Celebrating Chinatown: The Ultimate Summer Movie (and the Perfect American Movie)

Chinatown does not usually make the short list of best American films. In fairness, it probably shouldn’t. It will have to settle for merely being the only perfect American film ever made. Perfect? Well, perfection is in the eye of the beholder, and the definition of perfect might include the notion that there is no such thing as perfection in art. Nevertheless, by any number of criteria, Chinatown continues to satisfy more than thirty years on. In the final analysis it’s the magnificent sum of its considerable parts: it’s tragic, it’s hilarious, it’s (at times) scary, it’s challenging, it’s complicated, it is unnerving. It is, in short, America. Or at least it does the near impossible: it articulates the symbiotic relationship between greed and power that props up capitalism, a narrative that played an ever-increasing role in 20th century America. Much could — and should — be said along these lines, and how Robert Towne’s meticulous screenplay was ideal fodder for Roman Polanski’s dark and utterly authentic vision (Polanski also deserves extensive praise for resisting the happier ending Towne wanted).

That’s all well and good, but why does Chinatown remain compelling, and worthy of repeated viewings? Speaking personally, I’ve seen the film at least 15 times in the last 20 years, and each viewing has revealed new layers or nuance, and has only confirmed that initial impression: it’s perfect. The screenplay, the soundtrack, the casting: all unassailable. Memorable scenes? Really, the entire movie is just a series of memorable scenes. Or, more accurately, a continuous stream of indelible moments: Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in the barber shop, covered in shaving cream, angrily inviting the wiseass banker to step outside and “discuss things”; Gittes sardonically lamenting the loss of his shoe (“Son of a bitch! Goddamn Florsheim shoe!”); Gittes telling the dirty joke unaware of his soon-to-be-client and lover standing behind him; Gittes driving frantically through an orange grove to escape some pissed off farmers whose land he is trespassing upon; Noah Cross (John Huston as the flawlessly named incarnation of evil) persistently, and quite intentionally, mispronouncing Gittes name (Mr. Gits); Gittes calling the officious jerk in the public library a weasel; Gittes imploring Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) to let the police intervene against Cross (her father) and her unsettling response: “He owns the police!”… the list could go on.

Perhaps most importantly, this is, quite simply a beautifully crafted work, the type of movie that can be savored without the sound on. One example: Gittes sits patiently at the top of a sloping cliff, overlooking the Los Angeles coastline as day slides into evening. He waits, lighting cigarette after cigarette, totally unaware that he has already stumbled into a hornet’s nest of corruption. The beauty of what he sees (and we see) perfectly masks the brutal ugliness of what is really going on: unwittingly, Gittes is about to lift up the rock and behold the guts and machinery of what gets sold as the American dream.

Naturally, Chinatown passes the ultimate test: is it still meaningful, today? Does it still tell us something about ourselves? Sadly, it does. Impossible as it may have been for Towne and Polanski to imagine, there would come a time where public trust of those in power deteriorated beyond even the Watergate era nadir of Nixonland. Today, as the fabricated sheen of Wall Street crumbles around us, we might ask the wizards who wrought this mess the same question Gittes asks Cross — and expect the same answer:

“Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?”
“The future, Mr. Gits! The future!”

There it is: the most accurate and succinct depiction of unfettered greed you’re likely to hear. And to see John Huston convey it is to appreciate, and be appalled by, the allure and immorality of depraved power. Jake hears it, and sees it, and for him — and the country — it’s too little, too late. As always. “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown,” his partner admonishes him. But Jake can’t forget it, and we know he won’t forget it. Neither will we.

This essay is featured in Murphy’s Law, Vol. One –available now.

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