Take a Drink: for talk of infidelity
Take a Drink: for tricky detective shenanigans
Take a Drink: every time Jake takes a beating
Take a Drink: whenever water, irrigation, or dams are mentioned
Take a Drink: for mildly racist Asian jokes/comments
Take a Drink: when each strand of the mystery unravels
Do a Shot: when you see a great director doing some acting
Do a Shot: “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”
By: Henry J. Fromage (A Toast) –
Jack Nicholson has had no shortage of iconic roles- Jack Torrance, The Joker, R.P. McMurphy, Warren Schmidt, Whitey Bulger… whenever the unfortunate day comes to pass that we no longer have any Jack Nicholson flicks to look forward to, the man’s going to take up the whole Oscars In Memoriam segment by himself.
Drat, Eric Stoltz always has the worst timing!
The role of his I keep thinking back to, though, is his turn as Los Angeles P.I. Jake Gittes. In Chinatown, a typical infidelity case is the entry-point to a larger, more dangerous conspiracy involving a draught, control of the municipal water supply, and the future of L.A., intertwined with a beautiful woman (Faye Dunaway) who may be the key to the mystery, and her unfortunate family history.
Director Roman Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne were obviously indebted to the 30s-50s noir classics when crafting Chinatown, but what is so remarkable is how they fused them with 70s New Hollywood realism and cynicism and birthed a classic even greater than the sum of its parts.
Here’s an example of the exact opposite effect.
Towne’s script is widely hailed as one of the best ever, and its meticulously constructed mystery certainly holds up under multiple viewings, but it is the over-arching message that its famously dark ending, which originally was Hollywood Happy until Polanski insisted on it, drives home that makes it truly great. The title, Chinatown, is a metaphor for an imbroglio so complex that any attempt to help just makes it worse, just like navigating the morass of criminal and cultural concerns in 1950s Chinatown was for policemen. That last, legendary line, “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown”, is a pronouncement of not just the futility of Jake’s one-man crusade against evil in the film, but his entire mindset.
To this end, Jack Nicholson crafts the perfect tragic antihero. He’s a crass, profane sonofabitch, confident, wry, quick on his feet, and an absolute bulldog when he gets his teeth into something, but with a beating heart and true moral compass underneath his more cynical exterior that leads him down his fated path. Faye Dunaway does a great job playing a much more practical and outwardly tough woman hiding a tragic past and vulnerability it creates. She’s as heartbreaking as John Huston’s Noah Cross is chilling- a matter of fact villain who knows he’ll win, and whose threats are veiled by his nonchalance and courtesies. It’s a template many have followed since.
Or just copied.
On the technical side, DP John A. Alonzo, hired instead of former Polanski contributor William A. Fraker (Rosemary’s Baby) to try and maintain some studio control, ends up perfectly serving the director’s vision, turning in career-best work across the whole light spectrum of day and night. His use of reflective surfaces is particularly inspired. Jerry Goldsmith’s score, also a last-minute replacement, has become iconic in its own right- unnerving, and when that love trumpet plays, utterly haunting. The last raise of the glass, though, must go to Polanski, who gets results even if he had to wield the proverbial (or actual) knife himself. His vision pulls back the curtains of Hollywood noir, showing the sex and blood, the sordid deeds, and all-too-banal evil they only hint at.
Chinatown is a classic in every sense of the word.