In Roman Polanski’s influential noir film, Jack Nicholson plays Jake Gittes, a private dick embroiled in elaborate corruption scheme in 1930s Los Angeles.
Chinatown is a real cat’s cradle of movie lore, a state of affairs emphasized by the fact that John Huston, whose first work as director was The Maltese Falcon, is here playing in support of Jack Nicholson, whose office in the picture is only a little dressier than the warren out of which Humphrey Bogart used to run his private-eye business.
As soon as you see him in the role of JJ. Gittes, you realize it was inevitable that Nicholson would one day have a shot at the West Coast 1930s genre of adultery, larceny and homicide. He wears the right snap-brim hat, he has the authentic friendly contempt for the regular cops who are out to get him, he is susceptible to women and impervious to sleeplessness and beatings, he is absurdly foolhardy, cynically idealistic and very lucky. Being one of the smartest actors around, Nicholson does not attempt to look, speak or drink like Bogart.
Similarly, Roman Polanski, a director who finds his reality as much on the screen as in the streets, was certain before long to notice what Peter Bogdanovich was doing, and take his turn at running the age of Franklin Roosevelt through a 1970s filter. This does not at all mean that Polanski and Nicholson are coasting by on imitations of other times and other men; they are very much of their own time and Chinatown could not have been made thirty or forty years ago. It is basically pessimistic, which popular entertainment back then never was, and it contains details of plot and exposition that would have affronted everyone in the Bogart crowd with the possible exception of Lorre. It is just that the overtones give the picture a special resonance.
A young man seated next to me at the preview turned eagerly as the lights went up to ask how I, a living survivor of those New Deal days, thought Chinatown compared with the private-eye classics in terms of violence and sex. It was a good question, though more complicated than he perhaps realized, and I’m afraid I put him off with some senile nattering. The fact is that the old Chandler-derived films (taking them as the standard) were overtly more violent and sexually more fevered. But the violence in Chinatown, when shown, is more excruciating and the underlying sexual situation is morbid. Marlowe went around vigorously correcting small malfunctions in a basically decent world; there is little decent about the world of Polanski, Nicholson and company.
Like its sources, the plot of Chinatown is a cat’s cradle. J.J. Gittes is hired by someone who is not the person she claims to be (played by Diane Ladd, daughter of Alan Ladd, and thus another link to my lost youth) to gumshoe a man whom she alleges is her erring husband. The real wife (Faye Dunaway) soon turns up in a rage; shortly thereafter the alleged adulterer turns up drowned, and Gittes, feeling that he has been dealt with unceremoniously, determines to get to the bottom of the matter. But then everyone–the wife; her father (Huston), the richest, oldest, most powerful and most unscrupulous man in all of Southern California; various Oriental servants; sundry business associates of the deceased; hired goons; enraged citizens, and the police–league up in what seems to be a conspiracy to thwart Gittes. Several beatings, innumerable sinister rooms and one nasty bit of knife play later, Gittes gets his answer and goes home defeated. The trouble had been that what he wanted to uncover was only peripherally connected with what his contacts were determined to keep hidden. Murder and the theft of a large part of California were small skeletons in their closets.
I can’t go into this more fully, partly because the unraveled skein would cover far too much space, and partly because everyone should have the pleasure of working it out for himself. But I think it is not too much to point out that, whereas the film is called Chinatown, the action reaches that part of town only at the very end. Something metaphorical is intended.
The picture is a kind of pop masterpiece, bursting with vigor, ingenious as the devil, handsome, efficient, engrossing–and quite deliberately divorced from any reality outside a dark theatre. It has absorbed the past and projected t through the lens of present fears and defeats, but always in terms of man the moviegoer; you bring to this movie what you know about movies–just as to Pop art you bring what you know about a throwaway culture. Pop art is neither realistic nor abstract; it is experience with one dimension missing. I enjoy reacting to it–it makes everything simple and some things clear–even though I’d soon go crazy if I had to live there.