Friday, November 27, 2015


After the phenomenal success of Annie Hall (1977), Woody Allen confounded the expectations of his critics and fans with Interiors (1978), which saw him doing his best Ingmar Bergman impression. It was his first dramatic film and while critical reaction was mostly positive, it hardly set the box office on fire. With Manhattan (1979), Allen returned to familiar material – the witty romantic comedy – with what many consider his masterpiece but a film that he famously felt was so bad that he offered to make another one for the studio for free if they agreed to not release it. Thankfully, they didn’t listen to him and the end result is one of the greatest cinematic love letters to New York City ever committed to film while also taking an entertaining and insightful look at the love lives of a handful of its inhabitants.

Allen establishes his ambitious intentions right from the start with a grandiose montage of the city scored to George Gershwin and photographed in gorgeous black and white by cinematographer Gordon Willis. The opening voiceover narration that plays over this footage works on several levels. On the surface, it is Isaac Davis (Allen) trying to start his novel but rejecting his multiple attempts because the tone is too corny, too preachy or too angry until he comes up with an introduction that makes him sound good and he ends it with the immortal words, “New York was his town and it always would be.” This opening monologue plays over and often comments on images of New York bustling with life from various neighborhoods and all kinds of people from all social strata. That last line would also be prophetic words as Allen’s name has become synonymous with the city he’s immortalized on film so many times.

This is the Big Apple as seen through Allen’s eyes as he presents his unique world populated by a rarefied social strata of well-educated, neurotic people entangled in messy relationships with each other. Still stinging from a bitter divorce, television comedy writer Isaac (Allen) is now dating Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), a 17-year-old girl (“I’m dating a girl who does homework.”). His best friend Yale (Michael Murphy), a college professor, is having an affair with a journalist named Mary (Diane Keaton). We meet Isaac and his narcissistic friends at Elaine’s, a then-trendy restaurant on the Upper East Side, which Allen uses to set-up their relationships.

Isaac and Yale’s lives are a mess with the former writing for a television show he loathes and the latter trying to finish a book and start up a magazine. The last thing they need is to complicate their romantic lives. Isaac realizes that Tracy is too young for him (“You should think of me as a detour on the highway of life.”) and gets involved with Mary after Yale introduces them. At first, Isaac and Mary can’t stand each other, arguing over an art exhibit and several artists she feels are overrated but he thinks are great (i.e. Lenny Bruce, Vincent Van Gogh, Ingmar Bergman, and so on). Mary is everything that Tracy is not – worldly and not afraid to speak her mind (at one point, he describes her way with words as “pithy yet degenerate.”). Isaac is instantly put-off by this because she isn’t easily controllable like Tracy. Mary is not afraid to challenge Isaac, which is what ultimately appeals to him.

He breaks up with Tracy and starts up with Mary. She is more his equal in every way and it makes sense that they get together. She is brutally honest in her assessment of his and her own shortcomings and he likes that. They connect while spending a night into early morning talking through the streets of the city, walking her dog and then getting food at a local diner to the dreamy strains of “Someone to Watch Over Me.” This wonderful scene culminates with the iconic shot of Isaac and Mary sitting on a bench in front of the Queensboro Bridge at dawn, which was also used in the film’s poster.

Woody Allen and Diane Keaton continue their undeniable on-screen chemistry as they play so well off each other. She is allowed to tone down the more exaggerated comedic gestures she used in Annie Hall to create a more nuanced character in Manhattan. Initially, Mary comes across as abrasive but once she’s alone with Isaac her tough exterior softens and we realize that they have a lot in common. He makes her laugh and we can see the attraction between them growing. This complicates things because it prompts Isaac to breakup with Tracy to be with Mary who breaks up with Yale, which puts a strain on his friendship with Isaac.

Keaton displays a wonderful level of vulnerability over the course of the film as Mary feels comfortable enough around Isaac to share her insecurities, admitting that she gets involved with dominating men. Keaton’s Mary is a wonderful mix of smarts, beauty and humor – it’s no wonder that both Isaac and Yale are in love with her. The actress is also good during the more serious scenes, like when Mary and Yale breakup and then later she talks to Isaac about it. Keaton convincingly conveys how upset her character is even if ultimately it is the best thing as it opens the door for her and Isaac to get together.

Woody Allen essentially plays himself, which sounds like a backhanded compliment when it actually isn’t as he bounces back and forth between witty one-liners and neurotic hand wringing. Allen is more than a neurotic joke machine as Isaac wrestles with his own moral dilemmas – his love for Tracy, even though he knows she’s too young for him, and his attraction to Mary who is much more compatible. It’s hard not to see Isaac’s relationship with the much younger Tracy eerily foreshadowing Allen’s real-life relationship with his young adopted daughter Soon-Yin Previn and this gives the on-screen relationship between the characters an added uncomfortable vibe at times – one that already exists with the vast age difference and Isaac initially making light of it.

Mariel Hemingway is excellent as Tracy, the young woman that adores Isaac and is able to hold her own with him and his pseudo-intellectual friends. Ironically, she is the most mature character in the film and also the one that is the nicest while also being the youngest. Perhaps she hasn’t lived long enough to become jaded and cynical like Isaac and his friends. There is still an innocence to her and perhaps this is what draws Isaac to Tracy. The actress displays an impressive range of emotions, culminating in the heartbreaking scene where Isaac breaks up with Tracy. The hurt her character feels in this scene is almost tangible and we really empathize with her.

While Manhattan features an abundance of Allen’s funny one-liners, the screenplay he co-wrote with Marshall Brickman tempers it somewhat with the characters’ messy personal lives, like the resentment Isaac feels towards his ex-wife (Meryl Streep) for leaving him for another woman, or Yale cheating on his perfectly lovely wife (Anne Byrne) with Mary. Allen expertly shifts gears from comedy to drama from scene to scene and sometimes even within the same scene.

Allen takes us through a guided tour through the city with key scenes taking place at famous establishments, like Elaine’s and the Russian Tea Room, or tourist spots like the Hayden Planetarium, in such a way that New York becomes a character unto itself. Willis’ gorgeously textured black and white cinematography not only evokes the classic Hollywood cinema that Allen loves so much but at the time of Manhattan’s release black and white film stock was rarely used in popular contemporary cinema. Whether they meant to or not, Allen and Willis were making a bold artistic statement with this choice, which elevated the film from being just another romantic comedy to something more. For example, there is a fantastic scene in the aforementioned Planetarium where Isaac and Mary walk through the exhibits, including a Lunar landscape and Saturn looming large in the background in another room while the two characters appear almost entirely in silhouette. Sadly, several of the places the characters frequent no longer exist making Manhattan a historical document of sorts.

Woody Allen first started talking about the origins of Manhattan over dinners with cinematographer Gordon Willis while they were filming Interiors. Allen wanted to make “an intimate romantic picture” in a widescreen aspect ratio and do it in black and white because “that had a Manhattan feel to it.” At the time, he was listening to recordings of Gershwin overtures and thought of setting a scene to that music.

Allen began working on a story with regular collaborator Marshall Brickman (Annie Hall). They would talk about potential ideas, like, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I liked this really young girl and if Keaton was this major pseudo-intellectual?” Brickman would envision a scene and ad-lib it. Allen would do the same and they’d go back and forth. The two men ran into a roadblock when neither of them could figure out the film’s climax until during filming Brickman’s wife told him they needed a scene where Isaac confronts Yale, which became the climactic scene in the latter’s classroom.

Originally, the opening montage scene was going to be scored to “I Can’t Get Started” by Bunny Berigan because that song played several times every night at Elaine’s on the jukebox. During post-production, editor Susan E. Morse suggested they use “Rhapsody in Blue” instead. Allen agreed and decided to use Gershwin music throughout. When Manhattan was finished, he was so disappointed with the film that he asked United Pictures not to release it: “I wanted to offer them to make one free movie, if they would just throw it away.” Fortunately, they declined Allen’s offer.

Manhattan received mostly positive reviews from mainstream critics at the time. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “The relationships aren’t really the point of the movie: It’s more about what people say during relationships – or, to put it more bluntly, it’s about how people lie technically telling the truth.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “The movie is full of moments that are uproariously funny and others that are sometimes shattering for the degree in which they evoke civilized desolation.” The Village Voice’s Andrew Sarris said of the film that it “materialized out of the void as the one truly great American films of the ‘70s.” In her review for The New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote, “What man in his forties but Woody Allen could pass off a predilection for teenagers as a quest for true values?” The Washington Post’s Gary Arnold wrote, “There’s no opportunity to heap condescending abuse on the phonies and sellouts decorating the Hollywood landscape. The result appears to be a more authentic and magnanimous comic perception of human vanity and foolhardiness.” In recent years, critics like J. Hoberman offered their assessment of the film when he wrote, “What’s most authentic about Manhattan is its fantasy. The New York City that Woody so tediously defended in Annie Hall was in crisis. And so he imagined an improved version. More than that, he cast this shining city in the form of those movies that he might have seen as a child in Coney Island—freeing the visions that he sensed to be locked up in the silver screen.”

After the failure of Interiors, Manhattan could be seen as Allen’s return to the same formula that made Annie Hall a success. While there are similarities between the two films, Manhattan showed how much he had matured as a filmmaker by injecting more dramatic weight without upsetting the overall balance of the film. He wasn’t simply content to make an entertaining romantic comedy. Manhattan not only expressed his feelings for New York but also his views on relationships. It is arguably Allen’s most complete expression of his unique cinematic worldview – highly educated people with very little common sense when it comes to their personal lives, making bad decisions even when they realize it. But like the rest of us, they keep on trying, hoping that the next relationship is the one. He continues to explore it with numerous variations, such as locations, time periods, but they can be traced back to Annie Hall and Manhattan.

Ultimately, Manhattan is about figuring out what you want in life and going for it. Isaac doesn’t do this until late in the film during a classic scene where he lists the things that make life worth living for him and in doing so achieves an epiphany. The film ends on a bit of ambiguous note as we are left wondering that the woman he picked was the right one and if so, how long the relationship will last. In a way, it is cinematic litmus test for the viewer – if you’re an optimist, the ending is hopeful and if you’re a pessimist, it is bittersweet. In other words, this scene conveys the same uncertainty that goes with relationships that the rest of us experience. That being said, I think Tracy sums it up best when she tells Isaac, “You have to have a little faith in people.”


Bjorkman, Stig. Woody Allen on Woody Allen. Grove Press. 1993.

Lax, Eric. Conversations with Woody Allen. Alfred A. Knopf. 2007.

Friday, November 20, 2015


In this cynical and jaded world in which we live in idealism and optimism are often mistakenly equated with naiveté or stupidity. This may explain why Tomorrowland (2015) tanked so spectacularly at the box office and was roasted over the coals by critics. Based on the Walt Disney theme land of the same name, the film champions dreamers and creativity. Hoping for a repeat of the successful adaptation of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride into a wildly popular movie franchise, the studio brought in director Brad Bird, fresh from the box office hit Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011), screenwriter Damon Lindelof (Prometheus), and cast George Clooney to anchor the film in a supporting role opposite Britt Robertson (The Longest Ride) as the young lead. The studio certainly had all the right elements in place but dropped the ball when it came to marketing Tomorrowland, which is staggering when one realizes how many millions of dollars were spent promoting it in a cryptic way that was completely unnecessary. After all the dust has settled and the post-mortems have been made, the question remains, is the film any good? Obviously, the answer is very subjective. I, for one, loved it.

The film starts in the past – the 1964 New York World’s Fair to be exact as young John Francis Walker (Thomas Robinson) gets off a bus lugging a track bag containing a jetpack he invented. Frank shows it to a man named David Nix (Hugh Laurie) with the hopes of winning $50 in a contest. Alas, Frank admits that his invention doesn’t exactly work. Nix asks him what its purpose is and how would it make the world a better place to which the young boy responds, “Can’t it just be fun? … Anything’s possible.” Nix doesn’t understand what that means and Frank tells him, “If I was walking down the street and I saw some kid with a jetpack flying over me I’d believe anything’s possible, I’d be inspired. Doesn’t that make the world a better place?”

Therein lies the film’s central theme and overriding message: anything is possible if you have the imagination to think of something and the perseverance to make it happen regardless of those that tell you no. Armed with this determination and a small pin with the Tomorrowland logo on it, given to him a by little girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy), Frank sneaks aboard the “It’s A Small World” ride and finds himself transported to a futuristic cityscape known as Tomorrowland. It’s a wondrous utopia that Bird takes us briefly through when Frank, with the help of a robot and a moment of well-timed clumsiness, gets his jetpack to work and flies around so that we (and he) can admire this shiny chrome and glass paradise.

After this brief teasing taste of this world, we are taken back to the present and meet Casey Newton (Robertson), a young woman that uses gadgets she assembled to delay the demolition of a NASA Launchpad thereby prolonging the inevitable loss of employment that will befall her father (Tim McGraw), an engineer. Casey is a dreamer that believes “the tiniest of actions could change the future,” as she tells her little brother Nate (Pierce Gagnon). She explains to him that it is hard to have ideas and it is easy to give up.

During the day, Casey endures classes taught by doom and gloom teachers and is surrounded by apathetic classmates. At night, she continues her one-person crusade to save her dad’s job until she’s finally caught in the act and arrested. Her father bails her out and among her possessions she finds a Tomorrowland pin. Touching it instantly transports her to the futuristic place; however, it only lasts for a few minutes and then no longer works. Naturally, she wants to experience more of this world and finds a store in Houston, Texas that claims to have a pin for sale. The store turns out to be a trap and Casey is rescued by Athena who looks like she hasn’t aged a day since 1964. She promises to take Casey back to Tomorrowland and save it, adding cryptically, “They built something they shouldn’t have.” In order to do so, they have to travel to Pittsfield, New York where Frank (Clooney), now all grown-up, lives like some crazed recluse, and has the ability to transport them to Tomorrowland. It won’t be that easy because Frank is no longer the optimist he once was; he’s now a bitter man existing on the fringes of society.

Britt Robertson plays the film’s protagonist and has the difficult challenge of portraying an irrepressible optimist surrounded by cynics without coming off as a caricature. She does this by instilling Casey with a passion for adventure fueled by curiosity and imagination. There is a sincerity to her performance that feels genuine while also having a knack for physical comedy, like when she figures out what the pin does through trial and error, and verbal comedy, like when Casey first meets Frank and they trade insults.

Not usually cast in summer blockbusters, George Clooney is excellent as a man who has given up hope and lost his idealism. His world-weary crabbiness acts in sharp contrast to Casey’s youthful optimism and their initial scenes together have an amusing tension as she isn’t sure if he can be trusted and vice versa. As the film progresses and they spend more time together, Casey begins to chip away at Frank’s cynicism.

Hugh Laurie plays the film’s antagonist, but wisely doesn’t portray him as such. Nix believes in what he’s doing is right and that’s what makes him dangerous. Laurie brings just the right amount of condescension to the role so that you want to see Casey and Frank defeat him. Raffey Cassidy plays quite the scene-stealer as Athena, with her posh British accent and direct way of talking. Her diminutive stature also makes her an unlikely action hero and yet she gets to jump around, beating up evil robots. Athena, Frank and Casey make for odd traveling companions as they go from Florida to New York to France.

Thanks to Claudio Miranda’s atmospheric cinematography and the best visual effects money can buy, Tomorrowland is a visually stunning film. Naturally, the Tomorrowland scenes, populated by people flying around in jetpacks, hovering trains and rockets, is the most impressive-looking, but a close second is Paris where Miranda bathes the Eiffel Tower in warm light as it is transformed into a massive Steampunk vehicle fueled by Nikola Tesla’s technology. When post-mortems were conducted on why Tomorrowland failed commercially and critically, one reason cited was that not enough time was spent in the titular place. This seems rather odd when we are given substantial teases early on and then the last 40 minutes takes place entirely in the futuristic city. There is something to be said for the less is more approach and the screen-time devoted to Tomorrowland is just right.

While most films are largely immune from film criticism these days, especially with the passing of Roger Ebert, writers just don’t have the influence they had many years ago, some reviewers foolishly attempted to argue that Brad Bird’s film, along with his others, espoused the beliefs of notorious conservative thinker and writer Ayn Rand. Other critics rose to the film’s defense and rightly pointed out that Bird wasn’t inspired by Rand but actually Walt Disney, which make much more sense.

If anything, Tomorrowland’s high profile commercial demise only confirms in the minds of Hollywood studio executives’ minds that to bankroll original films is folly and that they should go on cranking out reboots, remakes and sequels. One can already see this in Bird’s next gig – a return to the safe confines of Pixar to make a sequel to his beloved animated film The Incredibles (2004). It is also disheartening to see a film featuring a smart, resourceful female protagonist fail, especially in the current climate where Hollywood insiders scrutinize the success of every aspect of a film (or lack thereof) and analyze what it means.

That being said, Bird and his collaborators should be commended for getting this passion project made. Tomorrowland exists and will have the chance to outlive its detractors, where its box office failure will eventually mean little, and go on to inspired like-minded dreamers that find themselves identifying with Casey as opposed to the Nixs of the world. Bird’s film is a rare wakeup call against the negativity that permeates our culture, from the doom and gloom headlines that dominate any given news cycle to fashionable pessimism that permeates our culture.

For further reading, check out John Kenneth Muir's take and The Film Connoisseur's, here.

Friday, November 13, 2015


Casino Royale (2006) ushered in the Daniel Craig era of James Bond films and made its mark by giving the superspy a darker, violent edge while downplaying the humor that was abundant in the Roger Moore era and, to a lesser degree, during Pierce Brosnan’s run. The next two films took Bond into uncharted territory as their plots were interconnected instead of the usual stand-alone adventures and also shed light on the character’s background – something that some Bond fans felt was a betrayal of the franchise. Personally, it was exciting to see Bond fall in love only to have her die tragically in Casino Royale. Then, he sought revenge for her death in Quantum of Solace (2008) and dealt with the fallout of his actions in Skyfall (2012). With Spectre (2015), it turns out that the adversaries he faced in the previous films were all part of a master plan orchestrated by the shadowy terrorist organization known as Spectre, a famous nemesis of Bond during the Sean Connery era.

Returning director Sam Mendes hits the ground running with a bravura long take tracking shot of James Bond (Craig) in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead celebration as he walks through the crowded streets with a lovely lady on his arm. Hoyte van Hoytema’s (Interstellar) fluid camerawork follows Bond into a busy hotel, up to a room and out a window as he travels across several rooftops until he reaches the target. After the elegance of this sequence, Mendes and Hoytema switch to kinetic hand-held camerawork as Bond chases his prey through the noisy, chaotic streets, culminating in a white-knuckle intense fight aboard a helicopter. And this is just the film’s prologue!

After the Mexico incident, Bond is suspended by his superior, M (Ralph Fiennes), for acting on his own and told that MI6 is merging with MI5, which will result in the 00 program being scrapped. It turns out that Bond was carrying out the previous M’s (Judie Dench) last request: find and kill a man named Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona) and attend his funeral in Rome. It is here that Bond uncovers a secret organization known as Spectre and discovers their connections to all the villains he’s faced in the three previous films.

Daniel Craig plays a much more competent Bond in Spectre than in Skyfall where several bad decisions that defied logic resulted in the deaths of key characters. In this film, he makes much better choices for the most part. Craig also does a fantastic job of continuing Bond’s personal journey to finish what he started in Casino Royale. The actor even gets to insert a little more humor, in particular, his interactions with Q (Ben Whishaw) and not play such an overtly grim Bond as in previous installments. That being said, Bond is still not someone to be messed with and Craig never lets us forget that his character is a ruthless assassin.

Spectre finally brings back the Bond villain henchman in the tradition of Oddjob and Jaws with the introduction of the burly Mr. Hinx played by Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) whose considerable physical presence makes him a formidable foe for Bond. The film’s mastermind villain is played by Christoph Waltz who brings his trademark cultured panache to the role. The award-winning actor uses his distinctive charisma to command a given scene. All of the bad guys in the previous Craig Bond films have been leading up to Waltz’s villain who is the most powerful and evil of them all, even more so because of his personal connection to Bond.

Much was made this time out about how Bond was going to finally encounter a Bond girl (*ahem* woman) his own age and while this is true with the casting of the lovely Italian actress Monica Bellucci it is such a shame that she’s hardly in the film as Bond quickly moves on to the requisite younger love interest/sidekick played by French actress Lea Seydoux with whom Craig has very little chemistry with. At least Bellucci isn’t resigned to the same fate that befalls a lot of the initially introduced Bond girls in the films. A far more radical move on the part of the filmmakers would have been to swap the roles for Bellucci and Seydoux so that the latter has the glorified cameo and the former is given the bigger chunk of screen-time with her leading man but sadly things are played safe and Spectre suffers a bit for it.

Spectre continues the recurring notion of Bond’s apparent obsolescence in this modern age and how the powers that be within the British government threaten to shut down the 00 program because it is considered an antiquated relic of a bygone era in this post-Edward Snowden age where surveillance is omnipresent. This comes to a head in the film when a smug, young politician (Andrew Scott) openly challenges M, looking to replace Bond and the other 00 agents with drones and hi-tech surveillance.

However, as Spectre amply demonstrates, there is something to be said for the human component and looking at someone face-to-face that no element of technology can replicate. “Info is all, is it not?” says Waltz’s bad guy late in the film and while all of this state-of-the-art technology is supposed to make us feel safe it is really taking away our personal freedoms and making us paranoid and scared. During this film, Bond is often at the mercy of intense scrutiny by both the British government and by Spectre, prompting him to go to some very exotic and remote locations to uncover the truth.

While Bond uses technology in his missions in the form of fancy cars, etc., he still believes in getting his hands dirty via car chases, gun battles and hand-to-hand combat to the get job done. There’s a certain intimacy in going up against someone one-and-one and testing your skill against theirs. The big reveal in Spectre is that Bond finds out he was never in control of his own fate – it was all an illusion. He is a killer unbound by conventional relationships, like marriage, which makes the film’s climax a bit illogical and a betrayal of his personal ethos, especially considering what has happened to him over the course of these four films. I guess this was done to show some personal growth but it feels more like Mendes and co. leaving the door open for a sequel that we all know is coming eventually. That being said, with the exception of a weak third act, Spectre is a strong film and a fitting conclusion to a four-film story arc. It should be interesting to see where the producers take the Bond franchise from here.
For further reading, check out John Kenneth Muir's perceptive review and the Film Connoisseur's.

Friday, November 6, 2015


Chinatown (1974) is a rare example of a collection of artists at the height of their powers coming together to produce a masterpiece born out of conflict and strife. Fresh from his success on The Last Detail (1973), screenwriter Robert Towne wrote a mystery inspired by the California Water Wars that took place in Southern California at the beginning of the 20th century and involved a series of disputes over water with Los Angeles interests securing water rights in the Owens Valley. Studio chief and producer Robert Evans bankrolled the project and Towne wrote the screenplay with his good friend Jack Nicholson in mind. The actor was coming off the critically-acclaimed The Last Detail asked Roman Polanski to direct. The two men had been looking for a project to work together on and chose this one. The end result is a wonderfully complex and nuanced tale of greed and corruption whose deeper meanings and rich attention to detail reveal themselves upon subsequent viewings.

Jerry Goldsmith’s somber score, complete with mournful trumpet, sets a melancholic tone over the opening credits, evoking a bygone era. Polanski offsets this with the playful opening scene that sees private investigator J.J. Gittes (Nicholson) showing a client (Burt Young) photographs of his cheating wife. Looking visibly upset, Burt Young offsets this with exaggerated whimpers and distressed histrionics, which provokes Gittes to tell him, “Alright Curly, enough is enough. You can’t eat the venetian blinds. I just had ‘em installed on Wednesday.” Gittes dresses nice and has an expensive-looking office but he plies his trade in the seedy underbelly of society with a specialty in infidelity.

He meets a woman calling herself Evelyn Mulwray (Diane Ladd) and she hires him to uncover evidence that her husband Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), the chief engineer of Water and Power for the city, is cheating on her. At a hearing that Gittes attends, Mulwray receives considerable flack from local farmers accusing him of stealing water that is ruining their livelihood, but refuses to approve the building of a dam because of the danger it poses. Gittes and his associates follow Mulwray around for a couple of days until they find him cheating on his wife, which naturally makes a big stink in the press.

The real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) shows up with her lawyer and threatens legal action, which prompts Gittes to dig deeper. Why would someone pose as Hollis Mulwray’s wife and set him up? To complicate matters, Hollis Mulwray winds up dead, found drowned in a dried waterbed. Evelyn hires Gittes to find out what happened, which sees him cross paths with the powerful Noah Cross (John Huston), her father and former business partner of her late husband.

By the time Jack Nicholson made Chinatown he was on quite the roll with films like Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), and the aforementioned The Last Detail, among others, under his belt. As a result, he brings a relaxed confidence to his performance, effortlessly inhabiting the role of J.J. Gittes. He starts off playing the character as a man comfortable with his lot in life and is good at what he does. Over the course of the film, this confidence gradually erodes as Gittes gets deeper into the Mulwray murder. I like how Towne’s script pokes holes in Gittes’ character, showing his flaws despite a desire to appear classy, like when he tells his office cohorts an off-color joke unaware that Evelyn Mulwray is listening to the whole thing behind him. Nicholson’s glee in telling the joke is palpable and then he brilliantly turns on a dime when Gittes realizes that Mulwray heard what he said. Nicholson does a fantastic job of maintaining a tricky balancing act of playing a man brimming with confidence only to have it chipped away, bit by bit, as he finds himself embroiled in affairs much larger than himself.

Faye Dunaway is well-cast as the icy femme fatale Evelyn Mulwray. The actress maintains a frosty exterior as she portrays a woman harboring a dark secret. Evelyn forms an uneasy alliance with Gittes and the scenes between Dunaway and Nicholson crackle with an intriguing tension, which apparently mirrored their off-screen relationship as well. As the film progresses, Gittes melts some of Evelyn’s icy exterior and yet Dunaway still manages to hint at further depths to her character that are eventually revealed towards the end.

Polanski sprinkles playful moments throughout the film to offset the pervasive pessimistic mood. This is evident in a scene where Gittes runs afoul of two henchmen, one whom is played by the director. Polanski’s first line is said off-camera – “Hey there, kitty cat,” and he proceeds to slice open Gittes’ nose with a switchblade. For a good portion of the film, Nicholson sports a large bandage on his face, which subversively messes with the leading man’s good looks. A move like that would never fly with studio executives today who are scared to death of messing with any formula that could cost them money and this is just one of the chances Chinatown takes.

Another fantastic scene is Gittes’ lunch with Noah Cross where we get to see the legendary John Huston play off against Nicholson. The former exudes the confidence of a powerful man like Cross and the actor is clearly having fun with the role, like how he repeatedly mispronounces Gittes’ name as a way of subtly exerting control over the private investigator. Cross expertly dances around Gittes’ questions but the latter doesn’t back down either. The scene is a fascinating battle of wills as Gittes begins to realize what he’s up against.

Polanski brings an assured touch to the direction, masterfully utilizing the widescreen aspect ratio with the help of cinematographer John A. Alonzo. They manage to simultaneously evoke classic Hollywood cinema with the retro-noir period trappings while also bringing a European sensibility, mostly through the psychological underpinnings of the story. These visuals and the atmosphere that is created is greatly enhanced by Jerry Goldsmith’s score, which not only evokes a more elegant time but also expertly services a given scene, like being suspenseful when necessary and so on.

Thanks to all the political assassinations that occurred in the 1960s and then the Watergate scandal in the 1970s, government corruption was very much on peoples’ minds at the time Chinatown was released and this is reflected in the story that sees Gittes mired in corruption. Like most private investigator/mystery stories, much of the pleasure comes from the colorful characters Gittes encounters and how he unravels the various layers of the complicated plot.

While walking in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains, screenwriter Robert Towne came up with the idea for a detective story about the corruption of the land by developers. While filming Drive, He Said (1971) in Eugene, Oregon in the spring of 1970, he checked out a book from the local library by Carey McWIlliams about the history of oil and water exploitation in Southern California. It inspired him to base one of the crucial characters on William Mulholland, a pioneering Los Angeles water-supply engineer.

For the retro-vibe that he wanted to evoke, Towne read a photo essay entitled “Raymond Chandler’s L.A.” in New West magazine and drove around the city while also looking at old postcards that reminded him of “the sights and sounds of childhood.” He also read plenty of hardboiled fiction by Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, especially the former for his descriptions of L.A.

Towne first worked on the characters of Noah Cross and the incestuous relationship with his daughter Evelyn Mulwray. Then, he switched his focus to the detective-hero, which he named J.J. Gittes after a mutual friend of his and Jack Nicholson’s, Harry Gittes. Towne and Nicholson had been good friends for some time and the former tailored the role of Gittes specifically for the latter. While writing the script, the scope and density of the script was daunting for Towne as he found himself trying “one way and another casually to reveal mountains of information about dams, orange groves, incest, elevator operators, etc.”

Initially, Towne envisioned himself directing, “figuring no matter how bad I was as a director, if I could tell a decent story they would watch it.” However, he was broke at the time and need money to finish the script. Paramount Studios executive and producer Robert Evans originally approached Towne to adapt F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby for a sizable paycheck but he passed on the assignment to focus on Chinatown instead and made a deal that gave the studio a 30-day option on it.

Nicholson had wanted to work with film director Roman Polanski for some time. They were friends socially and Nicholson called and asked him to direct Chinatown. The director was happily living in Rome, recovering from making What? (1972) and was not keen on returning to the United States, a place where his wife Sharon Tate had been brutally murdered by members of the Manson Family in 1969. Originally, Evans wanted Peter Bogdanovich to direct but when he passed the producer persuaded Polanski to fly to L.A. and meet with Towne. Aside from the chance to work with the likes of Nicholson and Towne, Polanski was low on funds and his bills were accumulating. He needed money.

Polanski read Towne’s initial draft and felt it was “brimming with ideas, great dialogue, and masterful characterization,” but that it “suffered from an excessively convoluted plot that veered off in all directions.” Towne wasn’t thrilled with Polanski’s criticisms but was convinced by the powers that be to do some rewrites on the script. Polanski found the revised draft even more difficult to follow and didn’t like the ambiguity of the film’s title, insisting that at least one scene take place in that location. Towne had gotten the title from a Hungarian vice cop who told him he had worked vice in Chinatown in L.A. When the writer asked him what he did there, the cop replied, “As little as possible.”

Polanski felt that Towne was prone to procrastination and so he created a routine consisting of eight-hour work days and partying away the night. The writer remembers, “The mood at night was—it was the 1970s.  We had a good time.” The rewriting consisted of Towne re-sequencing scenes and clarifying the complicated plot while Polanski worked on the dialogue and changing the focus so that the entire film is from Gittes’ point-of-view. Within eight weeks they had created a shooting script. Towne has said that he fought with Polanski every day and Evans said the final product was the result of “a lot of arguments, fights. There was warfare throughout the picture, but that’s healthy.” After the dust settled, Polanski and Towne were no longer speaking to each other.

When it came to casting, Evans picked then-wife Ali MacGraw to play Evelyn Mulwray but when she ran off to marry actor Steve McQueen, he offered the part to Jane Fonda who turned it down. Polanski suggested Faye Dunaway who he knew socially and liked her “retro” look but Evans didn’t like the idea and considered the actress to be trouble.

Polanski’s approach to filming Chinatown was not as a classic black and white movie “but as a film about the Thirties seen through the camera eye of the Seventies.” He insisted on shooting in color and Panavision. He originally hired legendary cinematographer Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons) but when he didn’t work out, Polanski skewed younger with John Alonzo (Harold and Maude) instead.

When filming began in the fall of 1973, Polanski and Dunaway did not get along. According to him, she fretted over her appearance, didn’t always know her lines, and bothered him to rewrite them. When he did she would then go back to the original dialogue. She would ask him for her character’s motivation and he screamed at her that the salary she was being paid was all the motivation she needed. It got so bad between them that Evans arranged a meeting with Dunaway, her agent and Polanski. Evans decided to keep Dunaway off the set for three weeks to let things cool down and when she returned the actress no longer spoke to Polanski and was all business when it came to direction. The actress recalled, “I thought Roman was thwarting me and not supporting me.”

Nicholson wasn’t crazy about Polanski’s habit for multiple takes and being given line readings – two things he hated as an actor. Nicholson recognized that Polanski was a brilliant filmmaker who liked to argue and adjusted accordingly. During filming, Polanski made two significant changes to Towne’s script with Evans’ approval, much to the writer’s chagrin and who subsequently felt betrayed. The most notable one was changing the ending, which he made much more nihilistic than Towne intended, prompting the writer to call it, “the literal and ghoulishly bleak climax.” Years later and with the benefit of hindsight, Towne agrees that Polanski was right to change the ending.

When it came to post-production, Polanski hired classical composer Philip Lambro to score Chinatown. Seven weeks before the film’s premiere it was previewed in San Luis Obispo. It was a disaster according to Evans who recalled, “By the time the lights came up, half the audience had walked out, scratching their heads.” He felt that Lambro’s “dissonant, weird, scratchy” music was to blame. Evans delayed the film’s premiere and brought in Jerry Goldsmith to create a new score, which he did in a staggering ten days! According to Evans, seeing the film with Goldsmith’s music was like seeing a completely different film.

Not surprisingly, Chinatown received mixed reviews from the major critics back in the day. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and praised Polanski’s work: “He’s made a perceptive, loving comment on a kind of movie and a time in the nation’s history that are both long past. Chinatown is almost a lesson on how to experience this kind of movie.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Mr. Polanski and Mr. Towne have attempted nothing so witty and entertaining, being content instead to make a competently stylish, more or less thirties-ish movie that continually made me wish I were back seeing The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep. Others may not be as finicky.” The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael wrote, “The film holds you, in a suffocating way. Polanski never lets the story tell itself. It’s all over-deliberate, mauve, nightmarish; everyone is yellow-lacquered, and evil runs rampant. You don’t care who is hurt, since everything is blighted. And yet the nastiness has a look, and a fascination.” Finally, in his review for the Village Voice, Andrew Sarris wrote, “It is Polanski’s decision alone to tilt Chinatown toward tragedy that ultimately redeems the enormous contributions of the others. Yet even Polanski’s intense feeling for tragedy could never have been realized without the vision of tragedy expressed in Nicholson’s star-crossed eyes.” Finally, in his review for the Village Voice, Andrew Sarris wrote, “It is Polanski’s decision alone to tilt Chinatown toward tragedy that ultimately redeems the enormous contributions of the others. Yet even Polanski’s intense feeling for tragedy could never have been realized without the vision of tragedy expressed in Nicholson’s star-crossed eyes.” Chinatown was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including ones for Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Original Screenplay, winning for the latter.

Chinatown sheds light on one of the many dirty secrets of L.A. and shows how the expansion of the city didn’t come easily – a lot of wheels were greased in the process and lives were ruined because of all the money that was at stake. It was something that people in the ‘70s could relate to and this translated into commercial and critical success. Its legacy is an impressive one with flawed neo-noirs like Mulholland Falls (1996) and masterful ones like L.A. Confidential (1997) influenced by it. Towne and Nicholson even revisited the character of Gittes with The Two Jakes (1990) but without Polanski and it wasn’t as well-received, proving that the alchemy of Chinatown, with everything coming together like it did, was impossible to replicate. As of Gittes’ associates tells him at the end of the film, “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.”


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McGilligan, Patrick. Jack’s Life: A Biography of Jack Nicholson. W.W. Norton & Company. 1995.

Meikle, Denis. Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out. Reynolds & Hearn Ltd. 2006.

Teachout, Terry. “The Perfect Film Score.” Wall Street Journal. July 10, 2009.