Anatomy of a Neo-Noir Masterpiece

By Rob LathamFebruary 24, 2020

Anatomy of a Neo-Noir Masterpiece

The Big Goodbye by Sam Wasson

CHINATOWN IS PROBABLY my favorite film. This is not exactly a controversial opinion. Roman Polanski’s 1974 neo-noir masterpiece is routinely cited on “best of all time” lists and, in 2010, was adjudged the greatest movie ever made by critics writing for the Guardian and Observer newspapers. I have seen it dozens of times from start to finish, including in a shimmering 35mm print at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, and will often queue up favorite scenes on my well-used DVD. Usually, these are not the show-stopper moments — like the stunning revelation of father-daughter incest or the brutal shoot-’em-up at the end — but quieter bits of business: Jack Nicholson, as private investigator Jake Gittes, genially quizzing a group of senile old ladies who have been used as patsies in an epic real estate scam, or furtively trailing the jittery Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) through the Pasadena streets, the taillight he broke to facilitate the chase serving as a fitful beacon in the dusk.

Other fans will savor different, indelible moments, scenes where the filmmakers’ vision of a sumptuously corrupt 1930s Los Angeles seems flawlessly wrought, from the keen intelligence of Robert Towne’s script and the deft touch of Polanski’s direction to Richard Sylbert’s meticulous production design and the sinuous beauty of Jerry Goldsmith’s score. Chinatown was nominated for 11 Academy Awards but won only one, for Towne’s original screenplay, the Oscar voters perhaps being put off by the film’s corrosive vision of their cherished hometown. Looking back now, some of their choices seem almost laughable: The Towering Inferno’s visual bombast triumphing over John Alonzo’s starkly elegant cinematography, or affable old vet Art Carney winning best male lead (for the forgettable Harry and Tonto) over the finest screen actor of his generation giving the performance of his life. But the voters likely had their own backstage, back-stabbing reasons for not favoring foreign upstart Polanski or the suavely self-assured producer, Robert Evans: as Sam Wasson shows in compelling detail in his fine new book The Big Goodbye, the makers of Chinatown were simply too young, too ambitious, too controversial, and their movie, while undeniably brilliant, was like a brash finger stuck in the eye of the Hollywood establishment.

Ironically, the film was also, at the same time, one of the final emanations of the hallowed but decadent studio system. Adolph Zukor’s Paramount Pictures, along with all the other studios, had fallen on hard times in the television era, churning out opulent clunkers, like The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and In Harm’s Way (1965), that fell flat with contemporary, more youthful audiences. Virtually bankrupt, their mythical backlot surrendered to the TV networks, Paramount was purchased, in 1966, by Gulf and Western Industries, whose owner, Charles Bluhdorn, decided, on a whim, to install the 36-year-old Evans as head of production.

Evans had been rehearsing for the part since at least 1956, when he was “discovered” by actress Norma Shearer lounging by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel and recruited to play her late husband, MGM mogul Irving Thalberg, in a Lon Chaney biopic. From portraying a boy-wonder producer, he went on, a decade later, to become one, almost singlehandedly turning Paramount’s fortunes around with an astonishing series of blockbuster hits: Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Love Story (1970), The Godfather (1972). When Evans asked Bluhdorn for a share of the profits in his new contract, the eccentric, irascible old man offered him a unique arrangement instead: he could stay on as head of operations while also producing his own movies, which the studio would finance and support. As Evans points out in his engaging 1994 memoir The Kid Stays in the Picture, he was the first man to enjoy such an arrangement since the reign of Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox in the 1940s.

For his debut feature, Evans turned to fabled script doctor Robert Towne, who was just then coming into his own as a solo screenwriter, with The Last Detail (1973) in production at Columbia. Towne had for some time been laboring on an ambitious script about the Los Angeles of his youth: a mythic place, bright and glamorous and smelling of eucalyptus, yet also a site built on an epic crime — the theft of water rights from the surrounding farmlands to feed the burgeoning metropolis. Inspired by the hardboiled fiction of Raymond Chandler, with its cynical vision of urban corruption, Towne had the brilliant notion of crafting a throwback noir in which the central mystery the detective set out to solve would implicate the original sin of the city’s foundation. When Evans asked why the story was called “Chinatown,” given that little if any of the action took place there, Towne replied that the neighborhood was a metaphor, a state of mind — in Wasson’s words, “a condition of total awareness almost indistinguishable from blindness. Dreaming you’re in paradise and waking up in the dark — that’s Chinatown.” Evans, never a deep thinker, just smiled and nodded; he had the perfect director in mind for the picture, someone who knew all too well about darkness.

Roman Polanski had helped propel Paramount’s remarkable turnaround with Rosemary’s Baby, a box office hit that also scored well with the critics. Yet much had occurred in the intervening years, most notoriously the brutal killing of the director’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, by the minions of Charles Manson. Luring Polanski back to Hollywood after that gruesome tragedy was a difficult task, requiring all of Evans’s legendary skills at persuasion (as Polanski once quipped, the man’s title at Paramount should have been “head of seduction”). But the opportunity to helm a well-funded, handsomely mounted genre picture seething with repressed anger and violence, a movie that would cruelly puncture the myth of the Golden West to which he had once been in thrall, proved too tempting to turn down. Moreover, with the head of the studio also producing, Polanski was guaranteed all the support he would need to realize his vision.

But first, he had to wrest the property away from Towne, whose script was an overlong, over-complicated mess. Wasson is excellent on their fraught “collaboration,” a series of mutually exasperated story conferences that saw Polanski ruthlessly slash away extraneous subplots, whittling the narrative down to its core: the tale of a cynical private eye who thinks he’s seen it all, only to encounter depths of depravity beyond his worst imagining. The ugliest confrontation related to the film’s ending: in Towne’s version, Evelyn Mulwray murders her barbarous father, Noah Cross, and saves their luckless love child, a resolution Polanski found unrealistic and sentimental; he favored a darker denouement, with Evelyn killed by a stray bullet as her daughter falls into the clutches of her incestuous grandfather (played by a reptilian John Huston). Disgusted with this “nihilistic” conclusion, Towne essentially boycotted the production, especially after Evans sided with the director. While Towne’s screenplay won an Oscar and has long been hailed as a modern classic, Wasson makes a strong case that its brilliance is really due to Polanski’s shrewd and uncompromising decisions — decisions Towne felt were colored by the director’s own torturous personal history (“I think it was impossible,” Towne later remarked, “for Roman to come back to Los Angeles and not end his movie with an attractive blond lady being murdered”).

In terms of the film’s casting, Nicholson was always fated to play Jake Gittes — indeed, Towne wrote the part with his old friend in mind — but Dunaway was no one’s first choice to play Evelyn Mulwray. The filmmakers were concerned about her reputation as an on-set troublemaker, a fear that was amply borne out by her eventual behavior. My favorite of several anecdotes Wasson relates involves a stray hair from her glossy coiffure popping up and ruining a shot; when Polanski reached over and plucked it, she erupted: “I don’t believe it! I just don’t believe it! That motherfucker pulled my hair out!” A screaming scene ensued, after which Dunaway and her agent tried to get Polanski replaced as director — a crisis that took all of Evans’s diplomatic skills to resolve.

Polanski also had his problems with the amiable Nicholson. When the star refused to leave his trailer, where he was watching a Lakers-Celtics game that had gone into double overtime, Polanski stormed in, grabbed the TV set, and smashed it on the ground. Enraged, Nicholson began tossing random items at him, including the clothing he was wearing; Polanski responded in kind, and soon both men were ranting in their underwear. Despite these occasional dustups with his actors, the director was generally a calming presence on the set, intensely focused yet also poised and urbane — and, in his funny broken English, often quite charming. (Wasson doesn’t soft-pedal his seamier side, though — most notably and deplorably his fondness for underage girls, which led to his eventual exile from Hollywood.)

The Big Goodbye excels at such insider insights, gleaned from a thorough canvassing of the relevant archives and from interviews with most of the principal players. The core of the book is an engrossing history of the film’s development, from Dick Sylbert’s painstaking production design, driven by a set of “aesthetic rules” that looked to capture, in visual terms, the movie’s overarching themes, to assistant director Howard Koch’s careful location scouting, which turned up unspoiled “period” sites in a city infamous for bulldozing its history. Wasson makes clearer than any other source I know how much screenwriter Towne relied on an old college chum, Edward Taylor, not just as a sounding board for story ideas but virtually as an uncredited co-author, and he relates in welcome detail the circumstances surrounding the replacement of Stanley Cortez by Alonzo as director of photography — because the old-school Cortez was uncomfortable with new cinematic technologies, such as the highly mobile Panaflex camera.

There is also a fine analysis of the post-production crisis over the movie’s score, with Polanski commissioning a dissonant avant-garde suite by Phillip Lambro that had to be jettisoned after a disastrous audience preview, and Evans literally begging Goldsmith to whip up a jazzier alternative at the last minute. Finally, Wasson is deeply insightful on the studio politics surrounding the production, describing how Evans had to fend off the envious meddling of Paramount President Frank Yablans, a vulgar oaf who sought to undermine him at every turn. Reading about these missteps and travails, one marvels at the fact that the movie got made at all, much less became the exquisite masterpiece that it is.

Wasson is less sure-footed when it comes to the socio-cultural context of the late studio era, the years of the so-called “New Hollywood” (a term he barely uses); for this background, Peter Biskind’s classic 1998 volume Easy Riders, Raging Bulls remains indispensable. And his occasional forays into cultural history are often quite ham-handed, usually devolving into clichés about post-Watergate disillusionment and the death of the ’60s, his most astute observations being essentially pilfered from Joan Didion’s The White Album (1979). Here is how, for example, Wasson describes the arrival of a heady new narcotic onto the scene: “In satin shoes and cravat, cocaine doffed its hat and stepped into Hollywood, and promised, for a moment (and then another), a fraudulent dream in the heat of a cold sun.” He does, however, provide solid detail on how specific individuals became involved with the drug, with Evans using it to combat agonizing sciatica and Nicholson as a party favor for his houseguests (“there was […] an opulent cocaine pyramid pointing skyward in a help-yourself bowl in the foyer”).

Even more grievously, Wasson’s prose degenerates at times into amorphous, pseudo-lyrical fugues, usually when he’s trying to evoke an encompassing mood, such as a punishing season of Santa Ana winds that “swath[ed] the city in lethargy and an unright [sic] argument of fog and sun certain tense Angelenos inherited from the sky.” Or here is his description of the strained atmosphere on set during Evelyn’s climactic revelation of her father’s incest: “Released from the past, something’s ghost heavied [sic] the waiting with bad comings, wrongs, and the vertiginous air of summer thunder.” I don’t have a clue what that means.

These, however, are quibbles. Because what this book offers at its heart is a rich and enthralling account of one of the finest movies ever to come out of Hollywood. Chinatown is a melancholy and savage film that repays repeated viewings, especially when armed with the penetrating insights and fascinating details Wasson has marshalled here with such loving care.


Rob Latham is a LARB senior editor.

LARB Contributor

Rob Latham is the author of Consuming Youth: Vampires, Cyborgs, and the Culture of Consumption (Chicago, 2002), co-editor of the Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction (2010), and editor of The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction (2014) and Science Fiction Criticism: An Anthology of Essential Writings (2017).


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