In one of the great ironies, the 35th anniversary edition of Chinatown came out this month, nearly at the same time that its director, Roman Polanski, was arrested in Switzerland after fleeing Los Angeles over 30 years ago following a downward guilty plea and brief imprisonment for unlawful sex with a minor.
Chinatown, the tale of a smart, tough detective investigating what he thinks, at first, is a simple case of infidelity in late 1930s Los Angeles, is my favorite film. On the surface, it's a period detective picture, a big Hollywood movie with the trappings of film noir. Beneath, it's much more. Armed with an alarmingly intelligent screenplay by Robert Towne, brilliantly cast -- from stars Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway down through the extras -- the film creates its own mesmerizing world through evocative music, costuming, and production design.
"You may think you know what you're dealing with, Mr. Gits. But believe me, you don't." (Words to always keep in mind, which I sometimes have not.)
Jake Gittes (LA power broker Noah Cross, deliciously played by the late Oscar-winning director John Huston, who uttered the touchstone line above, carelessly mispronounces the detective's name throughout the film) is much smarter than most people. This tough ex-cop, played by Nicholson in the role that made him a Hollywood leading man, delivers his own sardonic witticisms throughout as he shrewdly reads every situation. Only to find that he is, essentially, wrong at every major turn, because he is not grasping the dimensionality of what he's dealing with.
Working with Towne's classic script (has there ever been a better closing line than "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown"?), and famously having Towne change its less downbeat ending, Polanski renders that dimensionality on screen, cloaking it in an air of alluring and repellent mystery.
As it happens, I've never been a particular fan of Roman Polanski, though I know his story well and am sympathetic to what he endured prior to his crime, which is a bad crime. I've seen only a few of the films he's done during his exile, and a few he did before that.
But Chinatown, which is still his biggest film -- as an exile from the center of the movie business, he's been unable to work in Hollywood and thus unable to do the big movies he would otherwise have been able to do -- happens to be my favorite film.
And while this piece is about Chinatown, and its echoing impact through the decades, I clearly have to address the Polanski question. To put it bluntly, looking at the court record, he evidently sexually assaulted a 13-year old girl, a thoroughly unacceptable and reprehensible act. The crime, of course, is well known. It's not a crime to be countenanced or excused or explained away. Polanski deserves to suffer for this crime. He has suffered for this crime. The question for the reader, or anyone else, is how much larger a pound of flesh one requires. I'll address this a bit more, along with the intrigue around his arrest, and how the situation might be resolved, later in the piece.
Back to the movie.
Before talking about what Chinatown is, let's talk about what it is not. It is not an Oscar winner for Best Picture. Though it did the best of any of the films of 1974, winning best picture and other top prizes, at the British Academy Awards and the Golden Globes, it lost at the Oscars to The Godfather, Part II. Not only did Polanski not win the Oscar as best director, which he deserved, neither did Jack Nicholson nor Faye Dunaway win the top acting prizes. Only Robert Towne won, for best screenplay, making a clean sweep of all the top writing awards.
Not that Godfather II, and director Francis Ford Coppola and star Al Pacino weren't deserving winners. Godfather II is a fantastic film. Imagine if Chinatown and Godfather II both came out this year. Actually, it's unimaginable. The current cultural ADD would make it impossible for the films to be made.
Having said how great Godfather II is, I like Chinatown much more. I'm not that interested in gangsters. They don't really play a role in politics. I'd already seen the first Godfather. I'm more interested in political power and corruption, especially around Los Angeles, one of my favorite cities, and interpersonal dynamics.
The villains in Chinatown are not gangsters. They are pillars of the community, business moguls, politicians, bureaucrats, high-level flunkies and respectable thugs. They don't have to bribe the police to avoid arrest. The police already know better.
Even after all these years, I don't want to go through all the particulars of the plot -- I leave that for my Mad Men reviews here on the Huffington Post (recapping is now the fashion for television) -- because you should see this movie if you haven't, and see it again if you have.
The film embraces the manner of film noir as it rejects its conventions. The detective is the protagonist, unafraid to venture down those mean streets, but he is not the hero. That is the nerdy, oddly bird-like chief engineer of the LA Department of Water and Power, Hollis Mulwray. First glimpsed by Gittes in a beautifully rendered city council meeting in LA City Hall, he's cast first as the philanderer of the piece, and an unlikely one at that as Nicholson's subtle reaction in this first sighting has it.
Nicholson is simply superb in Chinatown, tough yet affecting, effortlessly spouting Towne's wicked dialogue with a noticeable relish. He is Jake Gittes, and he's Jack Nicholson, too, but there's never a ham sandwich delivered in the entire two hours.
As for the leading lady, Jane Fonda was apparently much in evidence for the part of the elegantly damaged Evelyn Mulwray at one point. I think Fonda is one of the greatest actresses of all time. It would have been very interesting to see her in the role.
But Faye Dunaway played Evelyn Mulwray. Or, I should say, Faye Dunaway became Evelyn Mulwray. She's indelible. It's hard to imagine Chinatown without her.
She's not the femme fatale you're expecting, though she has the obvious trappings of beauty and glamour and mystery. She's a "California Yankee," as Towne calls her on Chinatown's new commentary track. She sweeps through life with elegance and assurance, yet she is deeply neurotic and wounded. All these characteristics are at once at play in Dunaway's portrayal.
I've seen the film many times, though not for a few years before this 35th anniversary edition. Four or five times when it came out in general release. Then many more times some years later, when it played in a nearby repertory theater. This was before widespread cable or home video. So if I had nothing else going on late at night after studying, I'd walk over to the theater for the late showing of Chinatown.
It was a great place to watch it, an old movie palace, giant screen, big soundtrack, Jerry Goldsmith's haunting score immediately drawing me into another world -- yet a world with uncanny similarities to the present -- as the sinister black-and-white Paramount logo and elegant titles rolled past.
The production design by Richard Sylbert (who brilliantly positioned Nicholson's character in the opening scene with a credenza holding a portrait of FDR and a Degas dancer figurine, showing him to be a populist dandy), the costume design by his then sister-in-law Anthea Sylbert, the cinematography by John Alonzo, all combined to create a vivid period world.
I knew every character's lines by heart. And naturally loved Nicholson's lines the best, as a very young man would. (Incidentally, it's not at all easy to get away with talking like Nicholson in the real world unless you are Nicholson.)
This time around, I found it difficult to take my eyes off of Dunaway's Evelyn Mulwray, a vision of intelligent elegance and neurotic, erotic glamour. Even with Nicholson zinging away in the frame. She's the heart of the picture.
While it would be difficult for most to describe John Huston's Noah Cross as Chinatown's soul, he is its hinge.
When I was younger, it was Nicholson's lines as Gittes that most struck my fancy, to the point that I used some of them in real life, with varying degrees of success, as you might suppose. (Such lines as "You're dumber than you think I think you are" are to be employed very judiciously.)
Now it's Huston's lines as Noah Cross that reverberate most.
Which I suppose is a big reason why I prefer Chinatown to Godfather.
Cross is not a mob boss divvying up receipts from the rackets for his capos. He's an entrepreneur, a power broker, a pillar of society. He's not a criminal trying to go legit. He's a visionary.
When asked why he does what does, what he "can buy that he can't already afford," Cross has a ready answer: "The future, Mr. Gits, the future."
Chinatown's 35th anniversary edition arrives in not only an alluring but a fact-filled package, with the picture itself looking better than ever. There are three earnest documentaries on the facts of the water situation of Los Angeles, with possible greener solutions, in part at least.
As a character in Chinatown establishes early on, LA is next to an ocean but it exists on a near desert. There was ample water there only for a much smaller city than has emerged. Today, LA gets 85% of its water from other sources; namely, Northern California, as part of the California water project built by the late Governor Pat Brown, the Colorado River, and the Owens Valley, a place hundreds of miles to the north next to the Eastern Slope of the Sierra Nevada range.
Los Angeles essentially colonized the Owens Valley early in the 20th century, locking up its water supply, bringing the water south via an aqueduct. The process left the once verdant Owens Valley, a place I know well, nearly a dust bowl. (A shot from the Sierra's Eastern Slope is part of the logo of my NewWestNotes.com.)
For dramatic purposes, Robert Towne conflated the Owens Valley with the San Fernando Valley (which is now part of LA) in Chinatown, referring instead to an amorphous "the Valley" throughout the movie. Actually, he means both places in this complex tale of land, water, and power.
The commentary for the picture is done, in Polanski's absence, by screenwriter Robert Towne, the natural choice, as his is the Great American Screenplay, and a Chinatown aficionado, director David Fincher. Along with a few amusing suggestions as to how he would have shot it differently, Fincher adds intelligent observations and a sense of having sought out the film's locations. Which are not that easy to find nowadays.
Towne described the phenomenon of having been able to discover, by dint of driving on the right streets, the LA of the 1930s in 1974. Today you can still find the LA of the 1970s if you drive on the right streets. But so much of the classic LA has been lost.
This stands in stark contrast to the situation with one of San Francisco's signature films, Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 classic Vertigo.
While very different films, they each evoke the noir genre and make extraordinary use of their two magnificent cities. Each has a detective protagonist who is an emblematic figure of his city's time and place. Each features a powerful, mysterious woman, who could be good or bad, but turns out to be a victim. Each ends in sudden tragedy.
But, while you can actually steep yourself in the ambiance of Vertigo by touring its locations today in San Francisco, that sort of thing is hardly possible now in the disposable culture of Los Angeles.
In the end, all that may remain of LA's history in any experiential sense is cinema. Which makes Chinatown all the more valuable.
Towne went from Chinatown immediately onto another classic film about LA, this time set in the late 1960s, Warren Beatty's Shampoo, which Towne wrote with Beatty.
Chinatown was to have the been the first of a trilogy about power in Los Angeles, centering on Nicholson's Jake Gittes character. As the DVD extras make clear, Nicholson was so taken with the character that he wouldn't play the other detective roles he was naturally offered after the huge success of Chinatown.
But Polanski's scandal of 1977 and 1978 ultimately made that impossible. Three of the biggest players from Chinatown were still available -- Nicholson and Towne, of course, and someone I haven't mentioned yet, producer Bob Evans.
Evans hired Towne to write the screenplay for Chinatown, which Towne preferred to Evans' original idea that Towne adapt The Great Gatsby. As Towne amusingly puts it in the DVD extras, he didn't want to be known as the guy who screwed up F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Evans did a remarkable job of running interference with the studio on Chinatown, a big, complicated project that could be daunting to the average suit. Evans was aided in his ability to do this by virtue of the fact that he, well, ran Paramount as the studio's production chief.
Evans hired Polanski to direct Chinatown, then brought in Jerry Goldsmith to do the score -- in only nine days! -- when the first score proved not to work. Which proved to be pivotal to the movie's evocative nature.
With Polanski in exile, the Chinatown trio had trouble deciding on a director for the sequel. The stories around this are worthy of a long article in its own right.
Suffice it to say that, when the sequel to Chinatown, The Two Jakes, was finally shot and released in 1990, it was not Chinatown. Nicholson directed it, and under his own direction, talks much more slowly and deliberately than he does in Chinatown, in which Polanski urged him constantly to pick up the pace. I watched it again the other day. It's very interesting and thought-provoking, but it's not Chinatown.
Gittes is back from World War II, in which he won the nation's second highest award for heroism, the Navy Cross, which is never mentioned per se, it's simply there in his office, hiding his real wall safe. The mystery of Chinatown continues, this time playing out on a power canvas of oil and real estate development.
The third film in the trilogy has not been made, and probably never will be.
"See, Mr. Gits, most people never have to face the fact that, at the right time and the right place, they're capable of ... anything."
All of which brings us back round to Roman Polanski. Since he is in exile, he's not on the Chinatown commentary track with Robert Towne. He was interviewed, a few years back, for the DVD extras, which are extensive and interesting. He's very intelligent and engaging, insightful and incisive. You get the sense that, had he not committed this thoroughly unacceptable crime, he would have directed some of the biggest movies of our time in addition to Chinatown. (And yes, I know he won the Oscar for The Pianist, a very fine work that I haven't seen.)
I've looked into his arrest a bit, and it's not easy to see why he was arrested now. As distinguished from, say, any other time. There was a theory that Polanski's backers irritated the LA District Attorney's office with a very sympathetic documentary about Polanski last year, which I haven't seen.
But then it emerged that the Swiss notified American and LA authorities that Polanski was arriving in Switzerland to receive an award at a film festival. Yet Polanski owns a villa in Switzerland and has been there frequently. It doesn't quite add up.
In any event, I hadn't known this but it turns out that Polanski has finished principal photography on a new movie, and was in post-production when he took a break to go get his award in Switzerland. It's based on a novel that I missed while covering the presidential race called The Ghost.
Written by best-selling British novelist Robert Harris, who collaborated on the screenplay with Polanski, it's about a ghostwriter for pop stars who takes on the assignment of finishing the memoirs of a beloved and hated former British prime minister. Harris, as it happens, is an ex-friend of Tony Blair. And his Adam Lang, played in Polanski's new movie by the former James Bond, Pierce Brosnan, is uncannily Blair-like.
The Ghost, to put it bluntly, is a roman a clef. Its title character, whose name we never learn, played by Ewan McGregor -- better known in certain circles as Obi-wan Kenobi -- takes on the task of writing the ex-British leader's memoirs after his predecessor, a stalwart Labour Party operative, dies in strange circumstances off Martha's Vineyard, where the former prime minister is trying to wrap up.
Now, I like Tony Blair, who may well be the first president of the European Union. But I must say I loved Harris's novel when I read it earlier this month. I laughed throughout, and especially at the ending. It's knowing, and delicious, and quite vicious in its way. Though ultimately rather kind to Blair, er, Lang.
Harris had a big falling out with Blair over the Iraq War, and his view that Blair's Britain was simply too mirroring an ally of America in the war on terror.
With Olivia Williams as Cherie Blair, that is to say, Ruth Lang, and Sex and the City's Kim Cattrall as Lang's close aide, in Polanski's hands, this looks like a big movie.
Once it's finished, that is. I don't know its status now.
So, whither Polanski?
What he did in 1977 was very bad. There is no question about that. I know that he survived the Holocaust as a child, I know that his mother was murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz, I know that his wife Sharon Tate and their unborn child were slaughtered by the Manson Family. None of that excuses his actions with the 13-year old girl. Some say otherwise. They're wrong.
He deserves to be punished for that. He has been punished for that. He pled guilty, he served a brief amount of time in prison, he fled before final sentencing (with the judge reportedly reneging on a plea agreement), his name was forever attached to a reprehensible crime, and in exile he achieved far less than he would have in Hollywood. He apologized to his victim, who has forgiven him. Of course, she received a lot of money, so her motives can be questioned if one is so inclined. (Though the revival of the scandal is certainly not good for her life.)
Is that enough? Apparently not. The question is, how much more of a pound of flesh should Polanski have to give up?
I think Polanski should return to Los Angeles, make a statement of contrition, and throw himself on the mercy of the court. That's likely to work better for him than his current strategy of fighting extradition from Switzerland, since the Swiss apparently dropped the dime on him in the first place.
Incidentally, with regard to the fate of Polanski's new film, The Ghost ... One of the things I learned from the 35th anniversary edition of Chinatown is that Polanski wasn't on hand for much of the post-production work. He was off in Europe directing an opera. He consulted by phone with producer Evans and editor Sam O'Steen.