Following my recent viewing of Curtis Hanson’s L.A Confidential I was keen to explore other, critically revered neo-noir gems on offer. Pointed in the direction of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown I was sceptical from the get go.
Jack Nicholson’s filmography is extensive and I admit I haven’t seen as much as I feel I should have by now. The Shining still eludes me and playing a serious private detective investigating marital affairs, his jovially rebellious Randall P. McMurphy from Cuckoo’s Nest is equally absent in this role as Jake Gittes. Cold, and to the point Gittes’ hard-boiled persona wanes a bit thin in places. Directed to give the audience a point-of-view feel it’s difficult to take it all in. Gittes’ mind is constantly working away and the viewer is left working hard to discern what it is he sees, says, and hears. Don’t get me wrong, being left in the dark on certain aspects of a movie more often than not make it more enjoyable but Chinatown‘s aura of mystery is developed more by accident and frequent mumbling than anything cleverly placed for the viewer’s apreciation.
Bumbling along in a misused point-of-view style Gittes reluctantly agrees to assist Mrs. Mulwray in determining the faithfulness of her husband, Hollis Mulwray. Folllowing Gittes on his investigation we get a rather dull, but unfortunately necessary, sight seeing tour of California’s water ways, or lack there-of. Set in the 1930s California is experiencing a harsh drought, sending the community and farmers into states of desperation. Gittes sees it early. The connection between Hollis Mulwray, as the Chief of the Water Department, a proposed dam, and the drought are all connected. Baffled by the origins of this investigation (remember the infidelity thing) Gittes’ intrigue compels him to see it through.
Gittes has a number of leads to follow-up on. As a private investigator his run ins with the law are disturbed by a mysterious past, something to do with Chinatown. Jumping from scene to scene adds to the incomprehensible vibe created by Polanski who inserts multiple plot points that play their role and then disappear often without a trace. Loose links and weak connections let this film down greatly. Although multi-layered plots are essential to the success of any worthy neo-noir mystery the layers in Chinatown rest above each other with a void of disinterest wedged in between. The only thing positive going for it is that the layers end somewhere down the line, in the case of Chinatown, in a soggy cheesecake base after being left out in the sun for the 130 minute duration.
Unlike my morning cereal (with the food similes again) I like a bit of mystery in a film. The eponymous ‘Chinatown’ is elusive, and for good reason but there is a severe lack of development. The reason exists but is weak upon final revelation and the film is significantly let down by this point. To compare Nicholson to his performances in The Shining and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was a tad unfair on my part. He plays a completely different role and honestly plays it well. Introvertly attentive and compassionate at heart his confident exterior plays second fiddle in the presence of Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray and their engagements provide the best moments of the film. At the crux of the story Evelyn is established as Gittes’ go-to point for new information, voice of reason, or target for leading accusations but Gittes is slowly torn apart by corruption and secrecy.
A generous Worth my Time review, mainly because it has taught me not to get drawn in by a genre and expect to love everything it serves up. L.A. Confidential was sewn together with more finesse, featured more memorable performances and shocked to the last. Robert Towne’s screenplay purposefully ambles along in time with Gittes’ discoveries but at times it bores. The eleven nominations at the Academy Awards suggest otherwise. Sure, it has its moments. It portrays a realistic account of Californian legal corruption during this period, in particular the infamous Californian Water Wars that had plagued residents for years. But on this depiction alone Chinatown falls by the wayside. Jack Nicholson’s hard-boiled performance helps and Faye Dunaway’s supporting role grants Chinatown a bonus point but it just doesn’t do it for me.
Like a true detective something is missing and I just can’t put my finger on it without creating one of those giant wall posters with names, photos and documentation tied together with red string. Perhaps avoiding the clichés of your typical Hollywood crime mystery Polanski has done the genre a service, a gesture of good will if you like before leaving the US but this alone doesn’t generate enough credit to change my opinion. Additional viewings might help cut through the technical elements and personal qualms but if I ever get to another viewing it will most likely be against my will.
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