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For CHINATOWN, director Roman Polanski should have shared top billing with screenwriter Robert Towne, composer Jerry Goldsmith, and, of course, actor Jack Nicholson, whose laconic combination of imperturbabilty with a pretty steady losing streak makes his Jake Gittes the quintessential P.I. of the early Seventies (granted that Elliot Gould‘s Philip Marlowe is well within mumbling distance). Arguably the best film of Polanski’s career, CHINATOWN is a tour de force of unease about sinister secrets, implacable evils, and a city (Los Angeles) too parched to exist.

Noir in spades, orientalist by implication, and engorged unto throbbing with Freudian subtext, CHINATOWN quickly attained a status in cinema so iconic, and an aura so loaded and mysterious, that not even its long-rumored, feverishly anticipated sequel, THE TWO JAKES (finally, fatally released in 1990), could do it any harm. That vanity turkey, directed by Nicholson and scripted by Towne, lacked almost everything that makes CHINATOWN, no less now then in 1974, such a deeply and satisfyingly strange experience. I nevertheless recommend watching it (or trying to), as both an eminently mockable diversion and, at least, an accidental illustration of one of CHINATOWN’s theses: something to do with the best laid plans of mice and men. And movies. (Hint: they go awry.)

The set-up: some terrible things went down a few years ago in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, things that involved Jake Gittes back when he was a police officer. In their wake he left the force and became a private dick, and that’s how we meet him: as a dapper, self-satisfied gumshoe milking a living from paranoid men and women eager to catch their cheating spouses with their pants down. As in almost any noir, someone walks in (a dame, it generally obtains) with a case that seems simple, but isn’t, and working it not only cracks open a seamier, more sinister world — it also turns the case into a personal matter.

So it goes in CHINATOWN. Love changes everything, but it may not solve anything. Faye Dunaway‘s Evelyn Mulwray becomes his lover, but her tangled relationships with the rest of her family (most particularly her father, played by John Huston, a towering yet doddering demon who appears to preside over LA politics (and his daughter) as a kind of sovereign lord) recapitulate the wasps’ nest of corrupt political and business associations towards which Jake’s investigations inexorably lead him. By the nose, ok? By something sort of like a nose. To water? Don’t kid yourself; there’s nary a drop to drink.

By the late 1930s (when the film is set) “Chinatown” had become a byword within the LAPD for things that could be neither changed nor even understood. The Chinese immigrant community underwent decades of discrimination in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, followed by decades of relative neglect. For the police, as for other Anglo Angelenos of the time, Chinatown was a kind of “dark continent,” a terra incognita onto which their lusts and fears could be readily projected. The irony — or an irony — of the film’s conclusion is that it could have happened anywhere. Chinatown’s sister cities circumpopulate the globe — forget it at your own expense. For a timely reminder come out and watch this serpentine, sinuous classic today at the Brattle. But if you decide to visit LA to see for yourself, be sure to BYOW.

9/14 – 3:15PM
130 Minutes
(Tickets also purchasable at a discount
as part of a double feature
with SUNSET BLVD (1950))

Brattle Theatre
40 Brattle St
Cambridge, MA

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