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The AFI Top 100 Films: Chinatown (#19)

Entertainment 150Chinatown (1974)
Starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston
Written by Robert Towne
Directed by Roman Polanski

Chinatown is a hell of a noir film. Set in the Los Angeles of the 1930s, it uses the acquisition of water by land barons to explore deeper themes of moral bankruptcy and how one man’s remorseless lust for power can override a system set up for the public good. The villain’s relentless drive for control creates victims of the near and dear as well as complete strangers. Everyone’s powerless against one person willing to exploit the system as much as possible.

Like most detective stories, this one starts simple. Jake Gittes (Nicholson) is approached by a woman to investigate her husband, Hollis Mulwray. Jake tails him, finds him protesting the creation of a new reservoir in town and then cheating on his wife. He takes pictures, gives them to Mrs. Mulwray, and finds them plastered all over the front pages of every newspaper in town the next morning. When he gets back to his office, he meets a woman (Dunaway) who insists on asking if they’ve ever met before. When Jake denies ever seeing her, she tells him that she’s actually Mrs. Mulwray and he can expect a lawsuit.

It gets more and more twisted from there. Jake, realizing he’s been set up, resolves to see the case through to the end. Every new clue leads him to another turn in the case, and every turn takes him away from the personal and towards the political. It isn’t long before Jake finds himself uncovering a massive plot to control the land and water for a great part of Los Angeles. Worse than that, the person at the head of this plot has ruined the life of the femme fatale he’s become entangled with. I won’t say any more about the plot here; if you don’t know what happens, it’s best if you find out along with Jake.

The ending, though, is a sucker-punch that leaves an indelible mark and — frankly — makes the movie great. Jake is left shaken by the ordeal he’s just been through, and I can only imagine that he’d struggle with where to go from there. What’s the point in trying to do anything in a world that allows the events in Chinatown to happen the way they do? What good could you possibly do when you’re working within a system that allows evil men to flourish?

His dilemma becomes ours, and we’re forced to confront a really basic question through this twisting little narrative. There are so many different ways to be “evil”, to visit harm onto your fellow man, and everywhere you turn you seem to find people who are connoisseurs of the practice. The society you live in makes it so difficult to be “good,” and often you find yourself swimming upstream if you try to do the right thing. There’s little reward or recognition; in fact, if you make too big of a splash you’ll likely be trampled down by the system. What makes the fight worth it? How do you recover from a setback or loss?

Jake Gittes doesn’t have an answer for it, and neither do any of his associates. “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.” He might as well be talking about the world, our whole experience. It feels like the movie leads you to the door of an existential void and simply drops you there at the end of it. What do you see when you look in?

It’s incredible that a noir could lead us here, starting from the titillating possibility of marital infidelity all the way to the question about why we even bother with morality in a cold, unfair universe. The writing of the story encourages us to think more and more broadly through the way it opens, each clue exposing a wider expanse of mystery until we’re left with the grandest one of all.

I suppose that’s one of the things that makes the noir detective such a crisp and engaging figure. He’s been hardened by the world but otherwise unchanged by it, constantly trying to do the right thing the best way he knows how. He’s a modern-day Sisyphus rolling a rock up a hill, only to watch it falling down again. The effort takes something out of him every time. But we imagine him returning to his office, taking other cases, going back down the hill and starting all over again. And depending on your outlook, that’s sad or inspiring. Or both.

Jack Nicholson is surprisingly great at playing Gittes, the private detective who’s competent but out of his depth here. He’s smart, wily and snarky, but there’s a severe power disbalance between the gumshoe and the ultimate target of his investigation. Nicholson seems to be the guy with all the power in the room whenever you see him most times, and there’s none of that here. It’s really intriguing to watch him struggle, be confused, try to get a handle on things.

Polanski does a great job as well, making sure every scene crackles with the energy it needs to, staying true to the noirish tropes of long shadows and stifling heat while making everything look distinctly southern Californian. For some reason, the sunny locale makes the darkness of the characters’ secrets that much more stark. He encourages Nicholson, Dunaway and Huston to be subsumed by their characters, and every bit of subtext he includes is understated, suggested by the performance. I imagine Chinatown would hold up well to repeat viewings for just that reason; there’s bound to be all sorts of stuff you missed the first time.

This movie is as good as film noir gets. It’s a great example of its genre, but it extends beyond it to play around with some really big ideas. Other movies might be a bit more entertaining, but none are as rich as Chinatown.

Rating: 9/10.

 
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Posted by on October 23, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: The Maltese Falcon (#23)

Entertainment 150The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet
Written by John Huston (screenplay) and Dashiell Hammett (novel)
Directed by John Huston

Chances are when you think about the quintessential film-noir detective, you’re thinking about Humphrey Bogart from The Maltese Falcon. On the off chance that you aren’t, the person you’re thinking of owes a great debt to Bogey, who invented the mold. The Maltese Falcon wasn’t the very first film-noir to hit Hollywood, but it was the first one that garnered major attention and inspired an entire movement of style in popular culture. We’re getting to that point in the top 100 where just about every film is a major inspiration or marked a significant turning point in the history of cinema. It’s fascinating to watch these movies; they’re either the skeletons of an entire genre that you can see being built through the films that follow or they’re the fully-formed gold standard, the movie that exemplifies what we’ve come to think of when we say “mob movie,” or “film noir”.

This is a combination of the two; Humphrey Bogart stars as Sam Spade, a private investigator based in San Francisco. He’s approached by a woman named Ruth Wonderly (Astor), who hires him to follow a man she believes is involved with her missing sister. He takes the case and his partner decides to do the leg-work; later that night, Spade gets the call that his partner’s been murdered.

The man his partner was following — Floyd Thursby — was murdered too, and now Spade is implicated. He has the motive, certainly, and the means. This is just the gateway into the story of the Maltese Falcon, and soon Spade is caught up in this weird war with three players all vying for a priceless, lost bird. Joining Wonderly — who renames herself O’Shaughnessy once the jig is up — is jovially dangerous Gutman (Greenstreet) and fastidious worry-wart Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre). The trio tries to use Spade as a pawn to their own ends, but he does a remarkable job of somehow slipping right through their control. No one’s quite able to get a handle on him; he thinks fast and manages to exploit a lucky turn astonishingly well.

Bogart plays Spade as a wily, cagey bastard who can’t help but needle the people that get on his nerves. There’s no filter between his brain and his mouth, which gets him into quite a bit of trouble in the most amusing ways. Spade is either competent or quick enough to get himself out of the scrapes he causes, and it gives the movie the feel of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Well, it would if everyone smoked cigarettes and adult themes were allowed.

Hold very still, there's something on your nose.

His fist is a metaphor…for violence.

The plot is convoluted, of course, but it’s also fairly easy to follow. The trouble with noir is that the narrative often gets so twisted it’s difficult to keep track of the players in the game or why they’re doing what they’re doing. Even though there are a lot of moving pieces here, crosses and double-crosses, you never quite lose the thread of the story. I think it’s a testament to the writing: John Huston, adapting from the Dashiell Hammett novel that’s been brought to the big screen twice before, really had a great handle on what made the story pop and kept his focus tight on the gallery of characters that would each be engaging enough to remember even with limited screen time.

I think that’s what makes The Maltese Falcon so successful, ultimately. With so much noir (and stories inspired by it), authors fall into the trap of creating archetypes instead of actual characters. So much attention is given to the plot that the characters end up as faceless pieces on the chess board, only there to make moves that bring the story to its endgame. Here, every character is distinctive. They give the impression of a rich inner life beyond the confines of the story, so they’re rather easy to identify. The audience really gets to know them as people, not pieces in service to the plot.

It’s such a surprise that Huston nails this basic truth so early in the genre, and the feat hasn’t been duplicated quite as well since. Of course, since my knowledge of noir is admittedly limited, maybe I just haven’t seen the right stuff. But The Maltese Falcon is a wonderful example of an intricate, twisting plot inhabited by rich and memorable characters. Even though all of the characters feel the tightening noose of fate around their necks, they never seem blind to it. They know when they’re in trouble, and they’re smart enough to try and get out of it. The trouble is, Sam Spade is almost always smarter.

Rating: 8/10.

 
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Posted by on August 7, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: Double Indemnity (#38)

Entertainment 150Double Indemnity (1944)
Starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson
Written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler
Directed by Billy Wilder

Holy cats, do the two main characters in this movie do terrible things. That’s actually what makes it so fascinating — this is a film noir that’s actually more Fargo than The Maltese Falcon. The main character isn’t a hard-boiled detective on the case of some twisty mystery; he’s a smooth-talking insurance salesman who gets up with the wrong bored housewife. Even though the stakes feel a bit lower, it’s still engrossing thanks to wonderful writing of Wilder and Chandler and the great performances of the leads.

MacMurray plays Walter Neff, a man who falls in love with Phyllis Dietrichson (Stanwyck). Phyllis is lonely, tired of being ignored and mistreated by her husband. It doesn’t take long for him to figure out that she’s sick enough of him to want him out of the picture, and from there it’s off to the races. To Neff’s credit, he rejects her advances at first. He wants no part of murdering someone just to collect the insurance money. But then he starts to think about it. What would be the perfect way of committing a murder, making it look like an accident, and collect the most money from your insurance policy? Intrigued by the possibility and spurred by his attraction for her, he decides to go for it.

He decides that Mr. Dietrichson should die by accident on the train, activating a double indemnity clause that pays double on the policy. With the money, Neff and Phyllis will be rich and together. It’s a great idea, of course, but the great hand of karma comes down to make sure nothing breaks their way after a certain point. That’s how these things go, after all. And the pressures of holding a crumbling plan together take their toll on the fledgling couple, causing mistrust and dissention. Once that trust goes, things fall apart quickly. Long story short, it doesn’t end well for our two lovebirds.

What’s impressive about the downfall is how inevitable it seems even while Neff and Phyllis take every precaution to make their getaway clean. While they’re obviously not good people, they’re reasonably intelligent and actually cool under pressure. What makes them crack, eventually, is Neff’s best friend and claims adjuster, Barton Keyes (Robertson).

Robertson steals every frame he’s in, chewing the scenery with the best character actors out there. He’s also incredibly smart and intuitive, stubborn and moral, and that’s what proves to be Neff’s undoing. When a false claim is made, Keyes has what he calls a “little man” in his gut that keeps him up at night. It goes sour on him with this case, and he suspects Phyllis of foul play. He trusts Neff as his best friend, while working as hard as he can to uncover the scheme he’s cooked up.

MacMurray and Stanwyck have a great, twisted chemistry together. and even when Neff and Phyllis turn on each other they’re arresting to watch. Phyllis is a hell of a femme fatale, completely sociopathic even though she’s in a bad situation; she’s not a woman caught in the balance of good and evil, she’s just evil with enough charisma to fool people.

Neff is a good guy, though. His libido and ego are fatal flaws, to be sure, but he seems to be a nice enough person who’s unfortunately caught up in a gravity well of crazy that he learns too late there’s no escape from. Even while you’re watching him deceive his friends and coworkers, you’re caught between two impulses — the desire to see him caught for what he’s already done, and the desire to see him squirm out of his predicament a better man for the experience. Unlike Phyllis, he begins to show remorse once he learns the extent of what he’s done and who he’s hitched his wagon to. That goes a long way in my book.

But alas, it’s not to be. Keyes is too dogged, Phyllis is too crazy, and the noose around Neff’s neck grows far too tight. The end result is an enjoyable ride down the ruins of a man’s life, tightly-plotted and filled with rich, complicated characters that the actors bring to life quite well. Wilder and Chandler do a great job working from James Cain’s novella, incorporating classic noir elements to a situation that doesn’t seem to be what we think of at all when it comes to the genre. What we get is something that’s at once classic and unique, in a realm all its own.

Rating: 7/10.

 
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Posted by on March 12, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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