Hard to believe, but we’re now as far away in time from Chinatown as Chinatown was from its source. Much as Bonnie and Clyde had dressed up and reinvigorated the 1930s gangster cycle, Roman Polanski’s 1974 masterpiece offered a gimlet-eyed update of that same decade’s gumshoe films, reinserting all the sex and violence the Hays Code simply wouldn’t have allowed – for the benefit of cinemagoers whose cynicism had only redoubled under the Nixon administration. A hybrid of classical and modern forms, it remains as vivid as ever, returning to circulation this week as the flagship re-release of the BFI’s Polanski retrospective.
Amidst L.A.’s pre-WWII drought, we join Jack Nicholson’s smirking private dick Jake Gittes, splashing about in life’s shallow end – quipping through adultery cases, swapping dirty jokes with the boys – until he falls into the one case that forces him to reassess his buoyant mood. A plot to divert water supplies away from parched farmland brings Gittes into contact with glamorous widow Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) and Noah Cross (John Huston, that magnificent relic of 30s L.A.), a big fish with a monstrous appetite. Soon Jake’s up to his neck, then up to his nose, the rising waterline measured by the appearance of Polanski himself as one of the screen’s more flamboyant heavies, touting a flickknife like a divining rod and looking for trouble.
Chinatown’s reputation over the years has chiefly rested on its Robert Towne script, generally regarded as the best ever circulated within Hollywood, which hit upon a near-perfect balance between persuasive character beats, witty pastiche and the unfolding of an involving story: certainly, there’s something truly inspired in the connection Towne makes between the perversion of civic duty at the film’s dark heart and that going on between this case’s primary persons of interest. Yet another look reveals just how beautifully paced the whole film is – and for this we surely have Polanski to thank. Every scene evokes Gittes’ languorous, somewhat flatfooted amble, allowing the detective time to work through his hunches, annoy a secretary, make a fool of himself – and for he and we alike to be lured in enough to be hit and hurt by the final round of revelations.
Some debate, however, remains as to who was responsible for the film’s unusually acute social overview: note the heightened attention paid to waiters and gardeners, those lackeys who help sustain the system yet get shut out of key conversations, meetings, financial benefits. We’re all peepers peering in on the machinations of power, and – like Gittes himself – eventually reduced to the status of helpless onlookers. Chinatown’s final collapse into pessimism – its resigned shrug at the fact there are just certain things that go on, evils powerful men will always do, areas we cannot go into – is overwhelming, yet it’s this unvarnished worldview that has helped to keep it relevant. In refusing the romanticism that underpinned even the grittiest Bogart vehicle, Polanski preserved intact a sour moral that could be applied to any moment – not least one when our own governors and executives have started to draw more and more from the pot, and common resources, whether fresh water, libraries or greenbelt land, are being sold off to help balance the books. Corruption – to the film’s eternal benefit, and our administrators’ perpetual shame – is timeless.
Chinatown is available on DVD through Paramount Home Entertainment.