Towne to thank for the movie’s great script, we have Polanski to thank for the movie’s attention to detail and, most importantly, its ending (which, although it’s tempting, I won’t give away).
For those unfamiliar with Polanski’s classic film noir, the plot concerning L.A. private investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is about as twisty as a soft-serve cone, and every bit as delicious. Gittes is initially hired by a woman calling herself Evelyn Mulwray. She wants Jake to find out if her husband, the director of the water and power department, is cheating on her. After solving the case, the real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) shows up. The plot thickens even further when Mr. Mulwray turns up dead of apparent suicide (but of course we all know it’s really murder). During the course of his investigations, Jake discovers corruption, greed and layer upon layer of shady dealings and general WTF-ness that come from the upper echelons of power.
One of the most interesting aspects of “Chinatown” is the effort Polanski puts into making Jake’s world of pre-WWII Los Angeles feel realistic. This is a movie in which nothing goes unexplained, and in which every detail is there for the purpose of including the audience in the film. In one scene, where Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway are arguing outside of a restaurant, Dunaway’s character tells the Valet to go and get her car. As the argument continues, the audience can see, in the very center of the shot, the valet going and getting the car. Another scene shows Jake’s discovering two maintenance workers scraping Mr. Mulwray’s name off his door after his death.
Polanski is showing us that he hasn’t forgotten the details here. Every scene progresses logically (at least as far as it’s possible) within the plot. Every action the characters take makes sense in light of the action before it. It’s like looking at a piece of well-made furniture: You can see where all the pieces interlock, and when you sit down in it, you know it’s going to hold. That kind of meticulous arranging and the security that comes with it is something you don’t always find in modern Hollywood films. Best of all, this careful setting up doesn’t come at the expense of entertainment. “Chinatown” is still exciting, crazy, and chock-full of great lines.
It’s also admirable to consider the film’s message, and how dedicated Polanski was to communicating it. He fought with producer Robert Evans over the film’s ending. Evans wanted it to end one way, Polanski wanted a finish that would be consistent with the movie’s theme. The director won out, and the grimly effective ending (which he wrote himself at the last minute, but fits in stylistically with the rest of Towne’s script) becomes the driving point for the movie: that despite the best efforts of some, in many cases, people with money and power can get away with just about anything.
Watch “Chinatown” if you haven’t already. It’s a classic movie, and it’s highly regarded for a good reason. It’s well-crafted, engaging cinema with a great eye for detail.