Sunday, 25 October 2009

Chinatown, Roman Polanski, USA 1974

All the hu-ha regarding Polanski's recent arrest in Switzerland threatens to overshadow his achievements as a film maker. Roman Polanski’s second collaboration with producer Robert Evans - made at precisely the time when the events that led to his recent arrest occurred - turned into what would become one of the landmarks of cinema history.

Moulded on Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled prose and on a string of films known as film noir (a term invented by French film critics), which flourished in the Hollywood of the 1940s and 50s, Chinatown’s central character, the private eye J.J. Gittes is every bit as cynical and world-weary as Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, without sharing the latter’s disregard for women. In fact, compared to his famous predecessor, J.J. Gittes has come a long way: we wears custom-made suits, his office is spacious and elegantly furnished, he’s got a secretary and two assistants to boot - all that, Marlowe could only dream of. Only that Marlowe didn’t dream. Dreaming was not is style. He just wanted to get on with it, stay out of trouble and have enough dough at the end of the day to buy himself a well-deserved glass of scotch. Furthermore, unlike Marlowe, who had little or no illusions about his job, Gittes considers his profession honest and reputable. In any case, it’s a whole lot better than what he did before, which was working for the District Attorney in Chinatown, a job where it was best to do ”as little as possible” for fear of finding oneself inadvertently on the wrong side of the law. It is, however, a lesson Gittes fatefully doesn’t heed. Overanxious to clear his name he delves deeper and deeper into the mess, whereby digging up more and more dirt, not realizing what he’s up against until it’s too late.

Watching Chinatown begins with the opening credits. Using an unmistakable Art Deco font, the letters are sepia coloured against a black background. This quintessential 1930s feel is accentuated by a jazzy, melancholy tune, which begins with strums on a Chinese harp. In a masterstroke, Polanski set the film’s tone without the film even having started. In fact, in a way, Polanski tells the film’s story without even showing anything, without a word being uttered. The credits give way to the film’s first actual image, which is in black and white, of a couple having sex with a man groaning. Coming right after the opening credits, Polanski leads us to believe that we are indeed seeing a film of the 1930s or 40s. But what we assume are the man’s lustful groans are in fact the doleful groans of somebody who’s just given proof that his wife is having an affair. This we realize as the camera slowly pans away from the black and white photo, which is starred at by the cuckolded husband, opening up to the colours of J.J. Gittes office. Thus, Polanski is telling us two things:

Firstly, he leads as astray by making us think that we’re watching a 1930s film, but by panning away he makes it clear that what we are about to see is a film set in the 1930s seen from a 1970s perspective. And secondly, that things are evidently not what they seem. Something, which Gittes should be the first to know, but which he -just like the audience- blinded by what he sees, seems to forget. With this Oedipal twist Polanski elevates Chinatown from a film noir to a Greek Tragedy.

Although Chinatown’s central theme -or as Hitchcock would put it: the MacGuffin, which moves the story forward- revolves around a water-scandal, there are two recurring codes in Chinatown woven into the plot. One is referring to ‘eyes’ and ‘seeing’. Both, Hollis Mulwray and Noah Cross wear glasses; Gittes discovers a flaw in Evelyn Mulwray’s iris (“a birthmark”, so she says); anticipating the ending, Evelyn leans forward in her car and accidentally hits the horn with her forehead; the ending: Evelyn’s death by being shot through her left eye, and her forehead hitting the horn, its honking filling the screen, followed by Catherine’s scream; like Oedipus, so Gittes, too, was unable to see what had been before his eyes all the time!

The other code refers to the film’s title. As stated earlier, the film starts with strums on a Chinese harp; We learn about one third into the film that Gittes used to work in Chinatown; Gittes’ barber tells him a racist joke about the Chinese which Gittes subsequently relays to his associates; two of Evelyn Mulwray’s servants are Chinese, with Khan, the butler, in fact living in Chinatown, hence the location of the dénouement; Faye Dunaway alias Evelyn Mulwray actually looks a bit Chinese, with slightly slanted eyes, thus indicating that Chinatown, although the location of the showdown and the site of Gittes’ tragic past, is also a metaphor for Evelyn Mulwray’s mysterious, impenetrable frame of mind, which is at once bewildering, mystifying and fascinating, yet full of riddles, wonders and potential dangers.

One of the features that typifies traditional film noir, apart from that they are all shot in black and white and that it seems to rain permanently, is that the action takes place mainly at night. Polanski, however, did away with all that and turned the genre upside down: one of Chinatown’s most striking, blatant characteristics is that unlike the films noir of an earlier period, Chinatown is set almost entirely at daytime, and what’s more – in gleaming sunlight, so as if to create a contrast between the unrelenting glare, shining down on LA’s palm-studded boulevards, and the muck and the rot that are festering beneath.

But not only that, Polanski also had an altogether radical approach to mise-en-scène and lighting compared to the cycle of films Chinatown is paying homage to. Not just is he using colour and a good part of the action is set outside in broad daylight, he is also making extensive use of fill lights thereby creating almost no shadows or contrasts, which again is atypical for film noir. In terms of composition, Polanski often has Nicholson’s Gittes shot off-angle from the waist-up, which puts him in the position of an on-looker, an observer, onto a sinister, depraved world he is too small for.

The water scandal, which is the core of the plot, is borrowed from Los Angeles history where something similar happened about 25 years before the incidents in the film. Robert Towne used that as the foundation for his masterfully crafted screenplay and added a dash of Greek Tragedy in the form of the Noah Cross character. The portrayal of Noah Cross is without equal in film history. Never before has evil looked so eerily harmless and innocuous, the only hint at the madness that’s lurking behind Cross’ mind being him persistently addressing Gittes with Gitts. And it is never quite clear if he does it on purpose or if it’s indeed an oversight, but whatever it may be, we feel that Noah Cross has nothing but contempt for him. It is testimony to John Huston’s greatness as an actor (which, of course, derived from having been an -outstanding- director himself, not to mention the son of the great Walter Huston!) of having played Cross the way he did – it perfectly matches the tremendous scope of the crimes Cross is guilty of. “He owns the Police”, his daughter shouts just before she gets killed by one of Cross’ cronies. There is no Hollywood ending here. Evil prevails. Just like it does in real life, I’m tempted to add, although I’m certain that many people will disagree, accusing me of being a pessimist and cynic. Polanski, however, certainly would agree. “Blondes die in Hollywood”, he famously said. And there can be little doubt that the majority of his films are influenced, not only by his upbringing in the Warsaw ghetto and the subsequent murder of his mother in Auschwitz, but also by the brutal killing of his wife Sharon Tate, who was slaughtered by the Charles Manson gang in 1968, while 8 months pregnant with Polanski’s child. Polanski fought hard to get the ending he wanted because neither Robert Evans, the producer, nor Robert Towne were particularly keen on his bleak and pessimistic world view. But eventually they came round. And later, both had to admit that Chinatown owes its status as one of the greatest films of all time to its ingenious and daring ending. Without that ending Chinatown would have remained an excellent detective story, a film with a noir-ish plot, whereas we know it today as the film that redefined film noir. The ultimate neo-noir. Producer and screenwriter both stated that a film like Chinatown could not be made in present day Hollywood since there’s no audience for it among today’s moviegoers. People, they say, would find it too demanding, too challenging and too downbeat. That audiences at the time were more receptive to a film like that speaks volumes about the times we’re living in. The 1970s – the peak of the Cold War; when Americans, particularly students, had a profound distrust in their country because of Watergate and the war in Vietnam; the 1970s also were the time of NATO’s rearmament, which resulted in peace-movements that sprang up across the Western world; the consumerism of the money-obsessed 80s was still light-years away. The prevailing mood among the public was critical, sceptical and full of doubts, which was echoed in films such as Dog Day Afternoon, Coming Home, Klute, The Conversation – and Chinatown. Today, with money and shopping having replaced most everything else -certainly idealism- films like Chinatown are indeed too disturbing, too disquieting, for they are a reminder that it is undeniably the Noah Cross character who will always prevail.

But haven’t we all become a little bit like him? “What more can you buy that you don’t already have”, J.J. Gittes asks him, whereupon Cross replies, “The future!, Mr. Gitts (sic), the future!”