Monday, 30 January 2012

Chinatown (1974)

Dir. Roman Polanski
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, Perry Lopez

“Forget it Jake. It’s Chinatown....”

Chinatown. Chinatown is a real place in the Los Angeles of 1937 where Roman Polanski’s noir thriller is set. Private detective J.J. (Jake) Gittes (Jack Nicholson) was once a cop in Chinatown. “Doing what?” he is asked. “As little as possible” he replies. In Chinatown people speak different languages; there are currents beneath the surface that outsiders cannot hope to fathom. Someone might think that their actions were for the best, but the ramifications could be quite different to their intent. Gittes tried to help someone once, tried to ensure that she would not get hurt. But his actions ensured that she was. In Chinatown it is best to not get involved. “Have you ever heard the expression ‘Let sleeping dogs lie’? Sometimes you’re better off not knowing.”

Chinatown’ is more than a geographical location. In the film it stands for the futility of valiant action. By taking a stand and trying to get to the bottom of a mystery Gittes causes more damage. Yet again, the person he tries to protect gets hurt. The fact that it actually happens in Chinatown is just a neat irony. The bad guys win, the innocent are the victims, and Gittes is left with nothing. What can he do? “Forget it Jake. It’s Chinatown....”

In Chinatown Robert Towne’s screenplay sees layer after layer being revealed. Gittes is hired by a woman to prove that her husband, Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), is cheating on her. Gittes follows him and photographs him with another woman. The pictures are splashed across the following day’s newspapers – Mulwray is big news because he is Chief Engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The city is in the middle of a drought. The farmers outside the city limits are seeing their livelihoods dry up. Yet Mulwray refuses to support a proposed dam, supposedly the answer to the city’s water needs.

Two things happen in quick succession. Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) appears; to Gittes’s amazement she is not the woman whop hired him to snoop on Hollis. Then Hollis himself is dragged from a reservoir, drowned. But the autopsy reveals that his lungs were full of salt water, not fresh. He did not drown in that reservoir.

Gittes is eager to find out who played him for a patsy. He discovers that water from the reservoirs is being dumped into the sea, creating a shortage. He discovers that the parched farmlands of the Northwest Valley are being bought up en masse by just a few individuals. He discovers that these individuals are all residents of a care home for the elderly and know nothing about it; the care home is, however, supported by the Albacore Club. The Albacore is headed by Noah Cross, Mulwray’s former business partner. Together they once owned all the water supplied to L.A. before Mulwray donated it to the city. Possibly more important, however, is that he is the father of Evelyn, Mulwray’s wife, a woman to whom Gittes is becoming more and more drawn. It transpires that Cross is not just looking to cream off the contracts for construction of the dam, he is looking to use the water to irrigate the ‘worthless’ farmland he has bought up and get the city to expand into the area, making it worth its weight in gold. “Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water”. Horrifically it turns out that money is but one of his goals. There is little for him to buy that he cannot already afford. Gittes asks him what he wants. “The future, Mr Gittes! The future!” He wants to leave a legacy – and this requires tracking down the young woman Mulwray was photographed with. And Evelyn seems to know more about her than she is letting on…

The stars of Chinatown: Jack Nicholson,
Faye Dunaway, and Faye Dunaway's hats

The viewer sees the entire investigation through Gittes’s eyes. The camera follows Jack Nicholson every step of the way; no scene occurs where Gittes is not present. We discover what is going on at the same time as Gittes. In this it is homage to the first-person narration of Raymond Chandler novels. The hard-boiled crime fiction of a morally-compromised individual seeking to unravel the truth about dark deeds was known as a genre as noir. If you want to spot a film noir check to see whether it starred Humphrey Bogart, such as The Maltese Falcon or Key Largo. Both of which, interestingly, were directed by John Huston, who here plays Noah Cross. In many cases noir tales tended to centre on L.A. private eyes. In Chinatown the protagonist has to be a private eye. He has to be acting for himself and not be beholden to the city authorities (can we see signs of America’s belief in private enterprise and distrust of authority here?). It is claimed that Cross owns the police – whether he does or not is unclear. He certainly has sway in the Department of Water and Power even while Mulwray is still chief engineer. Mulwray waits on the shore for the water to be discharged out to sea with a despairing look on his face. He has figured out what is going on, he just cannot stop it. Though my interpretation is that this is not what causes Mulwray’s death. Cross can get away with what he does because he is rich and because he has attained respectability. “I’m old”, he explains to Gittes; “Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” And the protagonist has to be in L.A.

L.A. causes the problems – it did in real life. Los Angeles is built on desert. There was nowhere near enough water to support the over-populated metropolis it had become by the early 20th century. So it stole it. It took the water from the Owens Valley farmland to the east and piped it straight to the city, leaving the farmers to watch their land become brown and barren. The creation of another dam and more reservoirs would allow the city to expand again, gobbling up the Northwest Valley. L.A. is as amoral as the systems it allows to flourish. For L.A. to grow Gittes has to lose.

Watching it I was struck by how certain themes were familiar: the private eye with a bad experience in a distinct Los Angeles neighbourhood, a shady conspiracy to buy out land and make a profit from the city’s growth. Then I remembered where I had seen this before. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? There Judge Doom is trying to take over Toontown in the name of ‘Cloverleaf’ in order to start constructing L.A.’s infamous freeways. Of course, in the later film he was unsuccessful, but it struck me that Roger Rabbit and Chinatown shared many of the same themes and plot points. Though Chinatown does feature fewer weasels (except for a cameo by a knife-wielding Polanski himself: “You’re a very nosy fellow, kitty-cat…”).

What have I learnt about California?
Los Angeles has to grow. But it is built on desert, and so it needs water to survive. And it is not above using dirty tactics to help itself to that water. Should I ever go there I will remember the farmers of Owens Valley. The authorities, as we have seen in numerous other examples (L.A. Confidential springs immediately to mind), are corruptible. There are wheels within wheels, and just when you think you know what is going on, you don’t. That is as true outside Chinatown as within.

Can we go there?
Los Angeles really exists. So does its Chinatown. The Chinatown referred to is the earlier version around Alameda Street that was demolished to make way for Union Station. For filming in the 1970s they had to use the newer incarnation of Chinatown; shooting took place on Ord and Spring Streets.

Other sites used for filming really did date from the era depicted. Some are public sites in the L.A. area such as City Hall, Echo Park Lake, Point Fermin Park (where the water is released into the sea) and the Stone Canyon Reservoir (where Mulwray’s body is found) – the latter can be viewed, film fans, from the actual Mulholland Drive. The dry riverbed is Big Tujunga Creek in Sunland. The Mulwrays’ mansion is 1315 South El Molino Drive in South Pasadena. The El Macondo Apartments where Gittes photographs Mulwray and Katherine is Mi Casa, 1400-1414 Havenhurst Drive, just south of Sunset Boulevard. Katherine is later tracked down to 1972 Canyon Drive in Hollywood (Alicia Silverstone later lived in the same building in the film Blast from the Past). Cross’s powerbase is out on Santa Catalina Island. Gittes lands by the Avalon Casino, and has lunch with Noah at El Rancho Escondido. 

Overall Rating: 5/5

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