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The Devil In The Detail: Thoughts On 'Chinatown' On Its 40th Anniversary

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by Jessica Kiang
June 18, 2014 4:00 PM
27 Comments
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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.

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27 Comments

  • Ian | July 15, 2014 3:31 PMReply

    I can't believe you didn't mention the nose cutting scene! That special effect was crazy good and shocking!
    Oh, and you mentioned what the third one would be about. Apparently (I can't say with certainty but I've heard it multiple times) that the plot for the third script is what the plot for Who Framed Roger Rabbit was based on, which sounds ridiculous but makes sense because the highway scheme fits into the theme of big progress in LA being corrupt.

  • STEERS | July 9, 2014 5:16 PMReply

    You people don't get this film, because you are not seeing it as it was intended. This is filmed cinema. The same thing applies to Casablanca. It was not designed for you to watch it on a TV, or a computer, in your house, or for f**ks sake, streaming to some tablet. Trust me you don't 'get' why the Mona Lisa is a masterpiece either, until you actually stand in front of the real painting and stare at it.

    Sadly for most people, they will not in the future get the chance to see these pieces of art in a cinema, on 35mm as they were intended. This is the fate of the art form formally known as "film".

  • JamDenTel | July 9, 2014 4:11 PMReply

    I'm with those who don't quite get what makes this film a masterpiece as opposed to a solid film (granted, I also have the same issue with Casablanca). I definitely need to see it a second time, but I confess, it didn't click in that magic way for me.

    And really, I think the final scene is pretty badly staged (he's maybe 6 feet from her--HOW DOES SHE MISS?!). I'm almost ready to side with Robert Towne and say the film should have had a happy ending. A dark ending can work brilliantly, but I think the 70s had a few films which ended unhappily for the sake of ending unhappily, as if the BS happy endings of the decades previous had to be purged (another example is The Hospital, which ends on a rather downbeat note for no real reason).

  • Brundlemox | July 11, 2014 8:39 PM

    In eager to please movies, Evelyn kills Noah, and Jake/Evelyn have a sweet little adios as they walk along the banks of the pond in Echo Park. In real life, Noah Cross wins, nearly every time. Some people never figure out what they're up against until it's too late, and Jake Gittes consistently fails to realize what he's up against. He's a smart guy, but he sees things two-dimensionally. He is very often being hoodwinked, and when he's not, his own limitations get in his way (e.g. his racist attitude towards Chinese people causes him to miss the biggest clue in the movie - "Bad for the glass"). It's not a downbeat ending for 'no reason' - Polanski wisely realized that a happy ending would have turned "Chinatown" into a well-crafted but pointless story that would largely be forgotten within its own decade. The ending isn't badly staged - it's chaos, a churning abyss that destroys those who weren't prepared for what was about to happen. It's a long, complex film with a plot that is in many ways a McGuffin - you don't need to know why Hollis Mulwray died or what the whole scheme to steal the water is really about. All you need to focus on is that the players are being played by a much powerful force that they are useless to resist. It's as existentialist as film noir gets. It took me a few viewings to really understand it's greatness so give it another whirl.

  • PG | June 29, 2014 2:04 PMReply

    Well, I guess we have to put up with this, seeing as the film is 40 years old.

    "Chinatown" is not a great movie. It simply isn't. It's a nice, well made movie. It's L.A. film noir in color, re-created in the 1970s with 1970s leads. It's a nice detective movie.

    What it ISN'T is a classic or a cinematic experience on par with few others. For nearly 40 years (I didn't see it until it came on TV in 1977 or 1978) I have been baffled why and how this film has such a reputation. I find it to be just a matter-of-fact detective story. Yes, it's "really" a story about big, bad corruption that's much larger than the few dead bodies Jake finds.

    So what? Is that really so hard to execute or conceptualize? I would say....NO. The tech credits (photography, production design, wardrobe) are all uniformly high. But then this was a big budget studio release, so they had the best people and enough money.

    The first two "Godfathers" and "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" tower over "Chinatown." But then I've found Polanksi to be usually over-rated, from the pretentious "Repulsion" to the pedestrian "Rosemary's Baby."

  • Brundlemox | July 11, 2014 9:26 PM

    I'm sorry but your statement that "Chinatown" "simply isn't" a great movie is beyond off base. If you don't like it or see what makes it a "great" film, fine - but in my mind, and that of a lot of other film historians, it simply IS a great film - one of the greatest, actually.

  • Brandon | June 26, 2014 12:46 PMReply

    Does anyone else think that the B&W closeup of of Nicholson looks strangely like Jean-Claude Van Damme?

  • Curtis24 | June 26, 2014 12:59 AMReply

    Such a great movie (and I'm not really a Polanski fan, for more reasons than one). My favorite line:

    "Can you believe it? We're in the middle of a drought, and the water commissioner drowns. Only in L.A."

  • Sage | June 25, 2014 4:12 PMReply

    Yes. So much yes. This movie carries a similar weight for me. I'll never forget the first time I watched it. I was just blown away. Blown away by the detail, the richness of the acting, the artful commingling of deep and simple themes. It remains my favorite movie since I saw it for the first time almost two years ago.

  • Johan | June 21, 2014 8:03 AMReply

    I recently watched this film for the first time. And im sorry to say that it was just ok for me.
    The ending was pretty exciting but that was like 2 hours into a slow paced bore. I love a good Noir as much as anyone else but stuff has to happen sometimes. I dont see the masperpiece-thing at all sadly.

  • PG | June 29, 2014 2:06 PM

    There's no "masterpiece" to be seen. It's just a matter-of-fact noir detective movie. People have been making it into more than it really is for 4 decades now.

  • Gene in L.A. | June 21, 2014 6:52 PM

    It'll be better the next time you see it.

  • Chris Perry | June 20, 2014 10:03 PMReply

    Excellent job on this, so well written. One of my favorites as well. I remember that $2 bill when I was a kid as well. There are so many moments in this film...the boy on the horse in the dry LA river (a perfect match of surrealistic imagery and subtle background score), the petulant guy in the Hall of Records, the kiss between Jake and Evelyn that is both passionate yet uncomfortable, since you can't take keep your eyes off the wound on Jake's nose. A perfect movie, oh yes.

  • JanPB | June 26, 2014 2:50 PM

    According to IMDB (IIRC) that boy is a film director in Portugal.

  • G A Martin | June 20, 2014 3:45 PMReply

    The script for “Gittes Vs Gittes” is about mass transportation in LA. The replacement of the Red Car Line with GM buses, using Goodyear tires and Texaco gas and the conspiracy of those 3 companies to control mass transit. This also led to the LA freeway system.

  • Brian Allan Cobb | June 20, 2014 10:38 AMReply

    There's a bad cut, after Jake and Evelyn make their escape from the retirement home and are pulling into Evelyn's driveway, in which five seconds of Goldsmith's theme is jump cut.

    Otherwise, it's the perfect film, and I've watched it enough times (perhaps a dozen) to catch that bad cut.

  • Casey Fiore | June 19, 2014 10:32 PMReply

    Great piece, really enjoyed it and agree wholeheartedly. For what it's worth, which may well be nothing, I think you could make a really good case that Chinatown is the most "perfect" film ever made, in the sense of it's utterly immaculate execution down to, as you eloquently pointed out, every little detail. I think the idea of "perfect" films is reductive and silly but somehow I feel it's a meaningful distinction in this case.

    Also I feel like I remember reading somewhere that Gittes vs. Gittes was intended to be about land, as in real estate.

  • Michael in Toronto | June 19, 2014 12:57 PMReply

    My favourite movie of all time. Thanks for making me love it even more. Something to look out for on your next viewing: the glint of Evelyn's emerald ring as she cleans Jake's wound.

  • peter | June 19, 2014 3:00 AMReply

    This was beautiful, thank you.

  • Sanker from India | June 19, 2014 1:55 AMReply

    O Jessica! Your love for this movie is so infectious and beautifully expressed! Gets to the heart of why we love art of any kind! As much as we are all united in our appreciation for this film, no one will feel exactly as you do! We all have our Chinatown stories and favourite moments. It's such an incredible achievement!

  • Brian Johnson | June 18, 2014 7:57 PMReply

    I guess we're all different: Once was enough "Chinatown" for me. It's a well-made movie, it's just not the kind of movie that makes me want to watch again and again.

  • Xian | June 18, 2014 5:51 PMReply

    Nice analysis.

  • Chuck | June 18, 2014 5:30 PMReply

    Great Piece. This movie has had me for the last 22 years and I still cant get enough of it. Its part of my being. I fell in love with bungalows, old neighborhoods with sidewalks, smoked pall mall cigarettes without inhaling for 2 years (I was 22), enjoy wearing button down pajamas when going to bed..etc..etc... It calmed me like nothing ever before and still does. I was lucky to have found the first CD printing of the CD when it first was released and is one the best soundtracks ever.... It created the wonder and the mystery in the film.... I have to wonder what Ali Mcgraw would have been like. Also, I read that the 3rd story "Gittes vs Gittes" was about the highway system in L.A. in the 1950's.

    Thanks again for the great piece...I think I'll put on the Blu-ray tonight...

  • GERARD KENNELLY | June 18, 2014 5:10 PMReply

    directed by a peado

  • Gene in L.A. | June 21, 2014 6:55 PM

    I suppose someone just had to say that. Now the thread is complete.

  • TheoC | June 18, 2014 4:04 PMReply

    Great stuff, I want to instapaper stuff like this. Excellent.

  • Michael Amundsen | June 24, 2014 11:28 PM

    Good commentary. I saw CHINATOWN in the theaters when it first came out. The theater was an odd duplex with one theater on top of the other. CHINATOWN played in the top theater. In the bottom was EARTHQUAKE. EARTHQUAKE had some heavy bass sound going for it so that when the earthquake hit LA, the theater would shake. And when that happened below, we could feel it above. Jack Nicholson would be driving down the streets of LA and the theater would begin to shake.

    I've seen the movie many times and when I was a student at UCLA, I read a few drafts of the screenplay. Honestly, I always felt the movie was cold. I liked the scripts better.

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