AFI #21: Chinatown


It has been quite a few years since I’ve screened Chinatown so I was looking forward to watching it again — I was not disappointed. I love this film for a couple of reasons. First, it was made in 1974 but it takes place in the 1940s and it’s a wonderful homage to the classic noir. Credit to director Roman Polanski for that, and say what you want about the guy’s personal life he’s a hell of a director. For me though Chinatown is his best and will be his film legacy (unfortunately his personal legacy will always be about his rape conviction and his wife’s murder by the Manson gang). With Chinatown Polanski delivers us to 1940s Los Angeles and a film that could just as easily have starred Humphrey Bogart as Jake Gittes and Lauren Bacall as Evelyn Mulwray. The film works as noir on every level from the cinematography to the dialogue to the plot.

But the real star of the film is Jack Nicholson who delivers a perfect private eye with just enough toughness combined with smarts and sarcasm. And really, nobody does sarcasm like Jack. Early Nicholson is the best Nicholson for my money, whether it’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Easy Rider or The Shining. His performance in Chinatown is classic Jack. Coupled with Faye Dunaway you have a memorable film couple that does indeed hold up against Bogie and Bacall and Hepburn and Tracy. How gorgeous was Faye Dunaway in the 70s? It’s no coincidence by the way that both Dunaway and Nicholson are all over the AFI list, Nicholson for this and the aforementioned Cuckoo’s Nest and Easy Rider, Dunaway for Network and Bonnie and Clyde.

It really shouldn’t be a surprise that I love Chinatown — I’m a sucker for noir, whether it’s classic like The Maltese Falcon or neo like LA Confidential. Who doesn’t love a good private detective film? Sam Spade. Philip Marlowe. Jim Rockford!

Finally, Chinatown also brings us one of the most demented plots in noir history. It’s not enough for there to be murder, corruption and sex — Polanski and writer Robert Towne throw in incest for good measure. How creepy is John Huston’s character Noah Cross. I love it when Jack asks him why he needs to buy up all the real estate in the Valley, after all he he’s already worth $20 million or so. Cross says “The future, Mr. Gittes! The future.” It’s not enough for him to be rich, he has to leave a legacy that includes being the most powerful man in L.A.

So what does it take to be a private eye? Just ask J.J. Gittes: “Let me explain something to you, Walsh. This business requires a certain amount of finesse.”

Next up: We crack the Top 20 with It’s a Wonderful Life

AFI #33: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

“I must be crazy to be in a loony bin like this.” — R. P. McMurphy (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)

They don’t get much better than this. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a masterpiece of storytelling and a tour de force of acting led by Jack Nicholson in, for my money, his greatest role. Jack won the first of his three Oscars for playing R.P. McMurphy, who ends up getting a little more than he bargained for when he cons his way out of prison and into a mental hospital to escape the hard work in jail. McMurphy is not crazy, but maybe being surrounded by nut jobs rubs off on him. Or maybe trying to act rationally in a mental institution is impossible, because the more McMurphy tries to make things “normal” for his fellow inmates the harder things get inside.

The film is based on the award winning novel by Ken Kesey, and the title of the book and film comes from a children’s poem but essentially means to “transcend the absurdity of man’s earthly existence.” The story is a commentary on oppression and control, specifically control in terms of mental incarceration and what it truly means to be crazy. Of course, the title foreshadows the ending of the film in which (Spoiler Alert) Chief helps McMurphy transcend his earthly existence by killing him out of mercy after he is given a lobotomy. Heady stuff this.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest swept the big five Academy Awards in 1976, winning best actor, best actress for Louise Fletcher as the controlling Nurse Ratched, Best screenplay, best director for Milos Forman and of course Best Picture. Forman doesn’t get a lot of credit for being such a great director, but he also won a best director Oscar for Amadeus and directed some wonderful films including The People Vs. Larry Flynt, Ragtime and Man on the Moon. The film is also fun to watch because there are several actors in it who went on to become much more famous, including Christopher Lloyd and Danny DeVito.

I absolutely love One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and watching it again today was a treat. Jack is classic from the opening scene and that shit-eating grin is one in a million. There are also some very memorable scenes, especially the drunken party on the ward and the boat scene when McMurphy escapes with the gang and takes them on a fishing trip. Of course, there’s the famous line when McMurphy says “I want to watch the god damn World Series,” but like a lot of famous lines (Bogart never said “Play it Again, Sam”) — he never actually said it.

Next Up: The Godfather Part II