News and Commentary – Chinatown: The Citizen Kane of the 70s Film

A semester of seventies films draws to a close with Chinatown, a monumental achievement in which every element of the movie contributes to its overall vision perfectly and could scarcely be improved upon, starting with Robert Towne’s screenplay—one of the greatest ever written. The final version of the script was sculpted from Towne’s much longer, earlier draft over two intense months of collaboration between the writer and director Roman Polanski, and then further tightened by Polanski (who also famously imposed the movie’s inevitable, nihilistic conclusion).  Towne’s published screenplay includes a smattering of exchanges that would have fit seamlessly with the story, but in each instance those final cuts were wise, as the dialogue probably telegraphed too much.  (Do we really need Jake declaring on page three, “I’ll tell you the unwritten law . . . you gotta be rich to kill somebody, anybody, and get away with it”?)

As with last week’s entry, Taxi Driver, Chinatown is so well-known and so extensively written about that there is little point in walking through the familiar particulars—though let us pause for a moment to acknowledge the three central, brilliant performances by Jack Nicholson (Jake Gittes), Faye Dunaway (Evelyn Mulwray), and John Huston (Noah Cross).  Dunaway had the most challenging role, since, as she observed in her memoirs, given the way Chinatown was implicitly manipulating its viewers’ genre-driven expectations, she had to play “each of Evelyn’s reactions so that the audience would think at that moment I was guilty,” while at the same time allow the audience in retrospect to ultimately “realize that my reaction was not because I was guilty, but because of the truth.”

I have written about Chinatown at some length in Hollywood’s Last Golden Age, and more recently here, which discusses my comparison of the climatic confessionals in The Maltese Falcon and Chinatown.  Sam Spade got it right: Bogie cracked the case, handed the girl he loved over to the law, and would suffer the fate of “a few bad nights” for living up to the code of the Private Eye. Jake, in contrast, should have heeded his own advice from the start of the movie, and “let sleeping dogs lie.”  Or listened more carefully to the words of Noah Cross, who warned him, with devastating accuracy, “You may think you know what’s going on here, but believe me, you don’t.” 

But Jake stayed on the case, and tried to stick by the code (parting company with Evelyn in a scene that foreshadows her fate—head hitting the horn) and finally shaking loose the truth only to be surprised as it falls on top of him.  He doesn’t save the day; he ends up destroying the lives of the people he was trying to help, and the bad guys get away, clean.  Because even though Chinatown takes place in 1937, ultimately, it was the seventies out there. 

 

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