#1 — Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)
According to Robert Towne, it was a vice cop who gave him the title Chinatown and the backstory of cynicism it conveys. He asked the officer what he did when he was stationed in Chinatown, and the man answered, “As little as possible,” an exchange that was eventually carried almost intact onto the screen. There were so many dueling dialects at play among the complicated gang alliances and conflicts, that it was extremely difficult for the police to sort out what was going on. The men on the force often didn’t know if their efforts were hindering the efforts of the criminals or actually smoothing the way of different factions, if they were actually being played as pawns by the community’s underworld. Standing back and letting it all play out often seemed the more prudent measure. To extrapolate it to the efforts of private detective Jake Gittes, sometimes the only wise thing one can do is walk away.
Jack Nicholson plays Jake, in what is as strong of evidence as any as to why he was the most vital actor of American cinema’s most daring decade. He plays the private eye with an appropriate level of world-weariness, a been-around-the-block certainty that nothing can faze him. Jake’s pushed enough steamy pictures of cheating spouses across his office desk over the years to give him a fairly dismal appraisal of human nature, and Nicholson shows how it’s simultaneously thickened his skin and sharpened his wit. The character exhibits plenty of Nicholson’s trademark devilish certainty, but, in this case, it’s largely in the service of showing how consistently comeuppance can be delivered on those who underestimate the world’s corruption, whether they pay for it through stark disillusionment or a slice out of their nose.
The brilliance of Towne’s screenplay is the way it takes the handy, familiar tropes of countless old Hollwyood film noirs with grizzled detectives and dangerously gorgeous dames and twists them into something decidedly modern in its broader commentary on the corruption of capitalism. There was always greed (usually mixed with lust) at the heart of those old crime stories, but it was almost always at the level of petty criminality, fortunes to be found in kidnapping, robbery, blackmail or even an inky black statue of a bird of prey. In Chinatown, it’s instead to be found in major machinations meant to corner the parched market in a commodity no less precious because it’s benign and familiar. There’s other ugliness around the periphery, but it all comes back to the insidious opportunity at the core of the film. Could there be a better way to get rich in a desert than cornering the market in oases?
If Towne crafts a fine screenplay by adopting and refining one of the signature genres of Hollywood’s past, director Roman Polanski definitely demonstrates how effectively he can update the moodiness, bleak humor and riveting style of films gone by. Beginning with opening credits that reach back to whichever Howard Hawks film anyone might choose, Polanski barely lets a frame of the film go by without some degree of evocative commentary on reference to classic film narrative. He even has some tacit blessing from the past in the form of one of the seasoned masters of such screen storytelling, director John Huston, on hand to play the odious Noah Cross, growling like a rocky crag come to life as he informs Jake that “Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” Maybe the same is true of trashy detective stories, the sort that were once dismissed as a particularly sordid strain of film entertainment. One thing is certain, though: Chinatown is unforgettable.