At the Movies: Chinatown

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Chinatown poster

 

I hadn’t seen Chinatown since it first came out in 1974, but I watched it the other night and was, once again, stunned.

Movies are, by definition, collaborative, so it’s hard to know who should get the credit for Chinatown. The script is, in theory, where everything begins, but as anyone who has ever spent more than ten minutes in Hollywood knows, scripts are frequently only considered rough outlines, mere suggestions of a possible storyline to be changed, manipulated, altered, or simply discarded at the whim of the—pick one, or all—director, star, producer, studio executive, or possibly the stunt coordinator. (A flagrant example: The Harvey Girls, originally intended as a straight-forward Western set to star Clark Gable and Lana Turner, was abruptly changed, on the heels of Oklahoma’s success, into a musical with Judy Garland and John Hodiak. Go figure.) The bottom line is that writers in Hollywood are given considerably less respect than the panhandler loitering outside the studio gates.

(Old Hollywood joke: Did you hear about the starlet who was so dumb she slept with a writer?)

Robert Towne wrote the script. In case you’re unfamiliar with Robert Towne, he wrote, in addition to Chinatown, The Last Detail, Shampoo, and Tequila Sunrise, garnering a lengthy list of award nominations and winning an Oscar for Chinatown. He also wrote a bunch of Mission Impossible Tom Cruise vehicles and a slew of other films I haven’t seen. He knows what he’s doing, but precisely because movie making is collaborative, who can say if Chinatown would have been as brilliant if it had been directed by someone else? Woody Allen, for example, probably wouldn’t have been a good choice. As it is, Roman Polanski created movie magic, but Polanski made changes, changes Robert Towne didn’t like back then and, apparently still doesn’t like today.

Mr. Polanski may have his personal issues, but no one can deny he is a stone genius when it comes to directing. Just consider some of the films he’s made over the years: Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Tess, The Pianist, The Ghost Writer, and those are just a few.

The performances in Chinatown are as brilliant as you would expect, from Nicholson and Dunaway down to small roles that linger in your mind even after the film is over (a snide little twerp of a clerk in the public records office; a secretary who wisely distrusts Nicholson; a cop who mocks him with a gesture; little roles, walk-ons, made memorable). The look and color of the film, the sound effects, everything is magnificent, but the reason I’m dwelling on Mr. Towne and Mr. Polanski is because of the ending.

It’s one of the most debated endings in movie history, with some people loathing it, and others—self included—loving it. Mr. Towne allegedly wrote an essentially happy ending. Roman Polanski changed it into the darker ending and, presumably, is responsible for the famous last line, a line that has long since passed into common usage as a tag line for any unpunished governmental malfeasance: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

The movie is based, loosely, but not all that loosely, on the historical facts surrounding the development of Los Angeles. Very briefly, Los Angeles is the metropolis it is today because a handful of venal politicians, unscrupulous and dishonest businessmen, morally bankrupt newspaper publishers, and public figures and public servants, all made themselves unimaginably rich by stealing land and water, sometimes semi-legally, mostly by graft, embezzlement, fraud, and swindling, occasionally by murder, stealing that land and water from, essentially, you and me. (All of these events were chronicled by the late Marc Reisner in Cadillac Desert, published some ten years after the movie was made, and one of the most brilliant books I’ve ever read. If I told you a history of water rights, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Army Corps of Engineers, was a good read, you’d probably think poor old JP was getting a little gaga; in fact Cadillac Desert is so well-written it’s like a mystery novel, one that will keep you up late at night turning pages to find out what happens next.)

But it’s the tone of Chinatown that is so extraordinary, with its dark sense of menace and manipulation, its complex and multitudinous layers of corruption and obfuscation that Nicholson’s character must peel back to get near the truth. And Nicholson’s character is no glittering knight on a white horse: Jake Gittes is a sleazy private investigator lining his pockets by taking ugly photographs of husbands and wives doing athletic things in beds with people other than their spouses. He is crude, foul-mouthed, amoral, uninterested in his clients or their problems other than cashing their checks. And even after he gets sucked into the vortex his quest for truth is motivated by nothing more than a desire to clear his own name and screw the guy(s) who set him up.

So, a happy ending for this dark film? A United States Congressman buys cocaine from an undercover cop and is allowed to resign his seat without ever spending a day in prison. A United States Senator is convicted of income tax evasion and not only doesn’t have to serve time, he actually gets reelected to two more terms in office. The head of the largest and most influential bureaucratic governmental agency in America violates the law and lies under oath to Congress and is allowed to resign with pension and benefits. A United States Senator tries to ruin an American citizen and drive him out of his family business in order to cement an illegal deal with a foreign government… Those too are true stories, and the list goes on. And you want a happy ending?

Forget it, Jake. It’s Hollywood.

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