Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Chinatown: A Polanski Masterpiece

“The exhaustive, labyrinthine narrative is built up like a fortress around this film’s bitter heart.” ~Jeremy Kipp, Slant Magazine

Chinatown. I never get tired of this film. From the haunting music to the crisp dialogue, fabulous screenplay and Roman Polanski’s masterful direction, this film is a sheer pleasure as a work of tragic art. Here's an excerpt from Kipp's insightful review...

The dialogue by Robert Towne has become part of the pop lexicon, "Forget it, Jake—it's Chinatown!" a catch phrase for being in over your head, or for hurting the one you were trying to help. One of those classic American movies from the 1970s, when studios were churning out themes instead of properties for theme parks, Chinatown can be enjoyed on multiple levels. It's a first-class detective story about a man killed by drowning in the middle of a Los Angeles drought. On top of that, it's a disturbing parable about the pressure put on the human heart, with private detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) doggedly pursuing the elusive facts about Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) and her deep-seated reasons for hiding the truth from him. "You may think you know what you're dealing with," intones John Huston as the depraved millionaire Noah Cross, "but believe me, you don't."

Syd Field, author of the book Screenwriting, at one time possibly the Bible for how to write movie scripts, states that if you want to write a superior screen play study Chinatown.

But it is more than a perfect screenplay. It’s is truly a work of craftsmanship in its execution. Once you have seen it a couple times you no longer have to watch to see what it is about. Now you can begin to dissect it, and appreciate its meticulous attention to detail. I invite you to stop the movie at any spot and notice the images, the camera angles, the lighting, the effects. Every frame is a work of art.

Likewise, listen to the dialogue that accompanies these images. Every single scene not only advances the story, it reveals and conceals the mystery. The characters who appear in this film are developed with quick brush strokes through sequences of encounters, engaging banter and a story line that perpetually moves forward toward its painful conclusion.

Jack/Jake’s bandaged nose for seemingly half the film is an amusing metaphor for his character throughout: a snoop.

But it keeps coming back to the screenplay. Listen to this exchange between Dunaway and Nicholson later in the film. It’s rich.

Evelyn Mulwray: Tell me, Mr. Gittes: Does this often happen to you?
Jake Gittes: What's that?
Evelyn Mulwray: Well, I'm judging only on the basis of one afternoon and an evening, but, uh, if this is how you go about your work, I'd say you'd be lucky to, uh, get through a whole day.
Jake Gittes: Actually, this hasn't happened to me for a long time.
Evelyn Mulwray: When was the last time?
Jake Gittes: Why?
Evelyn Mulwray: It's an innocent question.
Jake Gittes: In Chinatown.
Evelyn Mulwray: What were you doing there?
Jake Gittes: Working for the District Attorney.
Evelyn Mulwray: Doing what?
Jake Gittes: As little as possible.
Evelyn Mulwray: The District Attorney gives his men advice like that?
Jake Gittes: They do in Chinatown.

Note the misdirection in this exchange a few minutes later.

Evelyn Mulwray: You really don’t like to talk about the past, do you.
Jake Gittes: I’m tired.

Dunaway then delivers yet another of my favorite lines. A little further Nicholson, continuing his probe, asks one more thing and she demurs.

Jake Gittes: What? It's an innocent question.
Evelyn Mulwray: With you, Mr. Gittes, there are no innocent questions.

Nor are there any wasted opportunities.

There are certainly a lot of great films and not everyone appreciates what this one offers up, but if you have any inclination to make movies, I recommend you study this one. There’s more here than meets the eye.


ENNYMAN said...

I really should not have closed the entry without commenting on the casting. Once again, superb... especially John Huston as Noah Cross. Chilling. Flawless.

If you get the impression that I like this film, you are drawing the right conclusion.

Anonymous said...

I think that one of the main reasons so many in Hollywood support Polanski and his legal goings on's....is because he IS such a great director......