joshmatthews’s review published on Letterboxd:
Tough to review an “American classic” because of expectations.
First, I tried but could not shake all the LA Noir I’ve read. Easy starters there: Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald. The latter is a master, too much so, and despite raves about this screenplay, its mysteries aren’t hard to figure nor as provocative or salacious as MacDonald’s work.
It’s not fair to compare a film to another medium, yet Chinatown wouldn’t exist without the prior 40+ years of noirs, on page and on screen. Because it is focused on the impossible-to-escape past, it necessitates a glance backwards at what birthed it. (SPOILERS COMING.)
The film marries the personal and the political masterfully, and once again it reminds me of Marc Reisner’s great book “Cadillac Desert,” about how government shenanigans created the Western US desert cities via water theft. That plus the incest plot asks us to consider the twisted origin stories of the oasis cities of LA, and probably by extension Las Vegas and a bunch of others.
Twisted origins, with two ways to look at them, so the movie says repeatedly. You’ve got the naive shiny side of things — the one side of Jake Geddes’ face that is unmaimed and Jack-Nicholson handsome. The other side of the origin is bloody awful, the side of Nicholson’s face that’s been cut and busted up. This image comes up a bunch. The bifocals have one side busted and one side pristine. Geedes knocks out one taillight in a car, leaving one side light and one side dark. I could go on.
Geddes, as the noir detectives are wont to do, pursues via curiosity and his harmed reputation the twisted side of things. He goes to the garden, the orange grove, at one point and gets caught — his Adam-sinning-in-paradise moment. Go to the center of it all to find the truth and you get monstrosities. Interestingly, the movie’s part of the late 60s/70s paranoia about corrupt government systems, the center of which here is a corrupt conspiracy involving incest and murder and massive theft. You probably wouldn’t put this movie plus Parallax View plus Kennedy Assassination conspiracies all together, but me thinks they are all generally related and of the same zeitgeist.
He’s also naive enough to not figure out that he’s going after a Pharoah figure in Noah Cross, a godlike presence who controls the water and can make the dryland flourish if he wants. Cross is also Zeus-like, though with zero benevolence. Geddes as a person is too stupid to know better. The narrative here condemns him for curiosity, as he’s not strategic or tactical in any way. He’s a vulgar, temperamental bastard. There’s a strong case that he’s as much a villain here because he drives everyone to their conclusion, ending in Mrs. Mulwray’s face being half pristine and the other half shot, another half-and-half image.
As a literary movie with complex allusiveness, it’s fun to analyze Chinatown. I’m left wondering if I had been better of reading half of one of the MacDonald novels I have not yet read, though.