Upon its release in 1974, Chinatown was billed as “neo-noir.” No one in Paramount publicity bothered to define this term, but the implications are that, in light of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, it was a more wised-up version of the genre that begat The Big Sleep and Maltese Falcon. This was totally unnecessary, even conceited. Noir, of the written variety, was born out of an equally disillusioned period, post World War I. The preceding era had promised so much—a war to end all wars, worlds made safe for democracy, utopia, harnessed to government management by intellectuals, was just around the corner. What was delivered was a war that wiped out a whole generation of young males (war widows was just one of the terms, along with shell shock and wrist-watch, created by World War I), imperialistic land grabs by the victorious parties at Versailles, smouldering revenge in Germany, and vicious dictatorship emerging in Russia. In America, the country least affected by the war, the after-shocks were no less severe. After this war to make the democratic promises real, liquor, a commodity available to Americans since they were colonists, was now forbidden by the federal government and gave a steroid-like boost to organized crime; Eugene Debs, an antiwar critic, was jailed for merely speaking out; citizens reactivated the Klan; and the government was even more in bed with big business than before.
The reaction was to create a counterculture, both of the mind, and of the lifestyle. It was an era where the Marx Brothers lampooned the goyish upper class, H.L Mencken mocked the flag-wavers and presidents, women smoked and petted and danced—and a former union-busting Pinkerton named Dashiell Hammett and a former trench soldier and oil executive named Raymond Chandler set to type an America where the “law was where you buy it.”
What more relevant decade for the 1970s, itself hung over from the Kennedy assassination (another promise-making president), Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers, the Mansons?
But what screenwriter Robert Towne set out consciously to do was not connect the eras; it was instead to capture a time period in a bottle:
“I began to realize and reflect upon how much I felt had been lost about the city in the intervening 30-35 years. ’37 was just beyond my recall, but the ‘40s weren’t, and pre-1945 they were basically the same thing…The one feeling I had was a desire to try and recreate the city.”
Towne was hip-deep in the counterculture (he would script Shampoo for Warren Beatty) and appalled at the environmental damage to his state. He sought to track back to where it began and found his guide of course in Raymond Chandler.
Chandler was hardly an environmentalist (but he did have his own counterculture of bootleg liquor and séances), but he saw through everything—capitalism, Hollywoodism, liberalism, communism (unlike Hammett, Chandler had no illusions about Stalin and saw communism as“just as corrupt at the Catholic Church”). A more reliable guide could not have been more imagined for something more than a mere trip down memory lane.
Towne and Polanski and the costume designers were able to recreate that era of roadsters and Japanese gardeners. But in capturing 1937, Towne had achieved more than just the cosmetic. He caught the unique corruption of California, an area out West the founding fathers had instructed us to flee to when the corruption of the city was too intense. Those expecting all that land and ocean giving democracy (and themselves) a second chance—from the Joads to Chandler—were disabused.
What they found in all that golden sunshine were movie moguls partnering with mobsters and bought cops, land barons with their own private police force. The literary response from Chandler and Hammett and Nathaniel West (who showed how easily that movie-smitten fans could turn into a fascist mob) was to accept the ugliness and that the powers-that-be would always get away with it. Aside from alcohol, Samuel Spade and Phillip Marlowe coped by adhering to their own personal code. They drew lines in the sand that they would never cross; the former would not have femme fatales play him for the sap, the latter wouldn’t do divorce work.
All of this seemed a cliché by the time Robert Towne’s script was shootable and Jack Nicolson was on board, but in the America of the 1930s and post-World War II period it was fresh and ironic. Gallantry was still expected and with Spade turning over his true love for the murder of a partner he hated was a shock. Marlowe took a while to catch on. Written before and during World War II, Chandler’s guide through America’s underbelly seemed inappropriate for the One World idealism on the home front. By the time the hangover from it set in though, his vision of an America with bought cops and homicidal bitches was a wonderful outlet for all concerned (which may explain why both the blacklisted like Dalton Trumbo and angry Cold Warriors like Micky Spillane could contribute to the genre).
Film noir hit is high-water mark by the 1950s. By the early 1970s, the machismo of a Bogart or an Alan Ladd was suspect, viewed as the kind of overcompensation that landed us in the quagmire of Vietnam. Towne did try to escape the confines of noir by having the evil, incestucious land-raper Noah Cross murdered by his victimized daughter. But Polanski, whose mother and relatives died in the showers of concentration camps, knew better and famously overruled his writer; Cross triumphs and literally and figuratively gets the girl.
At first glance, all the scramble over water rights seems to provoke a yawn. But Towne had put his script in the realities of 1930s LA, where such a commodity was worth all the buy-offs and murder. He also placed his main character, Nicolson’s J.J Gittes, in the real-life mould of private eyes. Unlike Marlowe, Gittes does do divorce work and profits quite nicely from it.
If there is a steroid to the conventional noir, it is Gittes. He is figure that hypnotically holds all the fuss together. In private eye fiction, the main character is rarely this curiosity-inspiring; Sam Spade is simply a bastard and Marlowe a decent man trying to navigate through a corrupt world. But they don’t provoke the questions Gittes does? Why does a former cop (and he is that, evidenced by the time-honored close combat techniques of using an opponent’s own coat to entrap them) have such a cultivated manner? Words like “métier” pepper his speech as much as cop-like profanity. Did he read T.S Eliot in the patrol wagon? What event sent him from one of the most right-wing police (the LAPD had a bulging Red Squad) forces in Depression-era America to decorating his office with an FDR portrait?
Towne wisely gives us hints of the turning point (a woman he tried to save in Chinatown died) but never the whole picture; merely a repeat. Unlike Marlowe, Gittes’ attempts at decency ensure the intended’s doom. Faye Dunaway might have escaped with her daughter/sister had not Gittes helped.
The noir does get further accelerated by having Gittes receive the requisite warning away beating. Unlike Spade and Marlowe, who at most have bruises, Gittes is temporarily disfigured. His grotesque nose bandage takes us as much screen time as his fedora. He is a human punching bag throughout, from knife-wielding neurotics, bent cops and angry Oakies.
Outwardly Gittes resembles Hammett’s description of Sam Spade (no one has ever looked more like a “pleasant-looking Satan” than Jack Nicolson). But he is a sharp dresser whose clothes fit him well and he does not engage in the homophobic victories Spade inflicts on people. Unlike Spade, he is not out for a buck. He allows a truck driver client to pay when he can. And he cautions the fake Mrs. Mulray that the investigation she wants “would be hard on the pocketbook.”
“You’re better off not knowing,” he advises, and so too is Gittes as it turns out.
Chinatown remains timeless not because of any conscious homage (the presence of John Huston , the director of the Maltese Falcon, and Dianne Ladd, daughter of noir actor Alan Ladd are not there because of any conscious tips of the hat to the forties; they are merely good actors), but its refusal to engage in camp or politically pontificating about Watergate among art deco trappings. It is compelling because it is a true mystery not afraid to embrace noir, no matter how outdated or clichéd this seemed in 1974.