In the wake of Robert Towne’s new film “Ask the Dust,” it’s an opportune time to take a look at Towne’s previously masterful crafting of a superior 1930s Los Angeles tale, 1974’s “Chinatown.”
Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson at his best) is a mediocre private investigator hired by Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray to investigate the possibility her husband, Hollis Mulwray, the chief engineer of the water department, is having an affair. Soon, Hollis is found dead and the real Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) threatens to sue Jake if he doesn’t drop the case.
Despite the many setbacks along the way, Gittes eventually uncovers the truth. But this is the prime of cinematic cynicism; knowing the truth doesn’t allow this very flawed hero to tie up all the loose ends. It’s as if someone set Humphrey Bogart’s Phillip Marlowe loose in the real world.
Towne’s screenplay matches perfectly with the subtle horror touches of Roman Polanski’s direction (until then best known for “Rosemary’s Baby”) to hold the viewers rapt through a strange plot involving water, money, murder, and incest.
Polanski’s guest appearance as a cut-rate thug who slashes Nicholson’s nose shows how far away this film is from the comparative civility of Hitchcock territory.
Classics often have the stigma of being good for you, but not really enjoyable. “Chinatown” retains a very fierce bite.
It reinvigorated the moribund detective genre and showed the truly strange and horryifying depths to which humanity is capable of sinking. What if you saw the face of evil and could do nothing do only pray it didn’t turn on you?
Thinking of trying to “Ask the Dust?” Forget it. Instead, begin the long path toward understanding the rules of “Chinatown.”
—Staff writer Scoop A. Wasserstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.