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Essentials #1: CHINATOWN (1974)

Water. LA. The woman in between. Jack Nicholson gets caught in an intricate web that Robert Towne creates and Roman Polanski elegantly spins.

When people ask me, what’s a good movie start a film education with? My answer is always: CHINATOWN. Plain and simple. I hate to sound arrogant but if you don’t like CHINATOWN, you may like good movies…but you probably don’t like great movies.

NOAH CROSS: ‘Course I’m respectable. I’m old. Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.

“A private investigator hired to catch an adulterer gets caught up in a web of corruption and deceit.” Image:

For filmmakers and enthusiasts, everything about this movie is grounds for study. The script is often referred to as the screenwriter’s bible. The acting, cinematography, editing, costume/production design, score, etc. are all magnificently cohesive. Lastly, the direction. Whether you’re a Polanski hater or not, there is no denying that this is a masterclass in directing.

The sad state of filmmaking today is that most directors will use 20 different angles and cut 40 times with no understanding of how to block, execute, and shoot a scene. Polanski directs with skillful subtlety, economy, and grace. He has an inherent understanding of the relationship between the camera, actors, and dialogue. Notice his use of over-the-shoulder shots to demonstrate 1st person subjectivity. Notice the way he cuts only when important information needs to be underlined. For example, in a scene when Gittes (Nicholson) asks Evelyn Mulwray (Dunaway) questions about her father, the angle is closer on her, the eye-lines are wide, and there is a sneaky close-up of her putting her cigarette out. The entire scene is played out in medium shots and is extremely simple in its execution. But pay attention to where that close-up occurs as well as Dunaway’s acting. It’ll make sense in the end when you finally understand why it was placed at that particular moment.

This is what I look for in regard to film direction: the when, where, and why in a given scene. The great directors always know when to cut, where to place the camera, and why they’re doing all of this in the first place.

Everything in film production is a CHOICE: the sets, costumes, sound, lighting, what lens to use, where to put the camera, when to edit on what particular line, how the actors say a line, where the actors are standing in relation to the camera and to each other, etc. everything. When these choices are ignored or half-assed, the viewer will subconsciously take note of this and become less engaged in the film that they are watching. Great directors, like Polanski, always make note of this and understand that these choices, while minute, are extremely integral to the fabric of the movie they are trying to create.

Today, 90% of directors would say when shooting a scene, “Let’s just get coverage and lots of CLOSE-UPS just ‘cuz…and then our editors will figure it out.” This is why most films today are all jumbled and have too many shots of irrelevant things. They neither understand the language nor lineage of the craft. Great direction is when the writing, acting, photography, editing, score, etc. is carefully orchestrated and in sync with one another in order to do one simple task and that is: tell the story.

In terms of a film education, forget other movies dear reader…it’s CHINATOWN.

Other Highlights:

  • Towne’s script. It’s fundamentally sound, structured, and the story is easily navigated through its intelligent and snarky dialogue
  • Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score (also, check out his lovely tracks for LA CONFIDENTIAL)
  • The costumes and sets are exacting and impeccable but not too flamboyant
  • John Alonzo’s cinematography make a postcard version of Los Angeles. But it’s not nostalgic for the sake of being nostalgic
  • Faye Dunaway is both vulnerable and empowering as the inverted femme fatale trope
  • As usual, Jack’s Jack, in perhaps his greatest role. I dig his white suit, easy charm, and the way he says, “…métier”
  • Polanski’s director cameo as a Polish gangster is badass

This is part of an ongoing series where I will be doing movie reviews from my original ESSENTIALS Film List.

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