Archive for October 4th, 2009

The Term Film Noir was coined by French film Critic Nino Frank in the 40’s but didn’t really come into common use until years later when film Noir was dying out.  The end of The Hays Code in the late sixties had opened the floodgates for directors allowing them to get away with showing so much more without the constraints of so called decency and morality.  Whist in a lot of ways this was a good thing in others it wasn’t, in stifled creativity.  The genre was always looking for creative ways to get their point across and get around the censors; this made them have to work so much harder and created some of the greatest films ever made (I can’t believe I am actually defending censorship, that’s not like me!).  As film makers like Francis Ford Coppola, Arthur Penn, Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich where changing the face of cinema forever with the American New Wave a successor to the Film Noir emerged dubbed Neo-Noir.  Inspired by classics of the Genre and taking on modern themes and styles it produced some great films that included modern contemporary films and postmodern nostalgia.  Roman Polanski’s 1974 classic Chinatown my not be the best example of the genre as it owes so much to the classic Noir of the forties and fifties but it is still (in my opinion) one of the best films of the seventies if not of all time.  Don’t let the bright and vivid colour fool you this is as much a film noir as the low key black and white of the classic era.  The bright and lush setting not only offer a perfect juxtaposition to the darker underbelly of the plot but also makes the revelations and loss of innocence far more powerful and disturbing.


The creative force behind Chinatown was producer Robert Evans and screenwriter Robert Towne.  Evans had asked Towne to write a screenplay based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel The Great Gatsby, he declined (a film of The Great Gatsby was made with a screenplay Francis Ford Coppola).  Instead Towne suggested he write an original story set in the 30’s. Evans agreed and Towne set to work on a story inspired by the “California Water Wars” and centered around Los Angeles private detective J.J. Gitties (Jack Nicholson).  It had been intended as a trilogy.  The second film The Two Jakes was eventually made in 1990 and directed by Jack Nicholson.  A third film was never made.  Roman Polanski was hired to direct after Peter Boganovich turned it down, a decision he unsurprisingly grew to regret.  At this time the script was sprawling complex and ranged in length from one hundred and fifty to three hundred pages depending on who you believe.  Polanski insisted it be rewritten.  This was duly done, amongst the changes were a new ending insisted on by the director.  Although Towne did not want to change his original ending years later he admitted Polanski was right.  The other main change was the dropping of the voiceover, often a staple of the genre.  This was done because Polanski felt the voiceover gave too much away and the film worked better if the audience only discovered the clues and the twists in the plot at the same time as Gittes.  

jack nicholson chinatown

The story starts with J.J. “Jake” Gittes (Jack Nicholson) an LA private detective specializing in matrimonial cases being hired by a woman, Evelyn Mulwray (Diane Ladd) to perform surveillance on her husband who she suspects of having an affair. He quickly achieves his goal and photographs the man’s rendezvous with a young woman.  The following day the photographs appear in the newspaper.  He is then visited by the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway).  Shortly after Evelyn’s husband is murdered and Gittes has a rather unpleasant encounter with a pair of thugs, one of whom is played by the director Roman Polanski.  The plot gets deeper and darker as Gittes gets involved with Evelyn Mulwray and her farther Noah Cross (John Huston) a character allegedly based on William Mulholland, the chief engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.  I won’t say any much more as I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone who hasn’t seen the film yet, the spoilers I have given are in the trailer so I haven’t given much away.    

Although he removed the voiceover Polanski did insist on keeping one convention of the genre.  The story is told very much from the point of view of Gittes.  The character appears in just about every scene and as mentioned before the audience isn’t privy to any information that he is not.  Taking it to the next level the screen fades to black when Gittes is knocked out only fading back up as he regains consciousness.  This helps draw the viewer into the story and the character.  As does the sublime photographer.  Cinematographer John A. Alonzo was nominated for an Oscar but lost out (unfairly in my opinion) to The Towering Inferno.  He had previously worked on films as diverse as Vanishing Point, Harold and Maude and Hit! Amazingly the soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith was composed and recorded in just ten days after the original Phillip Lambro score was rejected at the eleventh hour.  It was nominated for and Oscar but lost out to The Godfather part II. Ultimately of the eleven Oscars it was nominated for only Robert Towne’s original screenplay won.

faye dunaway chinatown

The casting is always key to a film and in this case is perfect with Jack Nicholson in the lead role as Gittes and an aging John Huston as Noah Cross.  But one part came about almost by chance; Faye Dunaway’s role of Evelyn Mulwray was originally intended for Ali MacGraw, Evans’ wife.  She famously left him to marry Steve McQueen who she had met while filming The Getaway (1972).  It was reported that the divorce also cost he the role of Daisy in The Great Gatsby (1974).  Even so Dunaway was still not the first choice; Evans wanted Jane Fonda but Polanski preferred Julie Christie who had been close friends with his late wife Sharon Tate.  Christie was offered the part but rejected it before they approached Faye Dunaway.  Dunaway is perfect displaying the same sexy and sassiness as she did in Bonnie and Clyde but with a greater range of emotions and displaying true vulnerability.  But this is Jack Nicholson’s film all the way, he really commands the screen.  Forget Five Easy Pieces or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest this has to stand alongside The Passenger as his greatest performance.  It has the perfect blend of quite brooding and the shoutier, showy performances he has become know for more recently. 

Beyond all the other things I have said about it the main reason it works so well and is such a good film is that despite the twists and turns of the plot it is easy to follow allowing the viewer to soak in the beautiful photography and sublime acting.  This is testament to a writer, director and producer all at the top of their games. 




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