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By July 31, 2015 No Comments

Here’s the second installment, gentle reader, in my series on five favorite films—more precisely, five movies that I’ve found worthy of virtually infinite re-viewing, with old satisfactions and new insights generated every time. I started off last time with a detective triumphant, Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946), so today let’s look at Detective Epic-Fail—Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes in Chinatown (1974).

We first meet Jake in his well-appointed office, with two assistants and a demure secretary on staff. He’s dressed in an expensive gleaming-white suit: that is, he bears all the marks of success with an exterior of guiltlessness to boot. If you know the formula, you know things are all wrong. Yet such is Jake’s lure that we’re pulled along with him, laughing with his wit, appreciating the circles he runs around the cops, and following him through the labyrinth of falsehoods laid out, one after another, by the femme fatale, Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn Cross Mulwray. Better yet, we get morally charged once it becomes clear that Jake’s on the trail of massive corruption in high places. We dismiss his assistants’ warnings that such business lies well above his pay-grade, and that the bad guys are too well connected to be brought to justice. We’re seeing Bogie in lush ‘70s color; Jake has transcended his usual peeping Tom/marital infidelity racket and will find some moral redemption.

Turns out, however, that the warnings are correct, and not just the assistants’, although as they predict, the bad guys do get away with it all in the end. None less than the #1 bad guy, John Huston’s Noah Cross, tells Jake the unvarnished truth over lunch: “You think you know what this is about, Mr Gits”—Cross deliberately repeats his ‘mistake’ as if having intuited Jake’s small-time ambit and habitual motives—“but believe me, you really don’t.” No he doesn’t. For Cross is not only pulling off an epic piece of corruption by manipulating the Los Angeles water supply. He’s also angling to locate his traumatized granddaughter, Katherine, who we learn in poignant and painful increments is also his daughter, having been born of Noah’s rape of his daughter Evelyn. Noah Cross is that paragon of evil we learned to distinguish back in Reformed catechism class from the ordinary type: he’s the incarnation not of total but of absolute depravity, evil in every part, and in every part evil all the way down.

How cunning of screenwriter Robert Towne to have Cross leave Jake with the simple command that evokes the classic injunction of hard-boiled detection: “Find/follow the girl.” Jake had been following the genre’s second commandment, “follow the money,” and when he finally discovers that the two paths lead to the same horror, he has to throw together a plan with increasing desperation, at an ever-quickening pace. On first viewing, we think he just might pull it off, because it’s just such straits that Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe navigate to satisfying conclusions. But on subsequent viewings we have cause to note all along that Jake’s brain is not quite as impressive as his wardrobe, so that when Noah Cross checkmates him with the simplest of moves, we cannot be surprised.

The cops also turn out to have the upper hand on Jake, reversing the usual formula. Not that they’re right; they’re wrong, and they blow away Evelyn’s head with no more qualms than a white traffic cop killing a black guy on—as it happened—the day I re-watched the film. Jake actually does have it all figured out, but it avails nothing. Noah Cross gets his water deal, and gets his granddaughter to rape for the possibility of siring yet a new combination: daughter/great-granddaughter. As he had already explained to Jake, who queried him about the value of acquiring yet another ten million dollars via the water scheme: “It’s not the money, Mr. Gits! It’s the future!” And so it shall be, literally to the third and fourth generation.

Chinatown blew me away the first time I saw it because (as I later learned) it brilliantly re-designs every film noir trait and trick into a seamless neo-noir style perfectly fit for the full-color world of post-60s America. (Scene 1 has cuckolded husband pawing the Venetian blinds in Jake’s office.) I cannot think of another movie so well crafted in and among all its parts—plot, acting, script, primary and secondary characters, sets, atmosphere, sound and color palettes all work together to create a captivating world in which I gladly submersed myself, ready for the perfect resolution, only to get bushwhacked by the most unhappy ending imaginable. I remember walking out of the theater, that sweltering New Haven August night, so stunned and speechless that I couldn’t even figure out where to start figuring out how things had gone so wrong.

But I did sense the deep resonance between the world inside and the world outside the theater. First week of August, 1974. Watch movie at night. Next day, finish typing (yes, typing) up my dissertation prospectus, with one eye glued to the TV where the commentators were speculating as to just what would be announced the yet-following day with regard to the Watergate scandal then reaching a crescendo. As it turned out, the announcement would be Richard Nixon himself declaring that he was resigning the presidency in order—big-hearted guy that he was—to spare the nation the trauma of impeachment proceedings.

There was no incest involved in Nixon’s White House, but for levels of corruption, double-talk, dirty tricks, and sheer abuse of power, the coincidence between Chinatown and Watergate that summer of 1974 helped etch the movie in my mind just as much as did its aesthetic and technical excellence. Only one illusion remained to be popped. With Nixon’s departure, I gave a fleeting hope to my home-boy Jerry Ford’s first declaration as President that “our long national nightmare is over.” Turns out I was as dumb as Jake.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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