AFI Top 100: Chinatown (1974)

The fourth in a series reviewing the American Film Institute Top 100 in random order.

“Of course I’m respectable; I’m old. Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” – John Huston as Noah Cross


One thing I struggle with as a film buff is separating the films I love from the personal lives of the artists involved in making them. Rationally, I like to think I can divorce the two. After all, I don’t care a whit about whether my grocer or mechanic are good people or not, so long as the tomatoes are fresh and my oil drain plug gets put back in. Shouldn’t I treat actors and directors with the same indifference? With film though, and music to a lesser extent, the personal lives of the artists have a greater impact on whether I’m going to like their output or not. No matter how much I enjoy The Beaver (a movie EVERYONE should see at least once), I can’t quite look at Mel Gibson without seeing a raving ant-Semite. Mark Wahlberg, awesome though he is in The Departed, will always be the guy who beat a man unconscious and permanently blind while yelling racial epithets. As bad as they are, Roman Polanski manages to put both of those two reprobates to shame. If you’ve never had a chance to read the court documents associated with the case, they are not for the squeamish. If someone you know has ever tried to defend him by referring to the crime he committed as, “just sex with an underage girl,” that person is lying to you. Polanski is, by any reasonable measure, a monster. When I saw that I’d be watching one of his films as part of this project, I wondered if I’d be able to separate the artist from his art. I was pleasantly surprised that about twenty minutes into this film, I’d stopped worrying about Polanski’s crimes altogether. This is a supremely engrossing film.

Essentially, it’s a classic film noir, complete with the hard-boiled private investigator (Jack Nicholson, before he made a habit of playing a caricature of himself), a truly seductive femme fatale (Faye Dunaway) for whom lying seems more natural than telling the truth, and a villain so morally bankrupt, he makes the director’s transgressions seem innocuous by comparison. There are double-crosses around every turn, dirty cops, corrupt politicians… This film has it all. The plot is a little convoluted, as it will be in any good noir, though I never felt like important facts were being deliberately kept from me. The story is just told from Nicholson’s point of view, so we’re left to find out things at the same time he does. Compared to The Maltese Falcon, it’s not quite as funny, though Nicholson does get to deliver a few zingers here and there. It’s also not nearly as subdued, though that could result from being filmed in color and set in Los Angeles. Another thing of note was the costume design, just spectacular, with 1930s-era suits abounding. Someday, I’ll own a pair of walnut and cream spectators like Nicholson wore in this film. They are the very definition of cool.

I’m a firm believer in the auteur theory of film, which basically holds that the director is the author of the film, that it is his or her creative vision that gives the film its final shape. As such, the success of this film, its mood, its pacing, the score, the excellent performances by those involved (even Burt Young, in a small but revealing role), all reflect back on Polanski’s direction. I’d call it an unqualified success, and absolutely deserving of its eleven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. It’s saying something that I can now recommend a film made by a man I find so morally loathsome.

Recently, there’s been some debate over the movie adaptation of Orson Scott Card‘s sci-fi classic Ender’s Game. This is a literary touchstone for many fans of science fiction and fantasy writing, though one I managed to miss out on, even though I was 15 the year it was published and it was aimed at my demographic. The problem isn’t with the questionable morality and resulting violence displayed in the book, though. Rather, it’s the author’s support, both financial and rhetorical, of numerous anti-equality groups and measures around the country. In the lead-up to the Supreme Court’s rulings on DOMA and Proposition 8, Card was a vocal opponent of equality for gays. In response, gay rights advocacy group Geeks OUT! called for a boycott of the film. It isn’t scheduled for release until this November, so I don’t know yet whether it will be a success or not. If it isn’t, though, it will be hard to argue that the original work’s author had something to do with it. Card is most likely a homophobe, certainly a bigot, and has somehow managed to play the victim when his team lost the marriage equality battle. Does knowing that he is, by most accounts, the douchiest of douchebags take away from the quality of his work? I used to think yes, but considering I was able to get a lot out of Polanski’s Chinatown, today I’d be inclined to judge Ender’s Game on its own merits.


Up next in the queue, 1965′s The Sound of Music, in which our hero ponders the presence of Nazis in musicals.

Click here for an Index of my AFI Top 100 movie reviews.

125 comments on “AFI Top 100: Chinatown (1974)

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    If tangents were an Olympic sport great blog on a great film. A coplue of spoilers in there though! John Huston was the director of the original definitive film noirs like The Maltese Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle and Key Largo, so having him play Noah Cross made Chinatown the ultimate homage to the genre. Other great neo-noirs I can think of are LA Confidential and The Crying Game (a great film not just for its famous twist).

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