Film noir is a style of cinema that hasn’t been done much in recent years. Generally taking the form of a detective story, noir elements often include morally ambiguous at best protagonists dealing with shifty characters and no one is entirely trustworthy. My grandfather’s favorite movie was The Maltese Falcon, where Humphrey Bogart plays private detective Sam Spade. He and his partner get a case involving the requisite beautiful woman. The partner, a married man, clearly has designs on the client, so he’s given the go ahead to follow her as she asked to make sure everything goes OK. Spade is fine with this, since he’s carrying on with the partner’s wife. Well, the partner gets killed on the stakeout and Spade spends the rest of the movie avoiding the partner’s wife.
And Spade is the good guy here.
Bogart, in his trenchcoat and fedora, is the image most people have of a private eye these days, and the noir style largely drifted out of fashion after the Great Depression and World War II, possibly because the idea of a city full of corruption was seen as too passe for audiences at the time. There are attempts to revive the form, and one of the best with the past few decades was Roman Polanski’s 1974 movie Chinatown.
Chinatown tells the story of one Jake Gittes, as played by Jack Nicholson, a Los Angeles-based private detective. Specializing in divorce cases where he follows a suspected cheating spouse around looking for evidence of infidelity, Gittes is approached by a woman named Evelyn Mulwray for this very sort of task. Gittes, after advising Mrs. Mulwray that she would be better off not knowing the truth in such a situation, takes the case and follows the woman’s husband around. The man in question is Hollis Mulwray, the head of the city’s water department. It’s the middle of the Depression, and there’s a drought going on. Hollis Mulwray is mostly denying the right to build a dam he insists won’t hold, but seems to be a fairly uncontroversial figure Gittes shadows doing odd things, some of them with a young girl.
Getting some rather circumstantial evidence on film, Gittes is surprised the next day to find out a few things.
- The pictures he took of Hollis and the girl are in the local newspaper, and he sure didn’t leak the photos to the press.
- Hollis turned up dead, from drowning, in a dry river bed.
- Another woman, played by Faye Dunaway, shows up saying she in fact, is the real Mrs. Mulwray, and clearly not the woman who hired Gittes in the first place.
What follows is Gittes looking to get to the bottom of what exactly happened. Someone used him, and in such a way that hurts his professional reputation. He’s interested in learning the truth, and he’s not going to stop until he does. He used to be a cop, but had to quit after some really corrupt shenanigans went down during an investigation in Chinatown, and has a real issue with bad cops and greedy officials.
This movie’s case has plenty of both.
Polanski does something really interesting here. From the second Jack Nicholson’s Gittes appears onscreen, he is pretty much always onscreen. The net result of this means the first time viewer only knows as much as Gittes knows at any given moment, and there are some thing that make little sense. Dunaway’s Mrs. Mulwray is clearly hiding secrets, like who the young girl is and what relationship the girl had with the deceased Hollis. Maltese Falcon director John Huston appears as Dunaway’s father, Hollis’ ex-partner, and a man who is not used to being denied anything he wants. Houston’s character is so monstrous, especially in his final scene, that the viewer will probably rightfully hate him for what he’s done to everyone around him.
As with any good noir, the movie does deal with corruption, and in the least likely place. Seriously, who would think of greed and corruption in the city of Los Angeles’ water department? The place sounds too dull to be dangerous, and yet…
I also have to say that this movie has style to burn. Jake Gittes may not be as good in a gunfight or fistfight as a lot of other heroes, but he’s really good at his job. Impeccably dressed, during one point of his stake-out of Hollis, he winds up a small pocketwatch and leaves it behind the tire of Hollis’ parked car. Later, he finds the smashed watch and knows exactly what time Hollis left the spot he was parked in.
Despite the title, the movie spends hardly any time at all in L.A.’s Chinatown. The finale goes there, leading to the movie’s famous last line, and like a good noir, the viewer should know it won’t be pretty whatever happens there. A family’s dark secret gets out, and Gittes is reminded of what happens when the powerful want something and the powerless have nowhere to go.
I will add, though, that knowledge of director Polanski’s private life may make some of the film’s plot twist difficult to view. You’ve been warned.