The Whole Wide Underworld
Matt Connolly on Chinatown

The reputation of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown rests largely upon those aspects of film art seemingly unaffected by the size of a screen. You don’t need a floor-to-ceiling image to follow the winding paths of Robert Towne’s screenplay, a vision of moral chaos as fiendishly complex, mordantly funny, and pitiless as anything produced by the New Hollywood mavericks of the 1970s. The weary wit of the dialogue comes through just as clear when whispered in your living room as it does when you’re seated in a theater. Few would frame Polanski and cinematographer John A. Alonzo’s visual design as incidental to Chinatown’s pleasures. What stands out most for many, though, are the slow-burn revelations and gut-punch plot twists that Towne unfurls with such bracing elegance. Card-carrying cinephiles would be forgiven for thinking that they’d get more big-screen bang for their buck in other, more obviously eye-popping selections from the Hollywood canon. In other words: “Forget it, rep house programmer. It ain’t Lawrence of Arabia.”

Why, then, see Chinatown on the big screen? For starters, basking in the film’s sun-drenched exteriors on the big screen productively complicates the idea that Polanski’s domain lies solely in the confines of the city apartment. While works ranging from Repulsion (1965) to Carnage (2011) highlight the filmmaker’s much remarked-upon penchant for urban claustrophobia, Chinatown oscillates between cramped office interiors and the expanses of the Los Angeles landscape circa 1937. Private dick J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) wanders through arid riverbeds, snoops in lush backyard gardens, and observes atop craggy ocean cliffs as a routine spy job on a supposed philanderer morphs into a labyrinthine web of legal and sexual malfeasance. Bathed in West Coast light, these alternately verdant and parched locales seem miles away from the shadowy cityscapes of the classic Hollywood noirs that Polanski and Towne self-consciously reference and rework. But nature offers no recourse in Chinatown. If he finds an occasional clue within these settings, Gittes frequently becomes overwhelmed by the landscapes he traverses: swept away by mysterious torrents; beaten by assailants who seem to appear out of thin air. It’s no accident that the film’s underlying conspiracy revolves around the illegal re-routing of water from Los Angeles to the as-yet-undeveloped San Fernando Valley. Corruption runs so deep in Chinatown that the elements themselves become a means to ill-gotten wealth, and untouched spaces are voids waiting to be filled by brutal, invisible forces.

Chinatown’s debt to the noirs and detective mysteries of the forties and fifties is clear, though the film’s relationship to these films remains one of powerful ambivalence. Surely, the attention to natty period detail and evocation of popular character types from the studio era (the persnickety clerk at the hall of records; the sadistic thug famously played by the director himself) evince affection for the seductive surfaces and textures of classical Hollywood filmmaking. Gittes and his prime client/suspect, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), embody archetypical noir figures—the jaded private eye; the elusive femme fatale—and Nicholson and Dunaway perform their initial tête-à-têtes with restrained but obvious pleasure. Just as Chinatown luxuriates in the historic/cinematic past, of course, it also interrogates them—a move of genre revisionism common throughout the New Hollywood wave.

Mulwray’s character undergoes the most pronounced shift. Rather than exposing its female lead as a calculating murderer, the film discloses her history of sexual abuse at the hands of her father, the profiteering businessman Noah Cross (John Huston), and her desire to reconnect with the daughter she bore as a result. Dunaway is heartbreaking here, allowing the slightest of cracks in Mulwray’s chic exterior to reveal themselves through subtle vocal and physical tics. (Note the stutter every time she has to discuss her father, as if the very word made her body freeze up.) Nicholson, too, finds layers of exhaustion, suspicion, and pain in Gittes, never more so than in his postcoital reminiscence about the lost love he failed to rescue when working in the titular neighborhood. After decades of performances that can tend toward mugging, it’s easy to forget how nuanced Nicholson can be in sketching the hurt that undergirds his characters’ wisecracks and shark-grins. The chance to watch these two stars in their prime lends Chinatown—a film already invested in the past’s allure—an added glow of nostalgia.

The undimmed power of Polanski’s masterpiece lies in both its disturbing efficacy as a national origin story and its ruthless evocation of Hollywood noir’s cynicism. The movie-movie quality of Chinatown may gain special resonance when watched in a theater, but the experience is not a cozy one. Chinatown dares to envision the expansion of American society (through the redirection of natural resources and the consolidation of corporate interests) as the ultimate con job—one perpetrated by an unrepentant sexual predator to boot. The monstrous Noah Cross only appears in three scenes, yet his malign spirit casts an ever-heavier shadow over the film’s sun-dappled locales. Numerous critics have commented on Polanski’s decision to cast legendary director Huston as Cross, but it’s worth reiterating just how distressing it remains to see this venerable Hollywood icon ripping into a debased character with such lip-smacking glee. In his connection to the studio era, Huston’s Cross comes to embody everything unspoken, hinted at, and alluded to in the noirs of old. Chinatown doesn’t seek to displace these films so much as follow their dark spirit to a logical, horrifying endpoint.

And what an end it is, with Polanski unfurling a series of emotional body blows stunning in their formal economy. Attempting to escape from Cross with her daughter, Mulwray speeds down a darkened street, away from both the police and the camera. Polanski’s camera remains stubbornly locked in place as police officers fire at the speeding vehicle, which gradually rolls to a halt in the distance. The drone of the car horn and the evocative barrenness of the empty street gives the jarring violence of Mulwray’s death a patina of eerie calm—one that is gradually broken as policemen slowly enter the frame and move towards the car. Once Polanski cuts to the wrecked vehicle, though, the chaotic swarm of bodies in the frame becomes a visual corollary for the film’s final descent into moral freefall. The police dismiss the claims about Cross’s massive public-works scandal. Cross apprehends Mulwrays’s daughter, all but assuring a fate like her mother’s. Mulwray herself hangs lifeless from the driver’s seat. Having failed to stop Cross in either his public or private crimes, Gittes can only walk away. The slowly rising camera dwarfs him as he disappears into the lamp-lit anonymity of a Chinatown street. It’s an image of sorrowful grandeur that can perhaps best be appreciated when projected in the darkness of a theater. Then again, the anguish that Polanski conveys in Chinatown’s final moments seems to stretch out far beyond the confines of the frame. How can any screen be big enough, when the world itself is the scene of the crime?

Chinatown played June 16 and 17 as part of at Reverse Shot's See It Big series at Museum of the Moving Image.