Chinatown – Jan. 20 @ 6pm

Chinatown
Dir. Roman Polanski, 1974

It is only appropriate that we begin a series on city films with a film that is itself about the origin of a city. Chinatown, written by Robert Towne and directed by Roman Polanski, is nominally a murder mystery, but what intrigues us here is the backdrop against which the film is set: the water politics and battles of early 20th century Los Angeles. The film follows protagonist Jake Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson), a private detective who finds himself dragged further and further into a case involving the head of the Department of Water and Power. Based somewhat on the life of William Mulholland and the California Water Wars, Chinatown manages the remarkable feat of not merely dramatizing urban history for a contemporary audience but, as John Walton argues in the attached article, impacting the way that history gets made subsequently.

Also worth considering is the way in which this film fits within the (largely urban) tradition of American noir films and the detective fiction that preceded them. As a style, noir has a fairly specific historical timeframe; though there is no scholarly consensus on the exact endpoint, most film historians regard the immediate post-war years as the era of films noirs. By the 1970s, a new generation of directors resuscitated the style, self-consciously borrowing elements from the noir tradition; these films would come to be known as neo-noirs. Chinatown is an early and important example of that genre. Polanski’s acknowledges his debt to the noir tradition by casting John Huston in the role of business titan Noah Cross; it was one of Huston’s films, The Maltese Falcon, that had inspired French critic Nino Frank to coin the term “film noir” when it was first screened in Paris following the war. The film’s relationship to noir, and the broader relationship between noir and the city, is taken up by Rosalyn Deutsche in her attached article. There, she is responding to earlier article by Mike Davis, which also accompanies this post as suggested reading.

Recommended readings:

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~ by acerve on January 15, 2010.

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