Tuesday, June 19, 2012
I've spent most of my adult life admiring Roman Polanski movies so I knew at least one of his pictures had to make my list. Given his legal status, however, and the anathema that has recently come to surround even the mention of him, it didn't seem particularly wise to include him with the other five directors on my list who get two titles apiece. Still, I can't help recommending any of the following—in fact, can't recommend them enough: Bitter Moon, Death and the Maiden, The Ghost Writer, and the three films of the so-called Apartment Trilogy (Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, and The Tenant).
In the end, I had a very tough time choosing between Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby, which is that rare thing among horror films, a picture as nuanced as it is unsettling, and with a good many excellent performances and nice touches about the way it's done.
But I was surprised when I looked at Chinatown again. It had probably been decades, but not only have I seen it enough to still practically be able to quote the dialogue verbatim, but the complexities of the story are now sufficiently clarified that I'm better able to understand the motivations and sense of each scene. That's no small thing in this densely plotted neo-noir. I would guess that screenwriter Robert Towne's most direct source within the tradition of hard-boiled crime fiction is Ross Macdonald, even more than Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. All three concocted similarly byzantine narratives, but Macdonald always rooted his in the reverberations of fractured families, which is the story at the heart of Chinatown.
As a clockwork thriller, I don't see how it could be much better. Every element is in place just so: Jerry Goldsmith's music is as lush and overheated as Southern California itself, the production design is studded with scores of authentic details, John Alonzo's photography bursts with warm color and texture. Noah Cross is one of the great screen villains, and the 68-year-old John Huston memorably takes that home, playing it with an almost queasy-making gusto and verve. Polanski's appearance is more than a cameo, it's one of the most unnerving moments in the whole picture. And Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway are nearly perfect, their chemistry curdled to precisely the correct degree. Chinatown also has one of the greatest final scenes and closing lines of any movie. This is a movie that often turns out to be even better than you remember.
Phil #30: Comfort and Joy (Bill Forsyth, 1984)
Steven #30: Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)
This was a place where I misjudged our audience—not only did everybody basically like Polanski, and definitely Chinatown, but heck, Phil would rank another one of his that I also like way up high where they belong. But I had run into some real vitriol about Polanski around the time he was under house arrest in Switzerland, fever-ranting death penalty talk and such. So I felt a need to be careful. I had always kind of taken Chinatown for granted for some reason, perhaps exhaustion, and was surprised when I returned to it after a good long while by just how good it is. It's also a safe consensus choice, the one of all his films that probably the fewest deny.
A top 30 is better than a top 40, and here we are now, but it's not as good as a top 20, let alone a top 10, etc. I do like the big lists but have to admit they inevitably hit some doldrums after the novelty of breaking the gate wears off (and particularly when they proceed at the glacial pace of this redux). The second-guessing alone can drive you batty—Chinatown is here at #30 because I had changed my mind about putting The Tenant at #34. I thought Chinatown was better than #30, but I was pretty sure I didn't want to get sidetracked by a debate on morals and art and personal behavior. In the lower half of these lists it can feel like there's time and space for a representative (or two) of everything. Later you can start to feel kind of cramped up.