Sunday, 3 February 2008

Discount Bin Movie Club #9: Chinatown

"Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown."

Probably the weightiest quote in movie history, that manages to go beyond the simple dictionary definitions into meanings that exist inside the film's universe. A rare feat for any film.

That's right, I'm talking about 1974's neo-noir classic Chinatown, directed by Roman Polanski, written by Robert Towne, starring Jack Nicholson as private eye Jake Gittes, Faye Dunaway as socialite Evelyn Mulwray, and John Huston, in front of the camera this time, as millionaire Noah Cross.

What can someone say about Chinatown that hasn't already been said about a million times over?

Well, here's one million and one.

The story starts out simply, the year is 1937 and Jake Gittes is a former cop turned private eye specializing in matrimonial work. He's hired to investigate the possible infidelity of the head of Los Angeles' Water & Power department, and that puts him in a noir-nightmare of murder, lies, and secrets.

Now the two most important words in this film are Water and Power.

In the summer of 1937 Los Ang
eles was tormented by a heat wave that makes today's Global Warming look like a cool October night, turning water, and the control of it, into pure power. He who controls the water, controls not only the city, but the surrounding county, as well as the future.

Water, or the lack of it, is a recurring motif in the film. The daytime scenes are bathed in baking sunlight, engines blow out from the heat, tempers are frayed from the heat, and the entire city is going mad from thirst. Also, look for fish, or fish-related imagery, they are a very subtle clue.

But I digress.

The film is complex, but the plot is easy to follow.
Everything is handled from the point of view of Jake, we, the viewers, learn things as he learns things, and the entire movie is peppered with clues, both obvious and subtle, so you do have to pay attention. If you have to go to the bathroom, press pause, don't just let the movie run, you'll regret it.

Polanski decided to avoid the muted tones, or black and white
photography of classic noir cinema, choosing to have cinematographer John Alonzo shoot it in vivid, sun-baked colour. He also used the ultra-wide panavision picture with it's 2.35:1 aspect ratio, making a widescreen DVD an essential to get the whole picture, and the whole story.

But enough of all the film-geek talk, let's get back to the story.

One of the best parts of the screenplay by Robert Towne is how it takes noir conventions, like the private-eye as a "tarnished knight" or the "femme fatale" and turns them on their ear. Making it more than just a simple noir tale, but a film that captures both the time it was set, and the time it was made, while being also timeless. (Does that make any sense?)

While the violence and sex would be considered minimal in this cynical, thrill hungry age, it still manages to develop suspense, that builds until it hits its powerful climax.

The final line that I opened this post with, bears a lot of weight for a simple sentence. It's about the past, how it affects and sometimes destroys the present, and it's about the nature of corruption, of being in alien territory dealing with people and situations that you don't understand, and how that often makes things worse.

That's an impressive achievement for five simple words.

A timeless classic film that is a must own for any fan of crime films, or folks who just like great movies.

"Ouch, my nose hurts."

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