Resiting Roman Polanski masterpiece 'Chinatown', the greatest neo-noir film of all time
(Credit: Paramount Pictures)

Revisiting Roman Polanski masterpiece ‘Chinatown’, the greatest neo-noir film of all time

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The noir crime films of the 1940s have had an enormous influence, inspired countless ‘neo-noir’ modern imitations, from the early ’80s Body Heat to the more recent Gone Girl, and projects by respected directors from David Lynch to Ang Lee.

Few efforts at revisiting noir have received more critical acclaim than Roman Polanski’s 1974 drama, Chinatown. A multiple award winner earning 11 Oscar nominations, the film is on nearly every critic’s Top 100 list; a key line, “forget it, it’s Chinatown” has become shorthand for ingrained, insurmountable corruption; and features of the plot have become part of popular culture. It has been copied and parodied repeatedly, perhaps most strikingly in the live action/animated comedy Who Killed Roger Rabbit? which affectionately parodied Chinatown, according to unlikely Hollywood rumour (the film has many rumours associated with it) using discarded plot elements from a proposed sequel.

The script by veteran screenwriter Robert Towne is the foundation of this excellent production. Intricate and filled with endless false leads and plot twists, Towne’s story of multi-layered corruption is riveting from beginning to end. The storyline is loosely based on real events: the ‘water wars’ of early 20th century Los Angeles, devious and often vicious plotting among city officials to control the area’s water supply, and thereby a good deal of its money and power. Local dignitary William Mulholland was a key figure in this unsavoury event, and he is referenced in two of the film’s characters, one well-intentioned, the other dangerous and amoral. Director Polanski worked closely, even overbearingly, with Towne, guiding the script development and at times overruling Towne’s choices. Polanski omitted the original version’s voice-over narration by main character Jake Gittes which would have provided an ongoing explanation, preferring that the audience see events unfold just as Gittes did, without advance notice or explanation. The choice makes the film more enigmatic and difficult to follow, but also more interesting and suspenseful. Towne’s first draft also, rather surprisingly, gave the story a happy ending, which Polanski revised to the well known bleak and hopeless conclusion which all but defines the film. Polanski has expressed the opinion that, had Chinatown ended happily rather than tragically, it would not be remembered today. 

Chinatown is set in 1940s Los Angeles, both the era and the noir genre clearly announced through minor details, like the lettering style used in the opening credits and the 1940s version of the Paramount Studios logo, as well as through the more obvious period clothing, cars, and street design. Even the camera work and soundtrack subtly recreate the look of the great noir crime dramas, as does the brusque, tough-guy dialogue. Most evocative of all is the Chandleresque central character, Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), an archetypal hard-boiled private detective. 

The story begins with a standard Sam Spade or Mike Hammer preliminary event: a dame walks into his office.  A routine request is made by a female client to have her husband followed by Gittes, to provide evidence of his philandering. The husband is a man named Hollis Mulwray, chief engineer with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, currently involved in a dispute over a proposed dam. There is a drought in the Los Angeles area which is being managed in a dubious manner, a fact that slowly grows in importance over the course of Gittes’ investigation.This seemingly ordinary assignment leads Gittes, step by step, down a rabbit hole of corruption and deceit, in which no one and nothing is what it seems, and each exposed conspiracy leads to a deeper one. 

(Credit: Paramount Pictures)

The suspenseful plot is the highlight of Chinatown, but it is also a beautiful, well crafted film, visually gorgeous through the work of veteran cinematographer John Alonzo (Steel Magnolias, Harold and Maude, Cross Creek). Polanski chose Alonzo after dismissing two previous cinematographers, finally getting the unique look and mood he was seeking thanks to Alonzo’s experienced eye. The result is a look that is naturalistic, as Polanski particularly wanted, has the required 1940s/50s quality despite the use of colour film, and also gives a dark beauty to shots ranging from the California landscape to character close-ups. Under Alonzo’s direction, the camera also helps to tell the story, indicating items of later importance, setting an ominous tone where required, even providing a touch of humour in scenes where Gittes encounters some of the more puzzling and sometimes absurd evidence in the course of his investigation.

The set of Chinatown was not peaceful, even apart from disagreements over script details. Other than the agreed-upon choice of Jack Nicholson for the lead, casting was difficult and drawn out. According to film writer Oliver Lyttelton, the part of Evelyn Mulwray, wife of Hollis Mulwray and a central link in Gittes’ mystery, was originally written for actress Jane Fonda, until the film’s producer insisted on casting his own wife, rising star Ali MacGraw. The actress was abruptly dropped before filming began, when Evans initiated a contentious divorce against MacGraw. Throughout, Polanski endorsed acclaimed actress Julie Christie. At last, all parties were able to agree on Faye Dunaway for the role. Even the perfect casting of veteran character actor John Huston as the film’s appalling villain was not the first choice; Huston was a last-minute substitute when the original actor died before the actual filming began. Conflict did not stop there, however.

Polanski, notoriously demanding and difficult to work with, reportedly bullied the cast mercilessly, giving rise to rumours of unbearable working conditions and minor acts of assault. None of this seemed to diminish the quality of the finished product, however; regardless of what had taken place behind the scenes, Polanski’s work was excellent and the cast were well chosen and brilliant. Dissension continued among the central trio of producer, writer, and director, over every detail of the production, both before and after filming began. The choice of composer for the film’s musical score was also chaotic and subject to last-minute changes. 

Chinatown was all but complete when Robert Towne, convinced that the score was inadequate and holding back the film’s effectiveness, managed to gain the support of producer Evans. While Polanski was out of town, the two secretly hired a new composer. With less than two weeks to compose and replace the musical soundtrack, they assigned the talented Jerry Goldsmith to provide a score according to the pair’s exacting specifications. Polanski’s reaction to being undercut is not known, but Goldsmith’s music sets the perfect tone, providing the finishing touch that the film needed to become the highly regarded classic it is today.

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