Thursday, 14 January 2010

You Can't Eat The Venetian Blinds.

Chinatown was Roman Polanski's first foray back into Hollywood after the brutal murder of his wife Sharon Tate by the Manson gang in 1969, and what a return it was. Despite the fact that he was apparently very nervous about the whole experience and returned to Europe to direct a stage play, I believe, whilst post-production was going on, Chinatown has gone on to become a true classic of modern cinema.

Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is a private investigator, an ex-cop. Initially hired to investigate the assumed extra-marital affair of LA water magnate Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) by a woman posing to be his wife, he is then in turn hired by the real Mrs Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) to cover tracks. When her husband is then found at the bottom of one of his dams, it turns into an investigation into his murder, which the coroner is initially calling an accident.

All of it comes back to water. LA is on the edge of a desert, and needs a lot of water to grow. The first dam apparently isn't enough - then why are thousands of gallons of water being dumped each night? Apparently it is unavoidable run-off created when some of the water is secretly diverted to orange groves outside of the city to help them out with a crippling drought - but then why is there no water going to the orange groves? And why are all of the groves being bought out very cheaply, ahead of the dam being built?

It's a twisty, turny little story, strangely and interestingly revolving around water - if there is a less likely candidate for being the centre of a fantastic murder mystery, I'd like to know it. But it is all entirely plausible. The finer points start to threaten to give the film away, and will definitely take away from some of the joy of watching it, but let it be said that the screenplay, by New Hollywood wunderkid Robert Towne, is terrific, though he apparently argued for a happy ending (Polanski, still despairing at the loss of Tate, insisted on the tragic ending of the film, something that Towne has said in retrospect is better.) It is a sea of characters, none of whom you want to trust, and with so many interlinking subplots as to make your head hurt. But your head doesn't, actually, hurt, so masterfully is the film crafted.

Nicholson kicks off the character that will suit him many times, ably playing the sleuth almost innocently caught up in it all who then takes a personal interest. Dunaway is superb as the femme fatale of this neo-noir thriller, while John Huston turns up towards the end as Dunaway's father, throwing his weight around.

That the film only won an Oscar for Towne is remarkable, and probably in another year it would have triumphed in some other major categories also (it was up against the juggernaut that was The Godfather Part II... so... it didn't really stand a chance.) Coming at arguably the pinnacle of the New Hollywood period, it is a triumphant and valiant piece of filmmaking. While no one is saying what Polanski did following is excusable, it would have been nice to see him work some more in Hollywood, to see what may have come of it. Regardless, his subsequent body of work from Europe is quite exceptional - again, without trying to come to his defense, here's hoping he does get to make some more. 5 stars.

No comments:

Post a Comment