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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11 Responses to “Movie Night With Urbaniak: Chinatown”
  1. Well I know I have an urge to rewatch Chinatown.

  2. craigjclark says:

    For my money, Nicholson’s work in Antonioni’s The Passenger is equal to what he does here. I also strongly recommend you check out The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind if you have not already.

  3. ndgmtlcd says:

    One of the great science fiction movies of the century

    Chinatown is one of the most under-rated and under-appreciated movies of the 20th century.

    It’s got everything in it. Can you get a better look at the essence of human Evil elsewhere? Can you get a better protagonist anywhere else?

    It even has science fiction (or speculative fiction) in it! Just a little bit, which you can notice only if you think about it but enough to place it at the very base, the very foundation of the plot.

    What’s at stake here, from a material point of view? Using scientific knowledge and speculating on the technological application of that knowledge to change the future of a society. It’s also at the basis of the whodunit. Salt water in the victim’s lungs. The answer is brackish ponds. Wonderful what you can do with brackish ponds, or what you could do with them.

    There’s more science fiction in Chinatown than in dozens of supposedly science fiction movies, like Star Wars and so many others.

    • Todd says:

      Re: One of the great science fiction movies of the century

      I don’t know if I would call Chinatown underrated, exactly. It was a huge hit in its initial release and universally hailed as an instant classic. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say “Ugh, my girlfriend made me sit through Chinatown — god, what a dog.”

      • planettom says:

        Re: One of the great science fiction movies of the century

        I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say “Ugh, my girlfriend made me sit through Chinatown — god, what a dog.”

        Which brings us, sadly, to that train wreck sequel to Chinatown known as THE TWO JAKES….

        A movie that, infuriatingly, had some interesting ideas in it, but to sit through it again to try to pick them out one would have to be a masochist…

        • Todd says:

          Re: One of the great science fiction movies of the century

          I gave up about half-way through my first try.

          • craigjclark says:

            Re: One of the great science fiction movies of the century

            I actually made it through the whole thing, but it’s not something I would ever contemplate doing again. In his book The Big Picture, William Goldman has a fascinating account of being at the first test screening for The Two Jakes. Suffice it to say, an audience that was initially thrilled at the prospect of watching a sequel to Chinatown quickly grew restless and started deserting in droves.

  4. ghostgecko says:

    This was one I was totally prepared to hate, mainly because I had to watch it in film class and the prof. had already tormented us with some godawful boring ‘classics’. Nice surprise – I still try to get people to watch this movie. Now I’m the one being annoying.

    • Todd says:

      It’s a great feeling, isn’t it?

    • craigjclark says:

      In college I was in the Television/Theater Production program and one summer we were given a list of classic movies to watch so we would all have a common set of referents. I dutifully watched everything on the list and greatly enjoyed it (then again, I was the sort of guy who went to the library on my own initiative and read plays just because I wanted to).

      Suffice it to say, not everyone was as enthusiastic. In fact, one of the students who was a year or two behind me complained vehemently about the professors’ choices and demanded to know who had put the Marx Brothers’ A Night on the Opera on the list. Now, I ask you, who can’t appreciate a Marx Brothers film?

      • Todd says:

        Maybe he was one of those people who feel the Marx Bros sold out when they went to Paramount and started getting pushed around by Thalberg.