Saturday, May 31, 2014

CHINATOWN (1974): Personal and Political Corruption

Chinatown, directed by the notorious Roman Polanski, is not light viewing.  This 130 minute movie tells a devastating story about a woman living in the 1940s who is just one of many that is destroyed by the intrigues of her politically powerful father.  Such a matter comes to the attention of an investigator named Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a sleuth with anything but a decent reputation.

Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) was married to a man named Hollis (Darrell Zwerling).  Hollis is a decent man who cares deeply for his wife and Evelyn’s daughter, Katherine.  Hollis is also an incorruptible chief engineer for the water department in the city of Los Angeles.  When Hollis turns up dead, the mortician gives his official version of the death as follows: “Only in L.A., can the Water Commissioner drown in the middle of a drought.”  First hired on to discover if Hollis is having an affair, Jake turns his attention to Evelyn’s father, Noah Cross (John Huston), to determine if he murdered Hollis.

Noah is no ordinary villain.  He essentially owns the city of Los Angeles and doesn’t know how much money he really has.  Noah isn’t satisfied with just having money, however.  As he tells Jake later in the film, “most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they're capable of anything.”  For Noah, this even includes sleeping with and impregnating his own daughter, Evelyn.

It is late in the movie when Evelyn utters the horrible truth to Jake that Katherine is both her sister and her daughter.  Evelyn’s life comes to an end in Chinatown where the police are corrupt and just do not care.  Evelyn’s in Chinatown in an attempt to escape Noah Cross and to protect Katherine from discovering who her father really is.

When this film first came out it was considered a modernized version of the Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett stories of the 1940s where virtually no one but a select few actually care about what the truth really is.  As a reincarnated Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe, Jake Gittes does not inspire us as someone who should carry on such a task.  Jake has made a career investigating infidelities for questionable clients and now is expected to protect people like Evelyn who he has come to care for.  

It a film with an already intricate plot, Chinatown satirizes an establishment who will readily bow down to someone as sadistic as Noah Cross.  Anyone like Hollis or Evelyn who dares protest such a farce ends up being dead.  The film’s conclusion that such a power inevitably prevails over justice is in almost every respect a somber and hopeless one.

Unfortunately, the storyline is magnificently convincing and few in Hollywood have ever had the skills let alone integrity to make a more positive film any better.

May 31, 2014

© Robert S. Miller 2014