Thursday, April 03, 2008

The most famous scene in Chinatown is the one where Jake Gittes gets his nose sliced. The punishment is poetic justice for a nosey private detective and one that serves as a stark warning for the character to keep his nose out of other people's business. But of course Jake does nothing of the kind. His investigation becomes more determined. However, what he doesn't know is that by poking his nose in it, he'll destroy the woman he loves and help a corrupt millionaire.

If there's a lesson to be learned from Chinatown it's that ordinary people are powerless against the greed and corruption of the wealthy. Powerful men can break the law with impunity, hold cities to ransom, destroy lives and never be held accountable. Ordinary people, on the other hand, are easily intimidated and powerless against petty bureaucracy. That's the way capitalism works. That's the system. Jake knows this. And he tries his best to keep out of it. Just take the Chinatown motif. There, in that community, it's best to keep your nose out of things because you don't know what's going on. And it's the same higher up in the system. To poke your nose into things is to open a can of worms and expose your ignorance. The only possible response to meddling is one of great hostility. But like all film noir, Jake just can't help getting involved. And like all film noir, a woman rouses Jake's interest.

Mrs Mulwray is an interesting character because she goes against film noir tradition. She's introduced as the typical black widow, a cool, icy woman who will knowingly destroy the hero. But in actuality Mrs Mulwray is a sad, vulnerable woman. One who's forced to create a harsh façade to keep her dark secret under wraps. But underneath it she's a much warmer female character than you usually find in film noir. She's almost motherly. The way that she dresses Jake's nose certainly illustrates this, as does the lengths she goes to in order to protect her daughter. However, despite all this, she is a femme fatale. She certainly leads Jake to emotional ruin. But like much of the film, a mixture of crossed wires and blind ignorance drives events.

It's a genre convention of film noir that the hero knows nothing and ends up ruining everything with his quest for the truth. And so it is with Chinatown. It's Jake who destroys Mrs Mulwray and it's Jake who unwittingly helps Noah Cross. By trying to find out of the truth of their lives he reconnects these two estranged individuals and instigates the inevitable conclusion. And as always in life, it's the powerful person who ends up winning.

However, Mrs Mulwray has a part to play in her fate. It's Jake who reconnects her with her father, but it's her secrecy that fires his passion to discover the truth. If she'd told him everything earlier, such a tragic ending would have been avoided. But that's noir for you. Everyone's got their secrets and everyone holds onto them tightly. That's the fun of the genre.

But even though the ending is inevitable, it's absolutely perfect. It couldn't have ended any other way. But although the ending is perfect in the sense that everything feels right about it, it's not filmed perfectly. The choreography between Nicholson and the cops before they shoot Mrs Mulwray should have been a lot better. If you watch it, it seems as if Lopez (playing Escobar) is waiting for Jack to tackle him. The timing is off. And the cop that steps forward to shoot at the car does it rather too theatrically in my opinion. It's a shame because it's the only mistake in the film. I really can't find any other faults. The story is magnificent, the dialogue is great, the acting is superb, the photography is luscious and I love the musical score and the production design. I just wish the choreography at the end were tighter and more natural.

Another thing that I love about Chinatown is John Huston. He's such a perfect embodiment of evil. He's good company and extremely charming, but he has a certain malevolence running through his veins. And I like the subtly insulting way that he mispronounces Jake's surname. He wants to come across as a harmless, perhaps slightly barmy old man, but he knows exactly what he's doing. Everything is coldly calculated. And he also captures the attitude of corporate America. Why spend a lot of money building a safe dam when you can shave costs at the expense of safety and lives? Everything is about money. Well, money and power. Oh, and the future too. He wants to shape the new Los Angeles. He wants to control it. Unlike his former partner Hollis Mulwray, whose attitude, if anything, was socialist. Hollis wanted the people to own the water, and therefore the new city. But that sort of idea is abhorrent to Cross. He represents the ethos that won the battle to control America. The capitalists took everything. And as the argument in the barbershop shows, there's a perverse respectability to greed in America. A banker is respectable, but a private detective isn't. In essence people aren't interested in the truth. They certainly don't want it plastered across the newspaper while they're having their breakfast. All they want is to make money and be left alone. Jake should have known that when he began his investigation.

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  1. Oh, my goodness....What a great short review of Chinatown! Thanks for this note that increases my appreciation of the film.