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Paul’s 27 Dirtiest Movies of All Time – Letter C: Chinatown

A private investigator with a nose for trouble swaps tailing cheating spouses for a murder investigation - Roman Polanski's Neo-noir about a cruel rendezvous with destiny is the fourth entry of Paul's 27 Dirtiest Movies of All Time

This is the alphabetic list of the dirtiest movies ever made, as carefully selected by this humble film critic. I’ve whittled down over a century of films and assigned each one of them to a letter of the English alphabet, beginning with a numeric one.

I’ve always looked at cinema as being like a kid in a sweet shop. There’s an abundance of choice – multiple lifetimes worth. In keeping with this metaphor, this series will include cinema from different decades of film history, and from across the world. Some will be driven by the personal more than others, but each is a dirty gem!

After Sidney Lumet’s 1957 jury room drama, 12 Angry Men, Justine Triet’s 2023 crime and courtroom drama Anatomy of a Fall, and Joe Dante’s 1989 suburban black comedy, The ‘Burbs, our 27-month-long odyssey continues with a cynical, Neo-noir masterpiece.

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Roman Polanski’s Chinatown is one of those films for me in which the poster is as iconic as the film itself. It was one of the posters pinned to the wall of the college edit suite – the private eye in his fedora hat, a woman’s face in a plume of smoke from his cigarette, and the distinctive red font of the film’s title. I lost count of the times I formed expectations of the film behind the poster, using the artwork as visual cues, along with what few things I actually knew about the film and the noir genre. When I eventually watched it for the first time, Chinatown was one of those films that left me captivated and at the same time regretful at the time it had taken. Once seen, you never forget the closing line, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

Robert Towne’s screenplay is a lean beast. It’s ironic to describe it as such when it runs 130 minutes. The slow, routine start doesn’t begin to hint at how compelling the film will become, as Towne gradually hooks the audience with the twists and turns. The plotting is meticulous, yet uncomplicated, as Jack Nicholson’s private detective, Jake Gittes, who primarily snoops around catching adulterous lovers in the act, finds himself caught up in the murder of Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), chief engineer at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Hired by Mulwray’s wife (Diane Ladd) to trail her husband who she suspects of having an affair, it turns out Gittes has been played when he meets the real Mrs Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway). Poking around into another suspicious death, Gittes ends up with his nose cut by a short man in a bow tie, played by director Polanski.

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A nose for trouble…

Hardboiled crime writer Raymond Chandler’s 1939 short story collection featuring his iconic LA private investigator, Philip Marlowe, was aptly titled, Trouble is my Business. Gittes is in the same line of work, whose wisecracking talks him into tense encounters as much as out of them. In one scene, he tells Evelyn, “I goddamn near lost my nose. And I like it. I like breathing through it. And I still think you’re hiding something.” When a police detective snidely asks him whether a bedroom window was slammed shut on his nose, Gittes replies, “Nope. Your wife got excited. She crossed her legs a little too quick. You understand what I mean, pal?” Or when Yelburton (John Hillerman), the new chief engineer, says his nose must smart, Gittes replies, “Only when I breathe.”

Gittes, like the literary Marlowe, is a character the audience can dream of being. They are their own men, even if wealthier and more influential men hold the power, or less powerful, disingenuously moral, or amoral men are nagging obstacles. Gittes and Marlowe have integrity and while they may initially seem cold and distant, they become solitary figures you can trust in their bleak and corrupt versions of LA. And, that they talk and act in a way that people only can in a novel or a movie, you have the type of character we men wish we could be.

A year earlier, in 1973, director Robert Altman directed an adaptation of Chandler’s sixth Marlowe novel, The Long Goodbye (1953). It was written by Leigh Brackett, who co-wrote the 1946 adaptation of the first Marlowe novel, The Big Sleep, with William Faulkner, Jules Furthman, and the film’s director Howard Hawks. Altman and Brackett experimented with Marlowe’s morality and mild temperament towards violence, making a divisive decision by having him fatally shoot someone. Chinatown is a rehabilitation or redemption for the private investigator archetype that Altman and Brackett turned into a victim of 1970s American cynicism.

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Reigning it in…

The wisecracking Marlowe, an avid drinker, particularly bourbon, who projects a tough persona, perhaps leans into Sherlock Holmes’ refinement with his interests, among them chess and classical music. This complements his philosophical way of thinking. Gittes, meanwhile, is a rawer and less developed version of the archetype.

This leaner characterisation, however, is intentional. Towne and Polanski don’t overplay their hand, not in the dramatic finale or in the central conspiracy, nor about Jake’s brush with tragedy in Chinatown some years prior, when his efforts to help a vulnerable woman backfired. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is in synch with this approach – a classical yet progressive soundtrack with playful and inventive moments. Meanwhile, the film’s main musical theme refuses to be swept up in romantic sentimentality. Goldsmith holds it back from hitting those high sweeping notes, the music a cautionary voice that knows what is to come.

Chinatown shows restraint to give its audience just enough detail and dramatics, but feels simpler than the audience might expect. As aforementioned, it’s meticulously plotted and uncomplicated because Towne doesn’t convolute the story with unnecessary twists and turns. Instead, he focuses on allowing the unresolved emotional revelations to carry weight and impress on the audience the themes and ideas at its heart. For example, one of the most powerful scenes is when Evelyn breaks down and reveals the truth to Gittes. Meanwhile, the climactic ending is restrained, expressing the futility of the protagonists’ struggle in an unseemly city where people have long since sold their souls.

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Then it gets under your skin…

A repeat viewing of Chinatown is distinct to the first. It lays bleeding from the harsh cynicism rife in the American cinema of the 70s. The first viewing may give us hope, but in subsequent viewings there’s only the sense of despair; the cruel rendezvous with a destiny written before the story even began. Chinatown echoes Akira Kurosawa’s 1960 neo-noir crime and mystery, The Bad Sleep Well. Both films are committed to their respective cynical visions, and Kurosawa uses the title at the end of his film to add insult to the injured hopes of his audience.

Chinatown’s ending is the epitome of ‘the bad sleep well,’ and while Jake is left broken and haunted by a new layer of trauma, his friend and associate verbalises the defeat: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

Polanski and Towne’s commitment to the despairing and cynical tone is one reason for Chinatown’s enduring appeal, because sometimes we want to say goodbye to trite sentimentality and encounter characters like Marlowe and Gittes that take us into the seamy underworld. Like the finale of David Fincher’s 1995 crime thriller Se7en, the brutality and cruelty that paves the path to tragedy makes these stories unforgettable. Chinatown is a film whose story and dialogue haunts you, and the delightfully evil turn by director and actor John Huston, leaves you with an anger, even contempt you will never shake.

This is the fourth one in the series of Paul’s 27 Dirtiest Movies of All Time (one for each letter of the alphabet, plus a numeric film)


By Paul Risker - 03-06-2024

While technically an English-based film critic and interviewer, Paul shows his political disgruntlement towards his homeland by identifying instead as a European writer. You’ll often find him agree...

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