So a couple of weeks ago I realized that I needed a plot for a story I was writing, and that the plot of Chinatown would work perfectly well. “Hey Jen,” I said to myself, “aren’t there sequels to Chinatown that you’ve been meaning to watch?” And there are. So I had a Chinatown marathon last week. It was awesome.
Film buffs don’t need me to say anything about Chinatown, it’s a classic, and deservedly so. Non-film-buffs, particularly people like me who distrust the “classic” label on movies, should know this: it’s amazing. I mean, enthralling and mindblowing and a really, truly excellent piece of noir fiction. Jack Nicholson plays Jake Gittes, a private detective in 1930s Los Angeles, who stumbles upon something a little bit bigger than his usual divorce-investigation cases. And, being the heart-of-gold kind of bastard that he is, he just can’t let it go. If you like hardboiled detective stories and have never (for some unfathomable reason) seen Chinatown, go out and see it right now.
And it’s technically perfect, too. Say what you will about Roman Polanski (and there are a lot of things to say about him, many of them horrible), he’s a brilliant director. Chinatown is an amazingly taut piece of filmmaking; there is not a single frame, not a single line of dialog, that isn’t necessary. It makes it a little brutal to watch – particularly with that ending – but unmistakably genius. I have to say I didn’t realize how excellent it was until I started making notes on the plot structure. It’s seamless, despite the severe tone shift in the last third of the movie that turns it from a noir to a gothic piece. (That was where I first saw Chinatown – in a class on Gothic literature.)
Much less well-known are the sequels to Chinatown. The first is The Two Jakes, starring and directed by Jack Nicholson some sixteen years after Chinatown was released, and it bombed in the theaters. I can see why, to be honest. The problem with The Two Jakes is, like the rest of its structure, twofold. First is that it makes no sense unless you’ve seen Chinatown, and fairly recently. It’s a direct sequel, and most of Jake Gittes’ reactions are meaningless unless you recognize his flashbacks. And the second problem is that The Two Jakes can only suffer by the comparison. It’s not nearly as tight as Chinatown, rambling a little more between its converging plot arcs and incorporating more characters. And Gittes is, if anything, much less likable than in the first movie, and he wasn’t that charming to begin with.
That’s a problem with the movie qua movie. The other problem I had with it was that I just didn’t care about the two main characters at all. It is, at heart (without spoiling too much of the story), a movie about two guys trying to protect a woman by not telling her anything. And I keep looking at the woman and thinking, She deserves better than this. I have to say, at least it is a solid enough piece of writing that you don’t have to ignore anything or do damage to any of the characters to read it that way; everyone in the movie is a very realistic person. But the movie wants you to sympathize with the men, and I just can’t.
Enlightened readers are now looking at the title of the post and thinking, really? Really. The third planned film in the trilogy was to be called Gittes vs. Gittes, and follow both Jake’s divorce and another Los Angeles public works nightmare – a land grab. This second plot was turned into the villain’s motivation in the spectacular Disney live action/animation squish Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
(The clerk laughed at me when I checked all three movies out at the library, saying I was going to have a noir movie marathon. I was serious!)
I have to say, although Who Framed Roger Rabbit? isn’t strictly a noir picture (it has too happy of an ending), it does a credible job. You’ve got your seedy detective with a tragic past, your femme fatale, your ignorant but useful client, and an over-the-top villain with a wonderfully mundane evil plan. Using the third Chinatown plot for a movie about cartoon characters at war with one another? Genius. And then there’s that ending. Sure, it’s a happy ending in the world of the movie…but the evil plot they subverted there is one that came to pass in the world we live in. It’s nothing like as brutal as the end of Chinatown, or even The Two Jakes, but it does have a little sting in the tail, nonetheless. If you haven’t seen this movie since you were a kid, I highly recommend checking it out again.