Movie Night With Urbaniak: Chinatown

 , as you may know, has recently moved to LA. Like any bizzer who moves to LA, he has felt compelled to watch Chinatown. It’s like a trip to the LA History Museum, but entertaining, with sex and murder and incest, which is the way us Neo-Angelenos like our LA history.

I, being an ace Hollywood screenwriter, have watched Chinatown many times, mostly to unravel all the different plot threads. Last time around, for instance, I noticed for the first time that there are, in fact, two mysteries to be solved in Chinatown, which have nothing to do with each other, in spite of involving all the principle characters. There’s the one everyone remembers, about “the girl,” and then there’s the one about “the water thing,” which forms the bulk of the story, but which has nothing to do with the central murder. Chinatown, like any classic noir, is about a jaded detective who stumbles onto a case, which leads him to uncover corruption in the highest corridors of power. But along his way to cracking the first case, this detective also stumbles across a more interesting case. It’s like if the investigators of the 9/11 commission, on their way to investigating Osama bin Laden, found out that George Bush once had an affair with Larry Craig.

Which I’m guessing probably didn’t happen, but I’m wondering now how many hits my blog will now get just for me typing those words.

In any case, it was a change of pace, this time around, to watch Chinatown not so much for story but for the performances.

Our verdict: pretty damn good.

Thinking back over my personal experience of Jack Nicholson’s performances over the decades, and watching this movie on a scene-by-scene basis, I think I have to say that this is probably the best, most detailed, least affected, most well-modulated performance of his career. Just prior to this, Nicholson was a rising star, giving strong character performances in Carnal Knowledge and The Last Detail, and soon after this he gave his career-defining performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The “crazy Jack” performance came to its fullest fruition in The Shining, and then in the 80s he veered from character parts to ever-more “crazy Jack” performances, culminating in 1989’s Batman. But here in Chinatown he’s playing someone very close to himself, yet removed by time and profession. There isn’t a single moment where he calls attention to himself, showboats or plays a “character.” The result is a natural, self-possessed performance that lives and breathes, which is all the more spectacular when you consider that he’s playing one of the oldest roles in movies, the jaded, cynical LA private dick. Plot-wise and tone-wise, Jake Gittes is not too far down the road from Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, and yet Jake is a completely different kind of guy, neat and dapper, ambitious and funny, smart and inventive and nobody’s fool.

Faye Dunaway, on the other hand, seems to be playing someone completely unlike herself, and vanishes into the part. I watched her closely throughout, trying to figure out just what was so strange about her characterization, how different it is from her work in, say, Bonnie and Clyde or Network, how she manages to be so cold, so remote and yet still recognizably human and three-dimensional. Then it occurred to me that it might be her eyebrows, her plucked-out, painted-on eyebrows, such a specific period detail that it removes her character from the 1970s and places her forty years earlier, changes the shape of her face enough to remove memories of past performances, and gives the character the fragile, china-doll (china-doll!) look she requires.

John Huston plays the heavy with such easy grace and sureness, such attention to detail and such confident naturalism, you have no trouble believing that Noah Cross is capable of just about whatever whim crosses his mind. Late in the movie I suddenly thought of Touch of Evil and tried to imagine how Welles would have played Noah Cross, and how very different Chinatown might have played under those circumstances.

At one point in Act III there’s a scene with Nicholson and Dunaway in the front seat of a car. And he’s pressing her on something and she’s being evasive and wrought, and they’ve just had sex a few scenes before, and all the things that have been happening in the story are seeping in between the lines of dialogue, and the actors merge with their characters so completely and I just had to shake my head and think “You know, they really don’t make movies like this any more.”

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