Film noir, the 1940s cinematic genre distinguished by shadowy lighting, alluring femmes fatales and wisecracking private eyes in fedoras, translates to "dark film." But the darkest of them all doesnt emanate from the period that spawned these moody films.
Chinatown, made in 1974, is not an imitation of noir; rather, it transcends the genre. Certainly, there are noir conventions in Chinatown (set in 1930s Los Angeles), but the film expands and deepens them and, in some cases, inverts them.
For instance, the private eye Jake Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson) isnt the tart-tongued know-it-all in a rumpled trench coat, like Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep or Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past. Nicholson isnt so much cocky; he merely affects confidence. Hes full of self-doubt in a manner completely at odds with a Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett hero. He dresses spiffily and tries to sound suave by using words such as "métier" and "finesse." Theres something pathetic about him: He thinks hes polished, but theres a rough-hewn side to him that cant be burnished.
Faye Dunaway, who plays his love interest, Evelyn Mulwray, isnt really a femme fatale, because she doesnt bring a man to his ruin. Rather, it was a man who ruined her: Her own father, played with a combination of omnipotent fearlessness and crass wickedness by John Huston, raped and impregnated her. Like most noir heroines, shes hiding a past, but shes not protecting herself so much as she is her daughter-sister, whom she wants to keep from the grips of her powerful father.
As in all film noir, theres a web of mystery, but Chinatowns web is more like a trap. If you get too close to the sordid truth, you get sucked into an inescapable vortex. When Dunaway attempts to flee, Nicholson naively tells her to let the police handle the situation. She chillingly replies, in reference to her father, "He owns the police."
In one of the most indelible but cruelly perfect endings in the history of cinema, Evelyn is shot in the back of the head by a cop as she tries to escape with Catherine, her daughter-sister. The eerie sound of a blaring car horn and Catherines piercing screams provide a freakish cacophony. When Nicholson catches up with her, shes slumped across the wheel, the bullet having exited from her eye socket. Scriptwriter Robert Townes original draft allowed Evelyn to escape, but director Roman Polanski wisely intervened.
The violence is another quality that makes Chinatown simultaneously depart from as well as embrace its genre. Gunshots are as common as the utterance of words like "dame" in 40s noir movies. There is little shooting in Chinatown, but plenty of violence and all of it appropriate.
Cinema in the 70s made the words "gratuitous violence" a catch phrase, but Chinatowns violence is not only warranted, its inevitable. Even Polanskis cameo turn as a knife-wielding thug is dramatically urgent. In a harrowing scene, he slices Nicholsons nostril as punishment for being, as Polanski puts it, "a nosy fellow."
Corruption drives the plot of noir films, but Chinatowns degradation doesnt derive from mere greed as much as it does from evil. Noah Cross, Evelyns father, will stop at nothing in his efforts to manipulate Los Angeles water supply.
John A. Alonzos muted cinematography has received richly deserved plaudits. With its fuzzy, impressionistic lighting, its as though the film were shot through a gauzy filter. The fawn-colored shots of the arid landscape almost make the viewer thirsty.
However, scant attention has been paid to Chinatowns score, expertly composed by Jerry Goldsmith. In fact, an article last February in the New York Times dedicated to the film incredibly made no mention of its music. The superb score heightens the drama by finely chiseled understatement. The melancholy love theme, with its languorous solo trumpet, is a minor-key reverie of bluesy wistfulness. However, much of the score is bleak and atonal.
The music, like the film itself, is at once romantic and anti-romantic. Producer Robert Evans wanted Goldsmith to write music with a 1930s flavor, but Goldsmith stood his ground, compromising only by adding well-placed vintage melodies in a few scenes, including Jerome Kerns "The Way You Look Tonight" and Vernon Dukes "I Cant Get Started." The original score is by turns forbidding and enveloping and entirely effective.
A misguided sequel to Chinatown, The Two Jakes, was made in 1990. Directed by Nicholson who also takes the lead role the film, set 15 years after the events in Chinatown, gets buried in its own complexity. In no way does it live up to its predecessor, but The Two Jakes wasnt as bad as some critics held. Nicholson, whose acting since Chinatown has become disturbingly self-indulgent, is surprisingly low-key here, although his Philip Marlowelike narration doesnt work. What does work is the cinematography. The dusky light makes the action seem dreamlike, with no clear delineation between past and present.
As in most sequels, the original is, well, more original. Twenty-five years after its release, Chinatown still stands up, ramrod straight and worth seeing repeatedly.
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