The 100 Greatest Films of all time – 10: Chinatown

by Daniel Suddes 

Chinatown (1974) –  Directed by: Roman Polanksi   Written by: Polanski (uncredited) and Robert Towne  Produced by: Robert Evans and C.O. Erickson   Starring:  Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Houston, and Diane Ladd Oscar Count: 1 (Best Original Screenplay for Robert Towne.  Also nominated for Best Actor (Nicholson), Best Actress (Dunaway), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound, and Best Picture.)

No one really understands Chinatown.

Most modern critics view the film as the last of the classic film noirs (released two decades outside the time period) and view it as the final word on noir. Everything that has come after Chinatown is only trying to be ironic and make a knowing film noir. Certainly, everything from Se7en to Who Framed Roger Rabbit have borrowed elements from this film, and have been blatant about what they were trying to do. Chinatown is not.

This analysis is incorrect for a variety of reasons. Screenwriter Robert Towne and director Roman Polanski were not out to create a classic noir film. They were trying their hardest to subvert the genre.  It was not the last noir film, but the first neo-noir film and the movie that essentially created the “movie brat” mentality – that is, filmmakers were inspired forevermore by the medium itself and not other pieces of classic art.

Of course, what’s interesting is that Towne’s script has been elevated to another art form, and is one of the most famous scripts in history. I have seen books that have analyzed each letter Towne typed and Syd Field has used this as the “go-to” example of Hollywood screenwriting for decades now. This is because of how ingeniously the whole enterprise is constructed,  and how information is revealed. Gittes, in the script, serves as the macho hero and a completely clueless dunce, who remains one step behind every other character. Of course, this last attribute was common in classic noir characters. But Chinatown’s use of the characteristic was quite out of step with the grand characters that were present in American film. Take the cold, calculating Michael Corleone that appeared that same year’s Godfather Part II. Gittes is a man who tries to be like that but is someone who, when the actual despair of the world reigns down upon him, he is unable to properly process what is happening (Nicholson emobides all of these traits well). The basic plot of the film (about water and droughts in LA leading to scandals and murder) is based on reality, and, unlike the seemingly bizarre plot turns in Double Indemnity, Chinatown could very well be based in reality. It was the same sort of documentary mentality that categorized The New Hollywood.

So, Chinatown was a deconstruction of a classic. Hollywood has had many such productions in an effort to demonstrate that they are still the forefront of creativity (or at least, they hope they are). But Chinatown manages to outdo most of the items in the noir genre. It was complex, but did not try to cheat audiences out of a proper finale. Nicholson and Dunaway were never really better – the characters were almost written for them – Nicholson with his arrogance, Dunaway with her already very dominating demeanor, and Houston with his wisdom. It also forever made obsession over film cool to a wide audience (about fifteen years after the French New Wave). There have already been many analyses of Chinatown’s themes and construction in pretty much every major publication. But the most important thing about it is just how Chinatown has caught the imagination of every filmmaker since its release.

Let’s get to the scene everyone remembers. Well, alright, there are two – the “She’s my sister/daughter” scene (and I dare not discuss that less I spoil the whole game) and the nose cutting scene. So, let’s get to the nose cutting scene. It is memorable, first and foremost, due to the backdrop that Polanski shot the scene in. Chinatownwas shot only four years after Polanski’s wife had been brutally murdered by the Manson family. This scene, in which he is the perpetrator of violence (Polanksi plays the thug who brandishes the knife) may be Polanski trying to assert his damaged psyche. In addition, this scene is the final mention that Chinatown, with its knowledge of violence and the horrors society was dealing with at the time, would not be a clean Hollywood piece. It would be subversive and downright ugly.

Did You Know: Although the knife in the nose cutting scene was a specially constructed one, as opposed to an actual knife, it still had to be handled with the utmost care during shooting. If not, there was the very real possibility that Nicholson could have been seriously injured.

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