Every other week, Alissa Wilkinson looks back at an iconic piece of cinema in the Adult Beginners column. The twist? She’s watching each of these films for the first time, approaching them with fresh eyes and mature context. This week, she’s discussing Chinatown.
I was well into my twenties before I ever went to Los Angeles. New York natives who touch down in L.A. for the first time tend to talk endlessly about the sunshine, the mountains, the beaches—the traffic—and I’ll never forget flying into that first sunset, like something out of a movie, which I guess makes perfect sense. That sunlight and warmth is disorienting to a New Yorker, as is all the driving. By the end of a week there, or at the start of a job that requires bouncing back and forth, you’re feeling lulled and weird. It takes a while to pinpoint why.
The answer is the isolation—not that there aren’t people everywhere in L.A., but you don’t really have to interact with any of them directly if you don’t want to. You can sit in your car and listen to your tunes while you hurl profanities at the idiots on the 405, secure in the fact that you’re in your steel bubble that will take you from home to your destination and back again. In New York, going anywhere means you might encounter practically anyone, might even be squished up against them in an uncomfortable subway car. In L.A., everything feels like space and comfort.
That is probably why noir films set in L.A.—“sunshine noir”—feel especially menacing. Dark deeds done in the shadows of skyscrapers are one thing—at least they’re in their proper location. But dark deeds dislocated and dropped into daylight are terrifying, like a bouquet of roses with a razor hidden inside. Everything is supposed to be warm and pleasant, and then, pop, they’re not.
Chinatown is the ur-sunshine noir, spiritually related to two of my favorite films: Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (which was released a year earlier) and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. I knew the film was something about water and California; I’d even heard screenwriter Robert Towne speak a few years ago, at a New Yorker Festival event, about his famous screenplay, now held up by many as the model for screenplays.
But I didn’t know the mood, and I wasn’t prepared for how unsettling it would be.
It’s interesting that critics at the time of the film’s 1974 release seem mostly interested in its period setting—something that wouldn’t really have occurred to me to remark upon today, except in passing. Roger Ebert wrote that “it accepts its conventions and categories at face value and doesn’t make them the object of satire or filter them through a modern sensibility,” as Altman had done with The Long Goodbye. In the New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, unfortunately, that “Robert Towne . . . is good but I’m not sure he’s good enough to compete with the big boys.”
That unsettling sudden dislocation—the bad cutting through what seems good, or at least banal—marks the film, beginning with the scene in which J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is sitting in the town hall meeting half-listening to a man drone on about reservoirs up front. The film to this point has set itself up as classic noir, complete with the shade from the blinds cast in the first scene with the woman who says she’s Evelyn Mulwray; so far it’s all misdirection. But things start getting weird, and soon Gittes finds out he’s been had. Mulwray turns up dead, Gittes discovers stealth streams of water in the literal desert, and Mrs. Mulwray turns out to be Faye Dunaway.
The hallmark contrast between shadow and sunshine recurs throughout the film. Scientists who study laughter suggest that we laugh at things that startle or surprise us; incongruity is often funny, which partly accounts for how hilarious The Long Goodbye is, from its very premise, which drops an anachronistic Marlowe into contemporary L.A. Chinatown. It is subtler about its farce, but it’s still built in, so it’s no surprise that I laughed through a lot of Chinatown—as when, for instance, the fight in the unlikely orange grove occurs.
But the line between creepy and funny lasts all the way until it gets to be obviously creepy. Probably the most prominent example is the bandage on and, later, spiky stitches in Nicholson’s nose, though Ebert called it “the kind of incongruity that’s creepy and not funny.” Eventually it’s just creepy (“My sister! My daughter!”) and tragic, in an ending scripted by Polanski. Comedy turns to terror. Light fades and disappears. Our (anti)heroes walk away into darkness.
All this put me in mind of the novelist Cormac McCarthy, who tends to throw one moment of blinding and unexpected terror into his deadpan delivery that shifts the mood of the entire novel. For instance, anyone who reads All the Pretty Horses (though it’s set in Texas and Mexico, not L.A.) never forgets the moment when John Grady Cole quietly builds a fire, superheats his pistol—and then shoves it into the wound on his leg to cauterize it. The element of surprise is key, and from then on, the story—which to this point had been by turns romantic, comic, and adventurous—turns tragic to the end. It leaves Cole dislocated from his former life, unable to live normally ever again.
I know there’s a sequel to Chinatown. But the 1974 audience didn’t, and so there is some reason to imagine Gittes—who at the film’s start was successful and relatively cheerful—won’t be able to “forget it” at all. One surprising and serious brush with death and darkness, even in the sunshine, and you can’t really go back.
Next up: The Silence of the Lambs.