EMPIRE ESSAY: Chinatown Review

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A private detective investigating an adultery case stumbles on to a scheme of murder that has something to do with water.


Screenwriter Robert Towne's status as a Hollywood sage was achieved largely through his reputation as a script doctor and consultant. But a trio of breakthrough, credited scripts —written specifically for two actor friends — remain his most tangible achievement. These were Shampoo (1975) for Warren Beatty, and, for Jack Nicholson, The Last Detail (1973) and Chinatown.

Chinatown, Towne's finest two hours (for which he won the film's only Oscar, Best Original Screenplay, in a year dominated by The Godfather Part II), is an LA story of the 1930s, a political conspiracy noir thriller and a complex, hard-boiled detective mystery in the Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett line. A sophisticated film that covered everyone involved in glory, including the audiences who responded appreciatively to the dense, demanding and dark story line. Private eye J.J. "Jake" Gittes ("Discreet Investigations") is more dapper with his centre parting and snappy suits than Chandler's Phillip Marlowe or Hammett's Sam Spade. He's also more humorous, physical and prosperous (with associates Duffy and Walsh as well as the obligatory good secretary). At the same time he is more alienated. Jake is a former cop haunted by the veiled past which climaxed in an unspecified crisis when he worked LA's Chinatown. Elusive references to the district dot the film, but the most that is drawn from Jake on the subject is that, "I was trying to keep someone from being hurt. I ended up making sure that she was hurt." Thus the enigmatic title - only in the film's final five minutes do the principal characters in a fateful convergence, get to Chinatown - stands for failure, bad luck, and being out of your depth in something you don't understand.

Jake is hired by a dolled-up broad (Diane Ladd) to get the goods on her allegedly philandering husband, Hollis Mulwray, prominent chief engineer for the city's water and power department. He gets Page One scandal snaps of Mulwray and a young girl in their "love nest", but the backslapping comes to an abrupt halt when the real Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray appears in his office. Jake persists in investigating further as intimidation and corpses mount, because he doesn't like being made a fool of, and he doesn't like duplicity. ("I make an honest living," he says proudly.) Mulwray and a homeless man living in a storm drain are found drowned in the middle of a drought, Jake sees water secretly diverted and discovers a property scam in which nursing home residents and dead men are the nominal owners of a new empire.

Towne was a native Los Angelino and informed his script with a love for the town and a nostalgia for its coming-of-age, a time when the desert city grew in order to come to where the water was. And water is everywhere throughout the film, from the ocean where tons of it are being dumped to the reservoirs Jake circuits, the garden pond that holds a vital clue and the tap dripping in a murdered woman's kitchen. It is the key to great power and wealth, the tool of insatiable greed and ambition.

It was Roman Polanski's genius, however, that made the film not merely an intelligent and intricate narrative but a great, disturbing vision. Polanski, with his tragically intimate experience of evil, toughened the script up, most crucially in changing Towne's happy-ish ending (in which Evelyn and Katherine got away) to the bitter but unforgettable conclusion which leaves Jake pole-axed, led away in shock by his partners (urging "Forget it, Jake; it's Chinatown").

John Huston's bluff tycoon not only thinks he can get away with anything — he can. It was also Polanski who observed with a vividly humane perception those collected oddballs, miscreants and victims: the coroner with a hacking cough; the distressed farmers; the snotty little clerk at the Hall of Records; the burly client (Burt Young) who weeps at evidence of his wife's infidelity, blacks her eye and settles back into slobbish domesticity; the weaselly little spiv ("Where'd you get the midget?", played, of course, by Polanski himself) who slits Jake's nose.

That it is very firmly "A Roman Polanski Film" as billed was completely verified by the belated and nigh unfathomable 1990 sequel The Two Jakes, scripted by Towne and directed by Nicholson revisiting his Gittes in 1948 (it, too, is well-acted, complicated and polished-looking, but sadly lacking in the unifying magic). Faye Dunaway, whose neurasthenic quality has never been exploited to better advantage than by Polanski (who gave her — and got — a rough time in the process) is beautifully nuanced as the f cool, elegant,

Marcel-waved Evelyn whose birthmark, "a flaw in the iris" represents the heart of darkness in the film. She is presented as a high-class femme fatale and indeed her suspect motives enhance the menace and jeopardy until both her anxiousness and her glowing seduction scene are suddenly cast in a different light by the most shocking of the revelations. It is still Nicholson's show, though — his fatalistic glamour and presence as the cynical, wisecracking, impulsively decent snoop, dented not a bit by the ignominy of sporting a substantial bandage over his nose for much of the film.

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Detective thriller with a social agenda and an emotionally ripping finale. An absolute classic.