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.  

7/3/17 I watched Richard Rush's Freebie and the Bean.  A movie that had never hit my radar until about a week ago even though it stars James Caan and Alan Arkin and was made during my favorite period of American film, the Seventies.  The Stunt Man was the only movie I had seen by Rush, and though it had a huge reputation, it never meant very much to me.  Freebie is a bit of a challenge, a loose, messy installment in the buddy cop movie that cares less for plot and narrative logic and more for feel and character.  It has great feel, for instance, for San Francisco and shows us areas of the city I don't feel I have ever seen before on film.  And it has great feel for character.  The bond between Freebie and Bean is deep and most remarkable is that Rush makes us feel the bond simply by having us hang out with them for a couple of hours.  

7/8/17 I watched Peter Hyams' Busting.  Another installment in the 70's buddy cop movie that is mostly noteworthy in how far it pushes the nudity in certain scenes and as a spin-off on the formula that worked so well for The French Connection.  

7/21/17 I watched Joseph Sargent's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.  Shire's music swings and Matthau pitted against Robert Shaw is never a terrible thing but it never fully grabbed hold of me in any way.  

10/1/17 I watched John Sturges' McQ.  A decently interesting noir with a good Elmer Bernstein theme.  It feels like a moderately achieved hybrid of Bullitt and The French Connection.  

10/7/17 I watched Jean Eustache's Mes Petites Amoureuses.  I have long been a fan of Eustache's The Mother and the Whore but have had some difficulty tracking down the rest of his work.  And I just took a quick peek at Wikipedia and had no idea this was his only other feature.  I knew he had committed suicide young but never knew he only ever made just two features (and a good number of shorts).   This film is extraordinary, capturing a thing that I never before seen captured on film.  The best way I can describe it is the very early awakening of the male interest in females.  It gets into the awkwardness but more than that it gets into the deep yearning and romantic creation that goes in the head of many young boys.  There are a number of flat out brilliant sequences including Daniel's first imaginings while on a train and his encounter with the young girl Francoise in the neighboring town.  

11/4/17 I watched Abbas Kiarostami's The Traveler.  In its one track pursuit and its tunnel focus on the young main character, it feels like a black and white predecessor to Where is the Friend's Home.  It is quintessential Kiarostami in its lyricism, its softness, its feel for the land and its rhythms.  A couple of scenes, like the photography session in the schoolyard, rank as Kiarostami at his most inventive and most cinematic.  Kiarostami would later become a little more rigorous with his filmmaking, longer takes, less music but already in this, his first film over an hour, he announces himself as a great, new humanistic force in the medium.

5/27/18 I watched Luis Bunuel's The Phantom of Liberty.  One of Bunuel's most free-flowing and "liberated" films is pure sexual and unpredictable fun.  There are a number of all-time great moments but for me it was the unconventional dinner party and the final sequence at the zoo.  Bunuel's key themes are still there - anti-establishment, anti-Catholic church, surrrealistic flights of fancy - but the contemporary setting gives them a lightness and impact that I have rarely felt while watching his other work.  

10/20/19 I watched Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.  I still am not all that familiar with Fassbinder's work with this only being the third or fourth of his films that I have seen.  But of what I have seen this one impressed me the most.  It is unusually artful in its framing and exquisitely attuned to the evolving feelings between a new couple.  It is restrained, uncompromising and rigorous in all of the best of ways.

3/31/20 I watched Jacques Tati's Parade.  I will admit - I do not know all that Tati is saying in the last feature of his career.  But there is a magic and an otherness about it (I cannot think of any other movie like it) that give it a power.  The way it is shot, with the performers alone from one angle and the crowd in the background of another, suggests the loneliness of performance and the circus-like world that feeds it.  It feels like a celebration of the entertainer and a moving summation of Tati's unique abilities and perspective.

5/8/21 I watched Gordon Parks Jr's Thomasine & Bushrod.  More interesting than fully involving as an African-American variant of Bonnie and Clyde.  

6/6/21 I watched Mostafa Derkaoui's About Some Meaningless Events.  Interesting in that it might be one of the first Moroccan films I have seen.  It strikes me as this mix between Rouch's Chronicle of a Summer and early Kiarostami but without the esthetic force of either.

11/7/22 I watched Martin Davidson and Stephen Verona's The Lords of Flatbush.  Stallone steals the film with a few remarkable scenes where he lets his guard down and shows that he's got real acting chops.  Overall, a bit meandering and we never feel deeply connected to anyone but fun to see for any Stallone or American New Wave completist.


  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!

  19. I find your comments on the two buddy cop movies listed interesting. I think busting is the better movie in terms of atmosphere, tension and direction. Quite minimal in style. It is buddy cop film without the laughter. There is a scene where they are doing surveillance in a mens rest room as punishment and while is it is funny pedericment it is ultimately depressing like most of the scenes. It is a film that captures not getting any thanks for doing the job that they do even within the force very well.

    Freebie as you said is a mess, completely all over the shop but more so on purpose. It has more detail on the buddy side. It is like they are in love with each other and hate each other like a marriage. Also with both films they have that nasty quality of the cops acting like thugs and being homophobic and sexist while being portrayed as good guys. Even though both sets are cops imo are good they are deeply flawed.

    1. Thanks so much for the comment. There was a series at the Parisian Cinematheque that included both of these films and that was really the first time they hit my radar. Let me see if I can find that program again and post it as it was very interesting.


  21. Thank you Jeffery, i do find police, crime films,noirs appealing like yourself. I was meaning to actually talk about woman under the influence but got sidetracked. Watched it a few days ago for the 2nd time after a few years and it hit me more emotionally but still liked it first time around. Such a raw,powerful,realistic film.
    Thanks for the link and the great blog.

    1. Thanks so much for the words. Truthfully I don't know if I have ever seen Woman Under the Influence in its entirety. I've seen most of Cassavetes' work and definitely need to see that one.