Blog Directory CineVerse: Revisiting "Chinatown"

Revisiting "Chinatown"

Friday, February 18, 2011

A nose for noir

by Erik J. Martin

(Note: This is part 2 of a 2-part article that first published last week.)

Last week, we began to dissect the inherent qualities that distinguish Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” as a quintessential film noir—one with classic retro esthetics but modern sensibilities that make it a timeless cinematic treasure. In part 2 of the article, we’ll explore the movie’s voyeuristic subtexts, Evelyn Mulwray’s role as a complex femme fatale and other themes.

First to the matter of private detective Jake Gittes’ voyeuristic tendencies. The film opens with a client looking at photographs of his wife in bed with another man taken by Gittes. He snaps photos of Hollis Mulwray with another woman together, which inadvertently get published and create a scandal (similar to what the Jim Gettys character--from which Towne drew his detective’s name--does in “Citizen Kane”). His telephoto lens and binoculars are used in other scenes, to spy on Evelyn or Hollis from afar, for example. Gittes’ spectatorship and curiosity leads him into deeper, more politically corruptive scandals, pulling him even further away from the urban setting (indicative of a usual noir backdrop) and further inward psychologically, toward the center of the real immorality and back to the ghosts in his mind.

To accentuate the voyeuristic perspective of both Gittes and the viewer (seeing through his eyes), Polanski often frames Nicholson in profile, off to one side of the screen. This serves more of a function than simply to present a subjective viewpoint --it also depicts Gittes’ impotence (his being ‘boxed in’ a corner in the face of evil or greater numbers), as well as the innate, malignant evil lurking in the corners, just beyond our frame of vision. In this sense, a deep psychological framing is achieved, and a sense of apprehension is evoked with a more menacing off-screen space. Finally, this type of framing, usually involving deep-focus three-shots, shifts power relationships away from the off-sides, ‘cornered’ Gittes to other characters (ie, the police or the flanking stature of Cross), reaffirming his insinuated helplessness.

His voyeurism (as expected) and his misinterpretation of reality gets Gittes into trouble. His ignoring of “No Trespassing” signs get him a scar on his nose (his eyes are still free, but with a bandage on his nose he can’t ‘sniff out’ things anymore), and later a brutal thrashing from a group of farmers. As a result of his spying, a man’s unfaithful wife ends up with a black eye, and Hollis Mulwray’s widow winds up with no eye (it is literally blasted out of its socket in the final scene). Earlier in the film, after making love to Evelyn, Gittes notices a flaw in the iris of that eye. Symbolically, the flaw conceals the ‘truth’--and therefore power and knowledge through discovery--from the detective, and serves to mirror his own ‘distorted perspective’ back to him.6 Likewise, there is a connection between Cross’ bifocals, fished out of the saltwater by Gittes, and the Chinese worker’s verbal pun that the saltwater is “bad for the glass”: Cross’ water is both bad for the grass and bad for the glass, namely Gittes’ ability to see the truth.

Evelyn, then, as the movie’s femme fatale, attracts Gittes into danger--although innocently--with her dependence on him and her provocative, almost masochistic behavior (Dunaway was impressive in her highly-stylized performance, her stone-like visage enhanced by layers of masking makeup). He distrusts women, going so far as to call them “all whores”, and telling vulgar, sexist jokes. Similarly, Gittes belittles Oriental in jokes, further implying his mistrust of them (as he is suspicious of Chinatown all along). Thus, women and Asians become ‘the other’ (a customary noir motif) to him, and only through mockery can he maintain superiority over them.

The interiors of most rooms in “Chinatown” are graced with venetian blinds on the windows (and the shadows they produce), an evident visual referent to classic noir misc en scene. The blinds become a metaphor for the repetitive motif of masked concealment: Evelyn wears a widow’s veil, a chain link fence surrounds the reservoir, glass bricks separate Gittes from his secretary, even the bandage on his nose becomes a mask.

Water is an obvious central concept to the film, and literally and figuratively runs throughout it. The attempt to control it parallels man’s historical effort to control and regulate a wild, primitive force so that it does not destroy life or prevent it from existing. The detective’s role then is to uncover the ‘secret of the waters’, but the flawed Gittes as gumshoe can neither bring about reform nor curb the violence concerning water: Mulwray is drowned in it and loses a shoe, and he himself is engulfed by it in a culvert and also happens to lose a shoe.

The drought in Los Angeles is transformed into a spiritual thirst or dryness, with the malevolent Noah Cross seen as a biblical perversion of his first name. Not only has he drowned his son-in-law, but he has ‘repopulated the earth’ in a sense with the impregnation of his daughter, Evelyn, and in an ironic way, though he is secretly diverting water away from thirsty L.A., he is helping to nourish the valley so that a ‘new city’--a new Eden--will grow in the future. As further proof of his ‘fishiness’, the man owns the Albacore Club and even eats whole fish for lunch! Huston’s rendition was more than creepy, and his presence in the film was a fitting one. He had played Noah in “The Bible”, and was also the director of the most respected film in the detective genre, “The Maltese Falcon.” Continuing in his tradition is Polanski--by virtue of his directing this detective crime drama--who himself plays a gangster employed by Cross, the very thug who slits Gittes’ nose.

Speaking of Polanski, it was his nihilistic vision that guided the film fluently along the pessimistic path of noir. His influential negativity, shaped by his tragic past (the killing of his wife, Sharon Tate, by Charles Manson; the murder of his Polish family members in Nazi Germany), gave the film its dark tone and even prompted him to change the original, upbeat ending of Towne’s script (in which Evelyn lives and Kathryn escapes to Mexico).1 Just as the Manson slayings brought a violent, perverted end to the sixties, “Chinatown” put to rest the notion of L.A. as the city of angels, and brought full-circle--in as perverse a twist--the detective genre.

The entire production was graced with a talented crew that perfectly complemented the ambitions of such an intelligent film. Cinematographer John Alonzo blended sun-drenched yellows and browns to rich shadings in his deep-space Panavision framing. With the stylized production design and impeccable costuming of the period by Richard Sylbert, and the haunting horn and piano score by Jerry Goldsmith, the look and feel of the thirties was flawlessly depicted.

Adding Towne’s Oscar-winning screenplay (based loosely on historical L.A. events) and the assemblage of a top-notch cast, “Chinatown” ranks among the elite American film classics, and, I would contend, stands out as perhaps the finest example of a neo noir.

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