Friday, March 26, 2010

1974: Chinatown (Roman Polanski)

1974: Chinatown (Roman Polanski)
I'm not a writer.  I probably will never be a writer.  But if I were, I would want my movies to sound like Robert Towne.  During his run from Bonnie and Clyde to Shampoo, Towne operated in a zone of moviespeak nirvana.  Working somewhere between the literary and spoken word, his dialogue was sharper than the way we speak yet close enough to our rhythms and words as to be utterly recognizable.   

Don't get me wrong, I think Roman Polanski is an extraordinary filmmaker.  But when I'm honest about why I like Chinatown so much, I have to give just as much credit to Towne.  Not only does he manage to create one of the very best of all the noir stories, but somehow he's able to work in a history of Los Angeles at the same time.  

The look of the film actually doesn't blow me away.  The magic for me, aside from Towne's work, is in the casting (the choice of John Huston has to rival the genius of Brando in The Godfather), the locations, Jerry Goldsmith's incredible score, and Nicholson's dead-on performance. And the ending.  Probably my favorite in the history of the medium.

As someone who loves noir and will probably make more of them in his career, this one is a bit of a thorn.  I just feel like no matter what I or anyone else does, you can't really top it.  

Other contenders for 1974:  I still have quite a few titles to see.  These include: Robert Altman's Thieves Like Us, Jean Eustache's Mes Petites Amoureuses, Werner Herzog's The Mystery of Kasper Hauser, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Maurice Pialat's La gueule ouverte, Robert Bresson's Lancelot du Lac, John Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence, Monte Hellman's Cockfighter, Louis Malle's Lacombe, Lucien, Abbas Kiarostami's The Traveller, Alain Resnais' Stavisky..., Joseph Sargent's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, and Peter Watkins' Edvard Munch.  I need to revisit both Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein and Jacques Rivette's Celine and Julie Go Boating as it's been too long since I've seen either of them to know where they'd place on this list.  From this year though, I really like Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Orson Welles' F for Fake, and Karel Reisz's The Gambler.  I love Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation and The Godfather: Part II, as well as Robert Altman's California Split and Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise.  And my closest runner-up is Wim Wenders' Alice in the Cities.  

6/12/11 I watched Robert Altman's Thieves Like Us. At times, the most sexual of all the Altman pics I've seen and certainly one of the most interesting. Feels like a movie that Altman really cares about; it's extremely unconventional stylistically, just like McCabe, and in a strange way it almost feels like a precursor to the free-form style Michael Mann would take on with Collateral, Miami Vice, and especially Public Enemies. An Altman film I would need to re-visit as it feels extraordinarily complex. And if it's such a cliche at this point that Hollywood doesn't make 'em like they once did during that special period in the seventies then this film is as much an example as any.

10/16/11 I watched Maurice Pialat's La gueule ouverte.  Who is Maurice Pialat and what makes him special as a filmmaker?  Some have called him the French Cassavetes.  But I think that tag is a bit misleading.  Pialat, like Bresson, was a painter first before trying his hand at film, and his work is much more visually striking than that of Cassavetes.  Where their paths converge is in their raw approach, lack of music, and predilection for loose, extremely natural performances.  Pialat only made ten features in his career, and this is the sixth that I have seen.  It's the one time he collaborated with the masterful cameraman, Nestor Almendros, and the partnership lends poetry and lyricism to Pialat's heavy, uncompromising cinema.  I think this is one of (if not) the strongest film(s) of Pialat that I have seen.  And I hardly ever throw the word out there, but I think this film is a masterpiece.  


  1. Jeffrey, I know I am among the only people on the planet who don't adore CHINATOWN. I love Polanski, but oddly this film for me has always been cold, distancing and convoluted. I've since met a few others who have felt the same way, but most like yourself find it utterly brilliant, a position I greatly respect.

    This year has several masterful entries, with my #1 and #2 ranking among the cinema's greatest achievements at any time.

    My #1 Film of 1974:

    Celine et Julie von en Bateau (Rivette; France)


    The Godfather Part II (Coppola; USA)
    Edvard Munch (Watkins; UK)
    Xala (Sembene; Kenya)
    Female Trouble (Waters; USA)
    Lancelot de Luc (Bresson; France)
    Lacombe Lucien (Malle; France)
    The Mirror (Tarkovsky; Russia)
    Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Gilliam; UK)
    The Conversation (Coppola; USA)
    Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder; Germany)

  2. Sam, I remember reading that you didn't like this one very much. I think we all have those movies that just don't click for us, even though everyone else is running around touting their glory. I completely understand that position.

    I look forward to revisiting the Rivette. I only saw it once, and it was during college from a god-awful print.

    Thanks, Sam. Always wonderful to have your perspective here!

  3. Boy, is this a tough year. As I alluded to you in an earlier post, GODFATHER II would come in at #1 this year because it is my second favorite film of all time, right behind THE CONFORMIST.

    THE CONVERSATION would be tied with CHINATOWN for second place, though. And if you like FRENCH CONNECTION, you have to see THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE which has a great score in that vein, even though it feels more like a Lumet movie a la DOG DAY AFTERNOON.

  4. Nice entry on one of the great films from any year.

    Have you read Thomson's The Whole Equation? He is obsessed with the telling of LA history in this Chinatown. Quite interesting.

    Also, since you mention casting, I am surprised you left off Dunaway, who in my opinion steals the whole film as Evelyn Mulwray.

    thanks, p zee

  5. Tony, great to hear from you! This is yet another exceptional year, it seems. Yeah, I definitely need to see the Sargent film and plan to do something about that soon.

    Thanks for the great comments. Always a treat to have you here!

  6. Peter, hey great to hear from you. I haven't read that Thomson book, but it sounds like a keeper. I'll definitely look to track it down.

    As for Dunaway, you're right. I should have mentioned her. She's wonderful in this, as complex and cunning as they come. I'm not sure she steals the film for me (I really adore Nicholson and Huston in this), but she's certainly in the mix with them.

    Thanks for the great comments! Wonderful to have you here.

  7. “Chinatown” is one of the great neo-noir’s. As you mention, a great script by Towne. It is a bit convoluted as Sam mentions but for me that does not distract from the greatness of this work. For me though “The Godfather 2”, along with “The Godfather” are two of the supreme works in modern American film. As others have mentioned, 1974 was a terrific year with a multitude of wonderful films, Coppola hitting the top of the charts twice!

    #1 The Godfather 2


    The Conversation
    Edvard Munch
    Young Frankenstein
    Lacombe Lucien
    Thieves Like Us
    The Last Detail
    Alice Dosen’t live Here Anymore
    Blazing Saddles
    The Sugarland Express
    Wedding in Blood

  8. Jeffrey, I'm another one who just doesn't respond to Chinatown despite being a noir enthusiast and a Polanski fan. Can't explain it; just can't get into it. This is Coppola's year: Godfather Part 2 and Conversation lead the field for me. From your to-do list I recommend Lacombe, Lucien, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and Cockfighter.

  9. I've never been among the camp that rates the sequel above the original, but THE GODFATHER PART II is damn close. It is, once again, easily my #1 for this year. Coppola also has my #2 for the year, THE CONVERSATION, which narrowly beats out your own selection of CHINATOWN. This really is a heck of a year in cinema.

  10. John, great to hear from you! From your list, I still need to see THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS and WEDDING IN BLOOD. I like Lenny although a little less than the ones I mentioned. And BLAZING SADDLES is one I need to revisit. It's been too long since I've seen it to know where it'd place on the list.

    Thanks, John. Always a treat to hear from you!

  11. Thanks, Samuel! I completely understand how certain films just don't connect. I have a few like that myself.

    I appreciate the great comments. Always awesome to have you here!

  12. Thanks, Dave. I too slightly prefer the first GODFATHER to the second. But it's a close call.

    I appreciate the great comments. Always a treat to have you here!

  13. I have to say I am pretty shocked no one has mentioned one of my favorite movies of all time and easily my favorite of '74: Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia. It's the best movie Peckinpah ever made starring my all-time favorite actor Warren Oates in possibly his best performance (it's a toss-up between this and Two-Lane Blacktop). It's a crazed battle-cry of a genre picture (although what genre I'm not sure), as violent as it is tender. Its mantra "nobody loses all the time" has gotten me through more tough times in my life than any other line.

  14. Doniphon, great to hear from you! I completely respect your position on ALFREDO GARCIA. For some reason though, it's one I need to continue to revisit. I've seen it a couple of times now, and it's never really impacted me for some reason, even though I completely love THE WILD BUNCH and CABLE HOGUE. But I know the film has a whole slew of admirers and that I'm in a great minority with this one.

    Always a treat to have your perspective here! Thanks.

  15. Man, this is a tough year between this film and GODFATHER PART 2, THE CONVERSATION and BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA. I think if push came to shove I'd have to go with GODFATHER 'cos, y'know, you can't take sides against the family.

    Nevertheless, CHINATOWN is a masterpiece and a brilliant piece of writing. Hell, it fires on every other cylinder as well - directing, acting, cinematography, Jerry Goldsmith's amazing score! I started going through some of the extras on the Special Edition that came out a while ago and quite enjoyed David Fincher's commentary with Robert Towne if only to hear the director geek out over this film.

  16. JD, great to hear from you! That Fincher/Towne commentary sounds fantastic. I'll have to look into it.

    Thanks for the CHINATOWN love, JD. Always a treat to have you here!

  17. I gotta say that I consider 1974 one of the best (if not *the* best) years in film. Most everybody here has already mentioned the best titles. I'd add two more: Welles' F for Fake and De Palma's The Phantom of the Paradise. Really, Kubrick was probably the only major filmmaker who didn't participate in this great year.

  18. Adam, great to hear from you! I mentioned the Welles film in my 1973 post. But I made a mistake in not mentioning one of my favorite De Palma films. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I'm adding it to the post now.

    Thanks, Adam. Always great to have you here!