On ‘Chinatown,’ and engaging with problematic figures in the modern era — Ultimate Movie Year

Jack Nicholson’s investigation leads him down the rabbit hole in 1974’s “Chinatown.” (Paramount Pictures/MovieStillsDB.com)

The perversion of power and abuse in “Chinatown” — and how it’s eventually resolved — is one of the film’s shocks that stays with us long after the final line is uttered.

“Chinatown”
Released June 20, 1974
Directed by Roman Polanski
Where to Watch

CW: Discussions of sexual and physical abuse, including rape

“Cancel culture.” Two words have become incredibly controversial as cultural forces argue about who’s allowed to have power and freedom. The volume and frequency have increased to the point where people just use cancel culture as a buzzword to gain support and excuse themselves from talking through the issue. Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

But it does leave those of us who like to think and deliberate about something before voicing an opinion a bit dizzy from all the shouting. At what point do the powerful cross the line that we must hold them to account? And do their sins automatically disqualify all the work that they’ve done?

Director Roman Polanski is one of Hollywood’s more publicly problematic figures in the industry’s entire history. Nobody questions his talent behind the camera, as he’s helmed multiple movies with a superior level of craft to unnerve audiences. But his personal life is filled with horrific acts, both committed to him and by him. Polanski’s French-Polish family was forever impacted by World War II when his parents were taken to concentration camps while he escaped capture by the Nazis. His mother was killed, but his father survived. Polanski reunited with his father after the war and began studying cinema.

In the 60s, Polanski began working as a director, filming projects throughout Europe. Later that decade, he moved to the United States to film “Rosemary’s Baby.” He met and married an American actress, Sharon Tate, who became pregnant. While Polanski was filming a project in Europe in 1969, members of the Charles Manson family cult broke into their house and brutally murdered Tate, her unborn child, and four other people. Polanski described his absence at home as the greatest regret of his life.

Eight years later, Polanski was arrested in Los Angeles for drugging and raping a 12-year-old girl. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, but when he learned the presiding judge might throw out his plea for a harsher sentence, Polanski fled to Europe in 1978. He’s remained ever since, eluding extradition claims by moving through certain countries and continuing to work on new films.

The story of Polanski tells us how the powerless can suffer and how the powerful can escape accountability. It’s a theme that predominates Polanski’s 1974 film, “Chinatown.” Jack Nicholson stars as Jake Gittes, a 1930s private investigator working out of Los Angeles. Gittes is hired by a woman, who identifies herself as Evelyn Mulwray, to follow her husband Hollis, whom she suspects of having an affair. Gittes tracks down Hollis, the chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Power and Water. Hollis is photographed talking to a young girl, but Gittes spends more time watching him putter around the dry reservoirs of Los Angeles, which is going through a drought. The day after, Gittes is confronted by the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), who blasts him for putting her family’s affairs on the newspaper’s front page. Soon afterward, Hollis’s dead body is found after drowning. Feeling like a fool about the entire case, Gittes is determined to trace the mystery of why he was hired to investigate Hollis in the first place.

Taken on its own, “Chinatown” is an astonishingly layered and haunting film worthy of all the accolades it has received since its release. The movie works on multiple levels, putting first-time viewers firmly in the shoes of Gittes as he tries to work the clues of this baffling mystery. Once all of the cards of the film are revealed, watching “Chinatown” again shows new insight and context in every scene. Polanski and cinematographer John A. Alonzo took much of the style of old-school film noir and updated it with the modern technique of the 70s, creating a unique visual experience.

It’s also a fascinating movie to watch if you only know Nicholson from movies like “The Shining” and “Batman.” This is not the “crazy like a fox” persona that’s become his public personality. His Gittes is a grounded portrayal of an arrogant but decent investigator, giving the audience the impression that he’s five steps ahead of everybody when he’s usually 10 steps behind. Dunaway is also excellent, finding ways to thread many emotional needles as the mysterious Evelyn, a performance that only becomes clear once we learn her entire story. The heavy in “Chinatown” is Evelyn’s father, Noah Cross, played by acclaimed director John Huston. Cross is a malevolent presence throughout the entire story, infecting the lives of everyone from afar. Once Gittes confronts Cross about the mystery he unravels, Cross reminds the investigator about his considerable resources.

“Why are you doing it?” Gittes says. “How much can you eat? What can you buy that you can’t already afford?”

“The future, Mr. Gittes,” Cross replies.

Huston’s role in “Chinatown” feels like the changing of the guard. As a director, Huston was behind classics like “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” and “The African Queen.” As a man, he was a member of a showbiz family (including daughter Angelica Huston) that essentially made him Hollywood royalty. On the other hand, Polanski was a member of the New Hollywood filmmakers and actors who studied, mastered, and advanced the medium in the late 60s and early 70s while socializing with each other in Los Angeles. From one perspective, Gittes pushing back against the existing power structures in Los Angeles can also be the story of ambitious, artistically-driven filmmakers trying to upend the Hollywood studio system.

The result was the same.

Robert Towne won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for “Chinatown,” the only win out of 11 nominations. He was inspired to write the screenplay after wandering around Los Angeles, nostalgic for the early days of the city, and realized much of the look and architecture of the 1930s was still visible. Both the histories of noir and the city itself infested Towne’s mind.

“I hadn’t really read Raymond Chandler at that point, so I started reading Chandler,” Towne told interviewer Alex Smith in 2013. “While I was there at the University of Oregon, I checked out a book from the library called ‘Southern California Country: Island on the Land.’ In it was a chapter called ‘Water, water, water,’ which was a revelation to me. And I thought, ‘Why not do a picture about a crime that’s right out in front of everybody. Instead of a jewel-encrusted falcon, make it something as prevalent as water faucets, and make a conspiracy out of that. And after reading about what they were doing, dumping water and starving the farmers out of their land, I realized the visual and dramatic possibilities were enormous. So that was really the beginning of it.”

“Chinatown” was a commercial hit — grossing $29.2 million during its original run — and an acclaimed favorite, scoring a 99 percent approval rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. Still, not everybody was thrilled upon its release.

“Mr. Polanski and Mr. Towne have attempted nothing so witty and entertaining, being content instead to make a competently stylish, more or less thirtyish movie that continually made me wish I were back seeing ‘The Maltese Falcon’ or ‘The Big Sleep,’” wrote Vincent Canby for The New York Times. “Others may not be as finicky.”

The perversion of power and abuse in “Chinatown” — and how it’s eventually resolved — is one of the film’s shocks that stays with us long after the final line is uttered. This brings us back to Polanski and the reality of how he used his own power and influence to escape accountability for his crimes against women. It’s disturbing that Polanski has continued to work with the premier talents of Hollywood decades afterward despite the public charges. He even won an Academy Award for Best Director for 2002’s “The Pianist,” which he did not show up for (because he’d be immediately arrested upon setting foot in the country). Still, He received a standing ovation from the assembled film industry.

Now we’re aware of how sexual abuse ran unabated in Hollywood and in many other professions, although justice still is elusive. Polanski is just one of many who’s taken advantage of their positions to abuse others. How do we engage with the work these abusers have done? At what point can we no longer separate the art from the artist? And in a collaborative medium like film, how can we as viewers — consumers of art and entertainment — punish the abuser without affecting the fortunes of everybody else who worked on a project?

The answer to these questions is different for everyone. I’m fortunate to have led a relatively privileged life where engaging with these stories doesn’t trigger the trauma others have faced, but it still bothers me. I’ve generally avoided spotlighting movies that originated from an abuser or bigot, because there are plenty more works to celebrate.

And yet, the themes of “Chinatown” continue to resonate as a seminal work. If we as a culture eliminate Polanski and his work from our conversations because of his past as an abuser, we are also removing one of the great artworks that deal with that very subject. It’s a painful paradox, but in my opinion, necessary to keep within our cinematic canon as one of the most critical and essential works in film history. That doesn’t mean every acclaimed work should remain on our various “Best Movies” lists, but that is up to the individual. If enough people feel one way and are motivated to change the conversation, maybe real change can begin.

Reckoning with the work of abusers will continue to be difficult, but as we weigh and reconsider what this art means to us, realize that it can also open the door to other works that perhaps haven’t received the recognition they deserved. Maybe others feel we don’t need to canonize “Chinatown” or “Annie Hall,” and if we reshuffle the canon, there can be room for “Get Out,” “Little Women,” or another masterpiece you think deserves to be elevated.

Separating the art from the artist is always easier than it sounds, and sometimes knowing about the history of the creator makes particular works impossible to engage with. For me, there is plenty of culture I once loved that has been diminished by the acts of the creator, leaving me with no appetite to revisit these works. But these moments are also opportunities to discover new work to fill in the vacuum while being mindful of our past mistakes. Celebrate the artist without compromising ourselves, and save the worship for the art.

Next Week: “Blade Runner”

Originally published at https://www.ultimatemovieyear.com on June 24, 2021.

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Mark Ciemcioch

Mark Ciemcioch

Movie enthusiast. Follow and subscribe for exclusive content!

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