"Hey kitty-kat!": Roman Polanski making an appearance in his American masterpiece <em>Chinatown</em>
"Hey kitty-kat!": Roman Polanski making an appearance in his American masterpiece Chinatown
<
1
2
>

[Originally published in Film Comment Vol. 10 No. 6, November-December 1974]

 

It's a good idea to recall periodically no director at, say, RKO in the Forties ever passed a colleague on the lot and called, "Hey, baby, I hear they're giving you a film noir to do next." The term was a critical response, on the part of some French film freaks, to a body of American movies that had been piling up during the war years, a body that continued to grow in size as the postwar films themselves became increasingly darker and more intense in mood.

Film noir—thephrase—crossed the Channel and passed into English film criticism, where it began to suggest (as almost any colorful phrase has a way of suggesting in English film criticism) some kind of hothouse specimen. Characteristically, American francocinéphiles grafted it onto their own critical vocabulary in order to celebrate not the wondrously rich heritage of their homegrown cinema, but rather the grubbily exotic blooms of Godard (Breathless) and Truffaut (Shoot the Piano Player), themselves in large measure derived from the genuine, originally American article.

More than a decade has gone by and film noir has finally been discovered at home. Not every workaday reviewer employs the term, but many of them have a vague idea what it's about, and whenever a new movie comes along in which the atmosphere is wishfully sinister and oddball characters proliferate to the confounding of any hope of lucid plot explication, they've learned to dive for prototypes in The Big Sleep the way a seal dives for a fish.

Some filmmakers operate along similar lines. Super-commercialized nostalgia trips of every description inundate theater screens; nostalgia should take longer than "youth films" to wear out its welcome at the box office, but the end will come. Meanwhile, it's been at least partially instrumental in polluting one of the loveliest waterholes directors and critics liked to share.

Once upon a time, a director might segue into a discreet quotation from a predecessor's work, nod respectfully, and proceed about the business of getting his own film made. Not many people were expected to "get it," so the gesture remained a sort of semi-public acknowledgment that one man's film grew out of, and drew strength from, an honorable cinematic tradition. Too frequently nowadays, the hommage serves as a means of borrowing validity for essentially invalid, half-thought-out, insincere, and sometimes campily patronizing work. Eminently hommage-worthyitems like Out of the Past andGun Crazy will not serve to provide material because general audiences cannot be relied upon to pick up on the references. But with Warners Bogey you're home free.

Hence, we find a recent, schlocky addition to the private-eye sub-genre, Shamus, featuring Burt Reynolds being ushered into a refrigerated room with his client-to-be where he must don an overcoat to ward off the freezing cold. The protractedness of the setting-up and the quotation-marked wryness of Buzz Kulik's direction leave no room for doubt: the scene exists primarily as a one-to-one inversion of Bogart's interview with General Sternwood in the steaming conservatory. The rest of the film is consistent with this dubious opening, flaunting its duplication of scenes and details from previous pictures, and pretending to have updated the material simply by exploiting the star's pop-certified machismo value.

Not that generic self-consciousness is necessarily all bad. Nowhere has it proved so explicit a virtue as in the marvelous, and scarcely shown, Gumshoe of Stephen Frears and (very much to the star-as-auteur point) Albert Finney. Frears served as Finney's personal assistant on Charlie Bubbles; and that film's image of Charlie (Finney) using a toy gun to pop off the objectionable members of his household deployed across a panel of closed-circuit TV screens anticipates the multilayered, magically resonant structure of Gumshoe. In it, Finney plays Eddie Ginley, a Hammett-obsessed (also Bogart-obsessed, movie-obsessed, performance-obsessed) bingo caller and patter artist who just for a lark advertises himself as a private dick in the Sam Spade, then finds himself involved in a real case.

A minor masterpiece of faultless footwork, this crammed (less than an hour and a half in running time), nimble pre-nostalgia piece describes a stand-up comic in a trenchcoat trying to come of age. In an incestuous way completely consistent with private-eye thriller plotting, Neville Smith's screenplay enables Eddie to pay off, by means of melodramatic ingenuity, those very psychic wounds that have necessitated his fantasy-embracing lifestyle. It's his in-laws who are guilty, including the girl who dropped him to marry his upwardly mobile brother. And Eddie gets to lock them all up in that most characteristic chunk of noir iconography, an automobile—to which he holds the key. The film ends with Ginley sitting down in his apartment with teacup and cigarette—and trenchcoat and hat. As Fifties-style rock music blares from his phonograph, he repeats in voiceover the opening hard-guy soliloquy about this being "just like any other morning" to the rest of the folks in Liverpool, but with this difference for him: "I had to start learning to get along without the family." The ambiguity of this last lengthy take is profound. Is Eddie locked forever into the clinical pathology of playing his absurdly stylized role, or has the fantasy succeeded in delivering him from his demons and freeing him to become an adult?

Gumshoe is highly self-aware about its exploration and exploitation of a genre, but it never descends to trivializing cuteness (despite the fact that a lot of it is very funny) because it is committed to a fundamentally serious treatment of the problem of finding, or making for oneself, a personal way-of-being. Such seriousness was not apparent during one's—my—first look at Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye. Ringing in my mind's ear were some quotable quotes from Altman and/or screenwriter Leigh Brackett, to the effect that Philip Marlowe would be pathetically out of place in the Seventies, that this film would put him out of his misery, that the myth of friendship was just that, etc., etc., etc.

And indeed the revisionism of this particular Altman film sits less well—on an initial encounter, at least—than that of his previous works. One may cherish many Western archetypes that get demythicized in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, but one is unlikely to come to the theater cherishing the character of John McCabe as created in some obscure novel. Not so, pretty obviously, with Marlowe, whether out of Chandler or Hawks–Bogart. Marlowe exists, Marlowe is something, and the characters and relationships in the novel The Long Goodbye are remarkable enough that the mauling they took in the adaptive process could not be assimilated without considerable pain and resentment.

There is no suggestion here that Altman had to be faithful to the letter of Chandler's original; but I do suggest that if you're going to demonstrate the outdatedness and the fallaciousness of an artist's vision, you can't expect to be applauded—or to prove anything, for that matter—if you bash what you're criticizing out of shape and then point at it and say, Wow, that's some silly shape! One example: showing the audience, but not Marlowe, that Terry Lennox's knuckles are raw from the pounding he's given his wife, so that Marlowe seems, at a glance, more of a fool than he really is for believing in his friend. Another: reducing the disturbed but articulate novelist Roger Wade to a lumbering barbarian who can't get two sentences in sequence—and who, in addition, is tricked up to evoke, visually, associations with Hemingway, a particularly trendy target of opportunity for simpleminded denigration these days.

There was a self-righteous tone to many of the directorial remarks preceding the release of The Long Goodbye as though it were the hip contemporary filmmaker's responsibility to purge us of all those debilitating illusions Hollywood had put in our way. Certainly the "Hooray for Hollywood" voiceover that initiates the movie and at the end underscores the onscreen hijinks of Elliott Gould's Marlowe seems to make the point explicitly enough. One felt—I still feel—that it was indeed Elliott Gould, not Philip Marlowe or any variation thereof, whom we saw exuberantly hoofing toward the bleary luminescence at the end of that Mexican road, relieved henceforward of any obligation to lend credence to outmoded creatures of the morbidly romantic imagination, turned loose in Real Life without a Scenario, movies without a Hollywood. (And I must admit that Altman's and Gould's California Split stunningly makes good on the promise I'm inferring here.)

In one respect I have to concur with Altman: film noir is terrifically romantic. The uncompromising deadendedness of Gun Crazy nevertheless includes room for some sense of voluptuous consummation in the camera's soaring up and away from the shattered bodies of Bart Tare and Annie Laurie Starr lying together in the swamp mist. It's heady stuff, and I've been present when it worked its black magic on an audience that had conspicuously come to jeer a presumed potboiler exhumed to satisfy some genre freak's notion of aesthetic merit. Must audiences, and filmmakers, be saved from such transcendent morbidity?

The films noirs of the classic period (and Paul Schrader in part defines noir as a period in American film history, in his invaluable Spring 1972 Film Comment piece "Notes on Film Noir") individually and cumulatively stood as a bitter response to a decade and a half of self-imposed screen optimism—and probably not an entirely conscious response. If the films noirs (or noir descendants) of today are any sort of response, it must be of a markedly different kind. Of nostalgia-tripping, recreating the artifacts of the past for the sake of doing so, we have already spoken briefly; it is a decadent process, and if anything is illuminated thereby, it's the calculated self-interest of people who want to sell what the public is buying. That in itself is a cynical response to a cynical era hungry for optimism—an almost precise reversal of the climate in which noir was born.

If we admire the post–World War Two films noirs as healthily subversive gestures ("American movies ... in the throes of their deepest and most creative funk," in Schrader's phrase), what are we to say about professional-despair pix like Badge 373, Busting, and most of their fellow cop movies? or the programmatic mutual-annihilation games monitored by Michael Winner? or the abstract loathsomeness of Equal Opportunity employer Marty Augustine in The Long Goodbye? Rather than reactions against blinkered optimism, such gestures fall in line with a general negativity that is enforced by a fear of being caught out as some kind of idealist. "Everybody knows" that "everybody's corrupt," so by all means let's do business.

In such spiritually dead air, resonance becomes increasingly difficult to achieve. One sees it in the debasement of standard noir icons. The car, for instance, has virtually lost its capacity to convey nuances of character and event, to participate in anything like the sleek ripple and jagged surge of the old noir textures. In The Big Sleep, Out of the Past, They Live by Night, Gun Crazy, The Asphalt Jungle, we never thought about the machine as much as the fact that it bore, and was sometimes violently guided by, Bogart, Mitchum, Farley Granger, John Dall, Sterling Hayden. McQueen's and Hackman's epochmaking drives aside, in contemporary noir (or potentially noir movies) one car, like one hilltop or one road barrier or one pedestrian with a shopping cart, is indistinguishable from another; and directors are so involved with racking up the requisite number of crinkled fenders, powdered headlights, violated intersections, and driven-through showroom windows that the minimal niceties of relative location and trajectory are mostly abandoned.

In this sense Robert Altman, for all his abuse of hallowed archetypes, deserves to exonerated of any real or implied charges in the preceding few paragraphs. It took me a second, long-delayed look at The Long Goodbye to confirm that; others may have been more perceptive the first time around. At any rate, if The Long Goodbyeisn't really fair to [the novel] The Long Goodbye,nevertheless it is one of the few Sixties-Seventies films to establish and make expressive use of a contemporary noir environment—an environment, that is, in cinematic terms more concrete, more ordered, more strongly and responsibly felt than the vaguely journalistic soothsaying which provides the moral and aesthetic fiber of the facile-negativity school. For any contemporary noir cinema would need a good deal of reinventing. Barring the possibility of (very sympathetic) antiquarian experiments like Bogdanovich's black-and-white films, the new film noir must be in color and, if not widescreen, at least wider-screen than anything out of the classic noir period. Obviously there will be nothing directly comparable to the tall, inky-shadowed, vertically speared frame environment of Anthony Mann and John Alton: T-Men, Raw Deal, Border Incident, and the outrageously dynamic The Black Book (aka Reign of Terror), which happens to be a splendid film noir set during the French Revolution.

John Frankenheimer's 99 and 44/100% Dead has comic-strip-style title art exploding into a scarcely less subdued real-life shot of an American flag crackling above the scene of a gangland rub-out, and features athletic action sequences angled and assembled like something out of National Comics. Blake Edwards' 1967 Gunn, a Technicolor revisit to his Peter Gunn television series, takes a fetishistic delight in liquid or liquid-looking surfaces, streamlined hot and cold color matches, lubricious camera movements, and even slipperier patterns of conversational flow (reflecting, according to Andrew Sarris, "the very, very contemporary view of individual lives as being composed less of experiences than of auditions"), from the opening image of a motor yacht slipping out of the darkness to the cool burbling of a Henry Mancini motif.

The Long Goodbye was photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond, the master cinematographer who previously shot McCabe and Images for Altman, and who has made a specialty of finding ways to capture true and evocative film images by means of the light naturally available on the scene. (Several times during the picture, and still more rigorously in his subsequent Cinderella Libertyfor Mark Rydell, Zsigmond gets a viewable something on film relying on nothing but the flare of a match.) His dusky color eye only seems to slur the chromatic textures of Marlowe's world. The colors are there, fully saturated. But the three o'clock in the morning of the soul when Elliott Gould goes searching for his cat's favorite brand of pet chow seems to overlay the whole film, so that everything looks soaked in muggy heat, fuzzed over less by optical unsharpness than by the weariness of a sensibility that expects no surprises, no matter how comically shitty life's ineptitude becomes. Yet the sensibility, and Gould/Marlowe, remains ambulatory ("It's OK with me" is his formula for all—or almost all—occasions), and so does Altman/Zsigmond's camera.

Cruising about the periphery of a conversation or cutting across the path of one character in a volatile two-shot, the camera keeps seeking a meaning that is almost never precisely connected—and so the camera movements aren't either—to anybody's line of march. When it is, we often don't realize it until a take is well underway: Marlowe and Mrs. Roger Wade (Nina van Pallandt) take up opposite ends of the Panavision frame playing verbal games with each other. The camera moves in; sure, fine, standard intensification tactics—it's OK with me, Bob. But it keeps moving in, and we become aware that out there in the night, through the window beyond and between our ostensibly principal parties, the white blur of Roger Wade (Sterling Hayden) is walking into the Pacific Ocean.

Film noir stylists of the classic period used to delight in toying with mirrors, puddles, windows, anything that might suggest another—distorted or truer—face of reality. The lens-flare, telephoto-blob contingent of contemporary filmmakers have made us yearn for the clarity of straight-on, in-focus imagery. The Long Goodbye suggests a valid approach to what are elsewhere usually pointless or simplistic exercises in "visual" (the quotation marks are permanent) narration: Marlowe waits outside on the beach in an earlier scene while the Wades alternately yearn toward and snipe at each other in a mutual marital agony of which any noiristes might be proud. Sometimes we are inside with the Wades, looking out; at others, outside with Marlowe. Rarely is the camera still; and if it is, the lens is not, zooming in or out, closing on the distant nonparticipant (Marlowe) and losing the combatants; and just about the time the zoom loses the Wades, a polarizing filter is shifted and the Wades are back again in a window-glass reflection more vivid than the actual man on the beach.

It's a cinematographic tour de force, and not merely on a look-at-my-new-toy level. Marlowe is implicated in that conversation—we are implicated in that conversation—and the never-easeful drift of that privileged private eye elucidates quicksilver transformations in the reality before us that the long-suffering Wades lost control of eons ago. The very fluidity of that reality becomes charged with not so much explosive as implosive force. The zooms that seem to be sucking the life out of the characters—and the roiling white waves that tumble relentlessly toward the glass-walled environment—hold everything in a suspension that mere human beings cannot indefinitely endure. There is no purgative explosion when Roger Wade walks into that sea with his burden of guilt, partly because the guilt is half-imaginary; but also because his demise is an everyday, one-step-at-a-time process that simply reaches an endpoint.

I've refrained from saying anything so far about the latest clear triumph in the revivification of the film noir, Roman Polanski's Chinatown, mainly because I've already enjoyed the opportunity of discussing it at some length in Movietone News #33. Chinatown does function on a principle of explosion; but, although its finale is as aesthetically fulfilled and dramatically forceful as any I know of, the explosion does not purge, as Marlowe's implicitly does. It seems, instead, one in a series of inevitable disasters—inevitable and virtually innate, gathering themselves toward horrible maturity. As Professor Abronsius says in Polanski's Dance of the Vampires, "It's in the order of things."

It makes perfect sense that some of the best of the new films noirs should have been made by men whose personal stylistic drift and thematic preoccupations are congenial to noir itself. Blake Edwards has always found his meanings in delirious style rather than literarily respectable substance. Altman's distrust of institutionalized formality has (as with early Godard) become the very basis of brilliant new forms. Polanski's visions of the horrific are at the same time eerily matter-of-fact, as though he were merely confirming what he long ago learned to be true, and pragmatically accepted. There is a tremendous sense of objets trouvés about his art: the forceful yet mysterious image of the lifebuoy in Knife in the Water, the spoiling potatoes in Repulsion, the improbable and perfectly appropriate Gothic castle of Cul-de-sac, and so on.

In a season when Stings and Gatsbys ought to have hopelessly tainted the period-piece genre, the reconstituted L.A. of 1937 in Chinatown crawls with an authenticity far beyond production department research. When Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), matrimonial peeper extraordinaire, is about to be interrupted in his clandestine inspection of a municipal bigwig's office, Polanski signals the intrusion by way of a sudden flash of white light on a translucent office-door window in the background. It is a piercing evocation, not only of the ambience in numerous Raymond Chandler locations, but also of the half-forgotten memories of anyone who ever waited in, say, some evil-smelling dentist's office in a building mercifully (sadly?) demolished since.

"Chinatown" itself is the most central—and at the same time all-embracing—objet trouvé in the film. It's just that the full implications of the phrase and the place must be trouvé by the viewer, even though some of them are part and parcel of the detective quester's own past. In large measure Chinatown is the past, that country of guilty legend which, one way or another, the best films noirs describe. Everyone of consequence in the film doubles back upon himself in some way, repeating prior mistakes, even causing them to be repeated against the best of conscious intentions.

This is figured in no one more forcefully than in Faye Dunaway's incarnation of the eminently untrustworthy, irresistibly alluring film noir female. Hers is the stellar performance in a film graced by impeccable playing of the tiniest role. The character is incessantly surprising, compelling, troubling. She always seems to be listening for a signal beyond the range of normal hearing—in the tones of the person she's speaking with, in a space beyond the edge of the frame, maybe somewhere within herself. In her plight, the still figurative incestuousness of Gumshoe becomes overt. A quintessential film noir character, she carries the sign of her fatal imperfection on her own person, in the form of a black flaw in the green of her iris. Her lover takes note of it with sardonic tenderness; the police shoot it out of her head, as conveyed by an intolerable makeup effect that suggests that the explosion we spoke of a while ago comes from the core of her being.

Chinatown, it should be noted emphatically, requires no second, settled-down look to confirm its validity (although it surely rewards a second viewing, and still others). It plays straight with the genre, and the closest it comes to winking at the audience-is to feature a hero who has to walk through half the movie with a bandage on his nose. It has a good story to tell, people worth introducing to us, moods to savor and explore. With consummate professionalism, it gets the job done. In 1974, film noir is still possible, and has no apologies to make to anybody.

 

© 1974 Richard T. Jameson