I still remember the first time I ever saw a two-dollar bill. It was in a wallet, on a TV screen in the living room of my childhood home. The wallet belonged to a dead woman called Ida Sessions, and it was Jack Nicholson who was riffling through it: Social Security Card; Screen Actors Guild Membership; two-dollar bill. I was maybe 12 or 13 and had never even set foot in America, but like anyone in the English-speaking world who watched way too many movies, I felt I knew the country like the back of my hand. Certainly its currency, which seemed more like real money than the colorful, monopoly notes we used, so often had I seen it brimming out of briefcases, left contemptuously on nightstands or fluttering down like green confetti after an explosion. But I had never seen a two-dollar bill, so that, of all things, was the detail that snagged my attention the first time I watched Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown.”
The intoxicating, rotten, brilliant “Chinatown” turns 40 this week. It’s been the subject of many panegyrics in the four decades since its release—in addition to books and numerous essays from critics and film historians, David Fincher provides the commentary for the Paramount Centennial Collection Blu-Ray edition, along with screenwriter Robert Towne (who won the film’s only Oscar out of its 11 nominations), Steven Soderbergh wrote just a few months ago: “I’m going to call attention to a classic that, in my opinion, is as good—or even better—than we all think it is: Chinatown.”
It is a handy quote, because while it may seem pretty uncontroversial to write about how great inarguable masterpiece “Chinatown” is, here’s the point I want to make: as much of a masterpiece as I have always thought it is, it’s better. And so I'm not going to attempt another one of those essays, about its thematic depth or formal brilliance (what’s the point when there’s stuff like Michael Eaton’s BFI Classics book to do that?) because the film is such a fact of my life now that I’m not even sure I could possibly see the forest for the trees enough to do that. Instead, I just want to wonder, in writing, why every time I watch it, it’s better than the last, and why, every time that scene rolls by, with Ida Sessions (Diane Ladd) lying dead on the floor in a mess of spilled groceries and melting ice cream, I look out for the two-dollar bill.
You see, what makes “Chinatown” so unique in my life is that it’s not just a film I love, it’s a film I endlessly fetishize. I’m not sure that’s a particularly healthy thing to do but it’s the truth, and the film lends itself to it, by being so layered, so complex, so infinitely detailed and so devastatingly smart, at the same time as being itself about obsession, about fetish and perversion and the tiny flaw in Evelyn Mulwray’s iris. For me now, having seen it so many times, its greatness no longer resides in the macro, the broad sweep of its themes, the enormity of the corruption, the scope of the perversity—all of that I take as read—but in the micro: the way Faye Dunaway’s crimson lipstick is applied; how the camera is usually silky smooth but switches to handheld when Gittes is improvising; how Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic score is so cleverly used and so anachronistically inflected. (Interesting facts: there are only 23 minutes of score in the whole 2 hour 11m film; Goldsmith had just ten days to write the replacement for the “abomination”—according to Towne—of original composer Philip Lambro’s score).
The film represents a dizzying concatenation of the talents of an all-star 1970s team: the unparalleled visual storytelling talent of Polanski as director being merely the nexus of a group also made up of superproducer Robert Evans, Towne, Goldsmith, production designers Richard and Anthea Sylbert (oh those venetian blinds, those Packards, those cigarette cases!), the startlingly assured camerawork of DP John A. Alonzo and the outstanding editing of Sam O’Steen. But furthermore, the minute perfection of it on a moment-to-moment basis suggests that not one of the team (and think of the statistical improbability of this) not one of them let their laser sights slip for a second. In fact, almost every scene feels like a microcosm of the whole, and no matter how small a sliver you examine, you’d practically be able to clone the whole film back out of its trace DNA. “Movie first, scene second, moment third” was apparently the mantra of editing genius O’Steen, but in “Chinatown,” it’s a three-way tie at every point.
Some years after that first, accidental viewing, we got the film on VHS. I’d written off the the two-dollar bill as me misremembering something that had flashed by once on TV and I’d never been able to reexamine, but now, here it was again, on an endlessly re-checkable tape. Of course this time, or these next times, I should say, I also noticed a hundred other things: Nicholson’s gradually healing nose wound; the glove compartment full of pocket watches to set behind the tires of parked cars; the way he sneaks out to break one of Evelyn’s taillights to make it easier to follow her car; such lovely, intricate, lived-in bits of business.
I also started to see Dunaway’s performance for what it was, brittle and mannered and shimmering and quite, quite brilliant. Nervous as a flame, her pencil eyebrows and sharp red lipstick make her very face a foreshadowing of doom—a beautiful skull. And how her Evelyn starts as the epitome of the femme fatale/black widow only for the layer upon layer of secret shame to be peeled away from her, to reveal her as the film’s most tragic victim.
And of course I started to see the film’s symbolism, the recurrent water motifs—why does Cross serve Gittes fish? Why is he called “Noah”? (Of course, John Huston also played Noah in his own film “The Bible”) Why is there a swordfish hanging on the wall? Why are those glasses of water out of focus in the foreground? Why is there the noise of the dripping tap in Ida’s kitchen? Why do we hear running water offscreen? And aside from the water, why the hell had someone—Polanski? Sylbert?—put that two-dollar bill in Ida’s wallet? I started to realize something that’s as patently obvious now as to be embarrassing, but this was back then and I was a kid: everything that is in a film, any film, has been chosen to be there. I'd started to study film, and that film was "Chinatown."
And then I got to see it on the big screen.
I’m going to say it was around then that my love for this film flared into all-out obsession. I don’t think I’d ever really noticed just how immense John Huston’s performance was before I saw how he physically dominates the frame when the screen is twenty foot tall. And by this time I was in college actually studying film and I (thought I) knew a few things: I wasn’t the first to note the similarities between “Chinatown” and Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” not just in the mood of perversity and obsession but even in the many following scenes, not to mention the parallel endings in which the protagonists each lose their lady loves for the second time, in a way that ironically echoes the first.