Chinatown (1974), Erin Brockovich (2001)


Here’s a double feature for home entertainment.

Rent Chinatown and Erin Brockovich. Start with Chinatown the first evening and follow it the next evening with Erin Brockovich. The historical complementarity of these films is uncanny and highly entertaining. I predict you’ll find it a rich and memorable experience.

Chinatown is arguably the finest screenplay in Hollywood history: Robert Towne wrote a true masterpiece. And the acting is superb. John Huston as the perverted Darwinian robber baron, Noah Cross, a man guilty of an unspeakable sin amidst his own family, is especially powerful among several standout performances, including those of Jack Nicholson as Detective Jake Gittes and Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray.

The movie dramatizes massive and complex secretive corruption in 1930s Los Angeles, then a “small town” but showing great growth potential, over supplying water and electricity through Los Angeles Water and Power (a forerunner of Pacific Gas and Electric).

Towne, aided by Roman Polanski’s inspired, opportunistic directing, sets out to lure us to, and then trap us in, a nightmarish take on human primatology. Chinatown is one of the darkest films ever made. I hate what it says, but I greatly admire how it says it. No matter how far down I worry this script, it stays together in an invincible, shattering and disheartening unity. It’s almost inhumanly good.

Towne fools you in the very beginning into thinking you are peering back in yet another remembrance of the Noir/P.I. tradition; but he ends up clubbing you with the surprise of the hard-boiled detective Jake Gittes revealed as a naif about the monstrous origins and proclivities of Homo sapiens. Chinatown seems a Whodunnit for a while but slowly reveals itself to be a Darwinian revelation in the form of a conspiracy film about power and the urge for personal prevalence at any cost lusted after by super-primate killers: humans; us. We brutes, Chinatown rubs in, haven’t crawled very far from the soupy swamp (the good but unfit Hollis Mulwray prefers to think of the “miracle” of life originating in tide pools and sloughs) in the deadly wilds from which all life emerged. H20 comprises the depths  of Chinatown, and ironic Bible-evoking names echo (“Noah Cross,” “EVElyn Mulwray,” and “Hollis [i.e., Holy] Mulwray”), all of which helps Towne impart an elemental quality to his dark story.

The three biggest clues in the film are: (1) the interplay between Cross and Gittes in the scene at the Albacore Club luncheon Cross hosts for Gittes: note, for instance, that the heads are still on the fish served for lunch and pay attention to the exchange on this between Cross and the vastly intellectually overmatched and ironically sheltered Gittes; and note elsewhere in this same scene more evidence of Gittes’s inferior brainpower to that of Cross when it doesn’t occur to Gittes why Cross is so curious about which specific officers in the LAPD are investigating the murder of Hollis Mulwray. (2) The scene near the end of the film when Cross, accompanied by hired muscle, comes on an evening to an address provided by Gittes to abduct Evelyn’s daughter Catherine and is confronted by Gittes about certain evidence Gittes now possesses of Cross’s murder of Hollis Mulwray, his one-time business partner, friend and co-founder of the Los Angeles Water and Power Company, and especially the already fabulously wealthy Cross’s ensuing explanation to Gittes of why he, Cross, keeps on conspiring for even more power (“The future, Mr. Gittes, the future!”); and not to forget Cross’s casual confession later in this hellish scene of his Stalinesque drowning of Hollis Mulwray in a saltwater pond because Hollis had told the monstrous Cross of his fascination with tide pools and sloughs–in Hollis’s words of wonderment as an idealist, “That’s where life began!” Do we not have here an atrocious Darwinian punishment of Romanticism? Note as well Cross’s characterization of human nature to Gittes that includes the exclamatory word, “anything!” (3) The massive, years-long, multi-stage conspiracy of Cross’s which is finally deduced by Gittes and which is the big story under the apparent story.

Chinatown is a moonless masterpiece claiming a prevalence for sheer, amoral power. It’s a despairing sublimity that says: If you’re rich and powerful enough, you can get away with anything bestial–personal and social.

Then cheer up a little the next evening with Erin Brockovich as it restores some hope in idealism and, perhaps a little, avenges Hollis Mulwray and especially the women, Evelyn and Catherine Mulwray. It’s a fine film about sleuthing–it’s a detective story even though not officially named so–in which the progeny of the Los Angeles Water and Power Company, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, gets some comeuppance for trying to hide lethal practices afflicting numerous innocent customers. Something of the more hopeful 1990’s supercedes that darker something of the 1920’s and 1930’s dramatized in Chinatown.  Erin Brockovich  is the inverse of Chinatown.

Both films are wonderfully composed down to the smallest details. As one example, note that Detective Gittes discovers in but a glimpse the Screen Actor’s Guild card of the murdered small-time movie actress Ida Sessions in rifling her wallet; this tiny revelation is extremely important in understanding how peerless a grand and awful conspirator Noah Cross really is: you have to tie Sessions’s profession to Cross’s Satanic, conspiratorial intelligence: that is, think about why he’d have chosen poor, scuffling Ida for her brief acting appearance early in Cross’s masterful conspiracy. Note, too, the classic genre parallel between the hostile and/or stupid bureaucrats in both films, bureaucrats each sleuth has to circumvent to obtain empirical data to prove evil deeds.

Sure beats Avatar.