Classic films are classic, because something separates them from being a normal movie. In some instances, it is a single cinematic moment as is the case with Casablanca. In other films it is for a memorable character, as is the case with Charles Foster Kane...and some movies are just plain gorgeous as every Kurosawa film shows. In the even rarer instance a classic film is a hybrid of all these elements and becomes something grander and larger than simply being cinema, and in its wake, everything a viewer knows about movies changes. Chinatown is one such movie. I swore, prior to seeing this film, that I had seen the film noir genre done in every possible variety and that nothing could change its image in my mind. I should have expected this to change upon approaching a film by Roman Polanski, because it too was he who changed my understanding of horror films through his infamous classic Rosemary's Baby. Ideally, I would blog some startling new revelations about Chinatown, but instead I am simply going to dote on its wonders whilst offering a few thoughts that could loosely be considered theoretic criticism.
Chinatown, as many noir films do, begins with the introduction of a protagonist private investigator named J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) who is reeling in cash from his most recent expose on a philandering wife. It is only moments after this event that Gittes is approached by a woman claiming to be the wife of a prominent politician. She requests Gittes servicesto investigate her suspicions concerning her husbands possible affair. Reluctantly, Gittes agrees to pursue the investigation, only to discover that the woman's husband is not engaging in acts of infidelity, but instead is spending his time moping around dried up river beds. Gittes out of equal parts desire and dedication to his job continues to investigate the man and discovers a plot much larger than extramarital affairs and certainly larger than his small time private investigation firm can handle. Gittes quickly becomes involved in a murder plot that is fueled by greedy politicians and capitalist businessmen who desire wealth even in the face of destroying the natural world. Amidst all this madness, Gittes finds himself becoming equally attracted to the "wife" of the man he is investigating, who is played brilliantly by Faye Dunnaway, only to discover that even she hides her own disturbingly dark secrets. Ultimately, Gittes and the other characters are left disillusioned and stuck in Chinatown, realizing that their own faults and mundane activities are inherently meaningless in the face of corruption and death at the hands of those lacking any sense of "moral decency."
I could expand extensively on the green commentary of the film and its overt concern with pollution, but that would be too easy and it has been done already. I instead want to focus on what helps Chinatown subvert the film noir tradition. The first element of its subversion comes in the character of Gittes. Even in the grittiest of traditional noir films, the protagonist proves to have some set of ethics to live by. The Sam Spades of tradition film noir would bend over backwards to adhere to some code of ethics that meant saving women and not backstabbing their friends. Gittes is not this type of individual; he is relentless in his endeavors and exploits those around him with the intent of advancing his own cause which is always at the most basic level personal. Similarly, Faye Dunnaway's character is far from the traditional image of a femme fatale, often sexual and always vampiric, Dunnaway's performance as Evelyn Mulwray is that of a very insecure women who instead of using the protagonist as a stepping stone for personal advancement, chooses to fall in love with him making the spiderlike qualities of a traditional femme fatale futile. Finally, and most obviously, is the film's setting. Every film noir, with the exception of a few pseudo-western film noirs, is set in the city amidst skyscrapers and back alleys. A majority of this film takes place by water and at the most extreme in suburbs, even take a short detour to a large estate housing retired persons. It is the unlikeliest of settings for a noir film and it should be notable that only the films tragic closing on the streets of Chinatown does the scenery resemble a traditional noir film. This scene choice makes closing scenes emphasis on Gittes arbitrary existence all the more relevant as the camera pans out to show the faces of countless other individuals moving through their rather mundane lives. In essence, Chinatown completely subverts the traditional film noir genre only to return to it in the closing scenes, as a reminder that no matter how different or intriguing a story may be, it is still a single story that exists in a sea of other narratives that are insurmountable.
Chinatown is a classic and deservedly so, I strongly recommend purchasing this movie. I would say get the masterpiece on Blu-ray, but apparently nobody has found it necessary to transfer it yet. Until then a DVD copy should suffice, and try not to become to enthralled with Nicholson in this movie...trust me, it won't be easy.