The Cinema Cafe

Serving Cinema's Tastiest Treasures

Top Ten Fool's Gold: The Overrated Part 4 Chinatown

In this series I would like to provide my readers with a more critical perspective to consider, one that hopefully will not detract from a person's appreciation for the films under review. At the same time, I'd question whether these motion pictures really deserve the high accolades bestowed upon them by the critical community in general. Perhaps it's like this: Instead of "The emperor has no clothes," I'm saying "He's just not that well dressed." (For a further introduction on this subject please see: Top Ten Fool's Gold: The Overrated Part 1.)

These notices are meant for viewers familiar with the following motion pictures.

(They will be addressed in alphabetical order.)



Chinatown (1974, U.S.A.)

Director: Roman Polanski

I know what you're thinking: "Forget it Arthur, it's Chinatown." How can anyone look unfavourably upon Roman Polanski's assured direction of Robert Towne's extraordinary script? Then there are the expert production values including John Alonzo's gorgeous photography, Richard Sylberts' evocative production design and Jerry Goldsmith's smooth and sultry score, which recreate a time and place so immersive and authentic, one completely forgets their own. Effectively criticising this accomplished film will require some careful consideration especially when realising its limited audience: Only those paying the utmost attention to how its carefully juxtaposed characters are woven throughout an intricate tapestry of clever plot machinations will be impressed with its grand design and dark overview of defeatism. The film's increasingly labyrinthine plot, branching out like Starbucks on steroids, does, however, come at a price.   


Chinatown's central murder mystery will not get underway until we're introduced to one of the most distinctive and engaging cinematic detectives since Bogart filled the shoes of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. Like melted butter on toast, Jack Nicholson absorbs right into our central character, private detective J.J. Gittes. He's handsome, resourceful, cynical, alternately tough and compassionate but always a joy to behold. Gittes is more multifaceted than many of the other fictional detectives from this time period. This is due to his many personable but varied reactions to the fascinating people and events encountered as he guides us through an ever deepening conspiratorial chasm of deceit and corruption, both personal and institutional. 


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As the plots thicken (and yes there's more than one despite their clever convergence with one another), our attention becomes focused on putting together these narrative pieces that start to look like one of those giant jigsaw puzzles from Citizen Kane. We play "catch up" with the storytellers and stay busy sorting out the ever growing number of mysteries, their participants duplicitous natures, figuring out who did what and why. As the narrative complications mount, little chance remains for observing character development. That's probably a good thing since a closer examination of their behaviour will in some cases reveal inconsistencies, strain credibility, adding even more questions to the mix, i.e. Noah Cross hiring Gittes (twice no less) to find a girl who turns up with the most likely persons imaginable. Evelyn Mulwray employs Gittes to find her husband's killer but she seems so emotionally aloof he might as well have been told to look for her car keys. Evelyn withholds her personal relationship information from Gittes which only causes friction between them at a time when he might have been of some real assistance. Gittes meets with Noah Cross and then confronts him with the evidence of Cross' crime (far more sensibly turned over to the police) or how about Lt. Escobar who seemingly forgets about arresting anyone for the unsolved murder of Ida Sessions (the woman who first impersonates Evelyn Mulwray)?


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Too often we are only given indications as to what's happened which cannot help but make a dramatically weaker impression compared to those events we witness ourselves. The same dynamic applies to the characters whom we are subsequently less emotionally attached to. Polanski does attempt to make up for the dramatic short changing at the film's conclusion. The director rightfully imposed a much more sombre and tragic ending than the one Towne originally wrote, befitting of the film's noir sensibilities of fatalistic doom and despair. The problem lies in its poor staging, making the haphazard proceedings look awkward and unconvincing. For one thing, the police are in Chinatown to arrest Evelyn for the murder of her husband Hollis Mulwray. They ignore pleas by Gittes to arrest Cross, who we know by now is the real culprit. Wouldn't they at least want to hold him for questioning? Apparently not as they do nothing while Evelyn and her father argue. Gittes yells to Evelyn "Let the police handle it"... Really? After all he did to try and keep her from them? Evelyn responds with: "He owns the police" which for her is an unprecedented statement. Why didn't she share that thought with Gittes earlier? Besides, Lt. Escobar's disclosure to Gittes (of all people) that Evelyn's deceased husband had salt-water in his lungs, clearly indicates he's out to find the true killer, as Hollis' death was made to look like an accident. The threats between Evelyn and her father continue which result in a gun being fired by Evelyn wounding Cross. The cops might as well be in the audience with us, for allowing all of this to take place without intervention. Only after she gets in her car and drives away do the police call out "Halt" and then even more inexplicably, fire on the moving vehicle, a shot which easily could have killed her daughter/sister, but which kills Evelyn. Cross comes over to comfort his hysterical "granddaughter", the one he's supposedly been trying to find, but it's the same girl the police thought Evelyn killed her husband over. Don't they at least want to question her? No, everybody's free to go.

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Gittes' last words "as little as possible" perfectly sum up the best and weakest characteristics this formidable film has to offer. As unbelievable as these final moments are, life is sometimes like that and there's no denying the deeply bitter emotional toll the proceeding events take on Gittes. He's made some horrible mistakes in trying to help someone in need and been paid off with life's cruelest, most devastating results. These final words, reminiscent of one of the film's greatest attributes, its memorable dialogue, reflect on the film's message that "absolute power corrupts absolutely" so one's better off not fighting it. They are also in keeping with the monstrous Cross being the last victor standing. Gittes' last admonition additionally reflects on a prior touched upon incident that similarly took place in Chinatown. That prior event, like so many others in the film, is not shown. It's barely explained either, remaining so ambiguous that Gittes' former experience adds little meaning or substance to his character or the title's location and therefore what the film is all about.





Chinatown [Blu-ray]
Starring Faye Dunaway, Jack Nicholson, John Hillerman, John Huston, Perry Lopez

Chinatown can best be appreciated on Blu-ray and purchased here:

Starring Faye Dunaway, Jack Nicholson, John Hillerman, John Huston, Perry Lopez

It is also available on DVD here:

There is a very limited edition soundtrack issued by Varese Sarabande of Jerry Goldsmith's fabulous score but there are currently less than 300 still remaining. Any available copies left can be ordered by clicking on the soundtrack's image.






Next time: A romance, frozen out by its backdrop. Top Ten Fool's Gold #5: Doctor Zhivago.