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Mythical noir


Film noir, the 1940s cinematic genre distinguished by shadowy lighting, alluring femmes fatales and wisecracking private eyes in fedoras, translates to "dark film." But the darkest of them all doesn’t emanate from the period that spawned these moody films.

Chinatown, made in 1974, is not an imitation of noir; rather, it transcends the genre. Certainly, there are noir conventions in Chinatown (set in 1930s Los Angeles), but the film expands and deepens them – and, in some cases, inverts them.

For instance, the private eye Jake Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson) isn’t the tart-tongued know-it-all in a rumpled trench coat, like Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep or Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past. Nicholson isn’t so much cocky; he merely affects confidence. He’s full of self-doubt in a manner completely at odds with a Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett hero. He dresses spiffily and tries to sound suave by using words such as "métier" and "finesse." There’s something pathetic about him: He thinks he’s polished, but there’s a rough-hewn side to him that can’t be burnished.

Faye Dunaway, who plays his love interest, Evelyn Mulwray, isn’t really a femme fatale, because she doesn’t bring a man to his ruin. Rather, it was a man who ruined her: Her own father, played with a combination of omnipotent fearlessness and crass wickedness by John Huston, raped and impregnated her. Like most noir heroines, she’s hiding a past, but she’s not protecting herself so much as she is her daughter-sister, whom she wants to keep from the grips of her powerful father.

As in all film noir, there’s a web of mystery, but Chinatown’s web is more like a trap. If you get too close to the sordid truth, you get sucked into an inescapable vortex. When Dunaway attempts to flee, Nicholson naively tells her to let the police handle the situation. She chillingly replies, in reference to her father, "He owns the police."

In one of the most indelible but cruelly perfect endings in the history of cinema, Evelyn is shot in the back of the head by a cop as she tries to escape with Catherine, her daughter-sister. The eerie sound of a blaring car horn and Catherine’s piercing screams provide a freakish cacophony. When Nicholson catches up with her, she’s slumped across the wheel, the bullet having exited from her eye socket. Scriptwriter Robert Towne’s original draft allowed Evelyn to escape, but director Roman Polanski wisely intervened.

The violence is another quality that makes Chinatown simultaneously depart from as well as embrace its genre. Gunshots are as common as the utterance of words like "dame" in ’40s noir movies. There is little shooting in Chinatown, but plenty of violence – and all of it appropriate.

Cinema in the ’70s made the words "gratuitous violence" a catch phrase, but Chinatown’s violence is not only warranted, it’s inevitable. Even Polanski’s cameo turn as a knife-wielding thug is dramatically urgent. In a harrowing scene, he slices Nicholson’s nostril as punishment for being, as Polanski puts it, "a nosy fellow."

Corruption drives the plot of noir films, but Chinatown’s degradation doesn’t derive from mere greed as much as it does from evil. Noah Cross, Evelyn’s father, will stop at nothing in his efforts to manipulate Los Angeles’ water supply.

John A. Alonzo’s muted cinematography has received richly deserved plaudits. With its fuzzy, impressionistic lighting, it’s as though the film were shot through a gauzy filter. The fawn-colored shots of the arid landscape almost make the viewer thirsty.

However, scant attention has been paid to Chinatown’s score, expertly composed by Jerry Goldsmith. In fact, an article last February in the New York Times dedicated to the film incredibly made no mention of its music. The superb score heightens the drama by finely chiseled understatement. The melancholy love theme, with its languorous solo trumpet, is a minor-key reverie of bluesy wistfulness. However, much of the score is bleak and atonal.

The music, like the film itself, is at once romantic and anti-romantic. Producer Robert Evans wanted Goldsmith to write music with a 1930s flavor, but Goldsmith stood his ground, compromising only by adding well-placed vintage melodies in a few scenes, including Jerome Kern’s "The Way You Look Tonight" and Vernon Duke’s "I Can’t Get Started." The original score is by turns forbidding and enveloping – and entirely effective.

A misguided sequel to Chinatown, The Two Jakes, was made in 1990. Directed by Nicholson – who also takes the lead role – the film, set 15 years after the events in Chinatown, gets buried in its own complexity. In no way does it live up to its predecessor, but The Two Jakes wasn’t as bad as some critics held. Nicholson, whose acting since Chinatown has become disturbingly self-indulgent, is surprisingly low-key here, although his Philip Marlowelike narration doesn’t work. What does work is the cinematography. The dusky light makes the action seem dreamlike, with no clear delineation between past and present.

As in most sequels, the original is, well, more original. Twenty-five years after its release, Chinatown still stands up, ramrod straight and worth seeing repeatedly.

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