Friday, June 20, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #23 "Chinatown" (Roman Polanski)

Film noir is one of those genres — like the Western — that's just hard to approach earnestly. Since its heydey in the 1940s, the tendency has been to postmodernize it, to infuse it with irony and a healthy dose of wink-wink self reference. The stoic, even staid conventions of the genre are turned in on themselves and used to deconstruct rather than celebrate. Most modern noirs are comments on the whole notion of noir, rather than fully fleshed out noirs in their own right. Some of these are great films, but ultimately they rely on our knowledge of and, to a degree, skepticism about the genre . We have noirs that are told backwards ("Memento"), noirs played for comedy ("The Big Lebowski"), even noirs set in high schools ("Brick").

What we don't tend to have anymore are simple, classic noirs that are, at heart, good stories told well.

This is why Polanski's almost religiously classicist approach in 1974's "Chinatown" is such a breath of fresh air. Certainly, it's a product of its era and the New Hollywood in many ways, and one could argue that the casting of John Huston — director of such classic noirs as "The Maltese Falcon" (1941) and "The Asphalt Jungle" (1950) — as central villain Noah Cross is a postmodern nod to the genre's past. But the fact is Huston is simply GREAT in the role — oily and evil and seductive in a way that is almost primally repellant — that whatever film-cineaste baggage we bring to the performance quickly falls away.

Everyone is great in this. Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway have never been better, either before or since.

"Chinatown" was penned by Robert Towne ("The Last Detail," "Shampoo"), one of the all-time screenwriting greats, and this film still stands as his masterpiece. Famously, he clashed with Polanski over the film's vision, but somehow that tension managed to distill what has been acknowledged as Towne's unwieldy tome (rumored at one point to be nearly 300 pages long) into a lean, mean, frighteningly nasty piece of work.

I don't have a lot more to say about it, because we all know how great it is. So I'll just leave it with this quote from Roger Ebert's review:

"Godard once said that the only way to review a movie is to make another movie, and maybe that’s what Polanski has done here. He’s made a perceptive, loving comment on a kind of movie and a time in the nation’s history that are both long past. 'Chinatown' is almost a lesson on how to experience this kind of movie."

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