The Film Noir File: Polanski goes to Towne in ‘Chinatown’

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir from the schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

Pick of the Week

“Chinatown” (1974, Roman Polanski). Friday, Dec. 13. 1 a.m. (10 p.m.)

Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway sizzle in "Chinatown."

Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway sizzle in “Chinatown.”

A nervous femme fatale with a slight stutter. A stocky PI with a hot temper and a bandage plastered on his face.

Perhaps not the most promising characters at first glance; in fact they are among noir’s finest. Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson deliver knockout performances in 1974’s “Chinatown,” a neo-noir that ranks as one of the greatest films ever made. Certainly, it’s among the top 10 movies of the 1970s.

With an Oscar-winning screenplay by Robert Towne, directed by Roman Polanski, and produced by Robert Evans, “Chinatown” clearly has roots in classic noir, but also reinvents and subverts the tradition. The movie’s intelligence, artistry and uniquely dark vision elevate it beyond a simple homage.

Read the rest of FNB’s review here or read Michael Wilmington’s review here.

Cary Grant cracks us up in "Arsenic and Old Lace."

Cary Grant cracks us up in “Arsenic and Old Lace.”

Sunday, Dec. 15

8 a.m. (5 a.m.): “Arsenic and Old Lace” (1944, Frank Capra). Two sweet little old spinsters who run a Brooklyn boarding house (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) also help elderly bachelors into another, better world with their specialty: poisoned elderberry wine. Their frantic theater- critic nephew Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant, in his wildest performance ever), who’s just discovered their secret (on Halloween), tries desperately to keep them out of jail. Meanwhile two murderous professional criminals on the lam (Raymond Massey and Peter Lorre) show up to further envenom the brew.

This mad farce is not the kind of movie Frank Capra usually makes but the pace and energy (as well as the Coen Brothers-ish dark humor) never flag. The movie also has Priscilla Lane as the Ginger Rogers-ish love interest, and those three yeoman comic supporting players Jack Carson, James Gleason and Edward Everett Horton. Of the loony sub-genre comedy noir, this is a prime example: the least sentimental, least Capra-corny and maybe the craziest-funniest of all Capra’s films. Adapted by brothers Julius and Philip Epstein (“Casablanca”), from Joseph Kesselring’s hit Broadway play.

Photo credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment/ Myrna Loy as Nora Charles, Asta the dog and William Powell as Nick Charles in "After the Thin Man" (1936)

Photo credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment
Myrna Loy as Nora Charles, Asta the dog and William Powell as Nick Charles star in “After the Thin Man” (1936).

6 p.m. (3 p.m.): “The Thin Man” (1934, W.S. Van Dyke). With William Powell, Myrna Loy and Asta. Reviewed in FNB on July 28, 2012.

12 a.m. (9 p.m.): “The Unholy Three” (1925, Tod Browning). With Lon Chaney, Harry Earles and Victor McLaglen. Reviewed in FNB on Dec. 12, 2012.

2 a.m. (11 p.m.): “Pickpocket” (1959, Robert Bresson). An ascetic looking, light-fingered young man who looks like, and is, a starving artist (played by the thin, visually impeccable Martin Lasalle), lives out a Parisian Dostoyevsky tale, when he begins picking pockets at racetracks and metros. Together with Diary of a Country Priest and A Man Escaped, this is one of the untouchable black-and-white masterpieces of a true master, France’s austere film genius Robert Bresson. (In French, with subtitles.)

3:30 a.m. (12:30 a.m.): “Crime and Punishment, U.S.A.” (1959, Denis Sanders). Like “Pickpocket,“ this is another ’50s film modernization of Dostoyevsky’s themes of guilt, spirituality and redemption. And we can only thank God that the movie’s young star, George Hamilton wasn’t, after this, typecast as a Dostoyevskian anti-hero.

Eleanor Parker is most famous for playing the Baroness in Robert Wise’s “The Sound of Music” (1965), but film noir fans remember her from “Caged.”

Eleanor Parker is most famous for playing the Baroness in “The Sound of Music” (1965), but film noir fans remember her from “Caged.”

Tuesday, Dec. 17

ELEANOR PARKER TRIBUTE

Eleanor Parker, the notable auburn-haired Hollywood star of the ’40s and ’50s, passed away Monday at the age of 91. TCM will pay tribute to legendary leading lady on Tuesday, Dec. 17, with a 14-hour marathon, featuring seven of her films.

Parker earned Best Actress Oscar nominations for her performances in “Interrupted Melody” (1955) and John Cromwell’s classic prison picture “Caged” (1950) in which she co-stars with Agnes Moorehead and Hope Emerson. She was especially admired by film noir fans for her leading role in “Caged” as a brutalized prisoner. “Caged” plays at 11:45 a.m. (8:45 a.m.). Reviewed in FNB on July 13, 2012.

Check the TCM web site for the full list of titles and times.

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Wicked violence, wild beauty permeate classic ‘Badlands’

By Mike Wilmington

Badlands/1973/Warner Bros./94 min.

The late 1960s and early 1970s, in America, were marked by violence and loneliness, war and craziness, and wild beauty. We see a portrait of a lot of that trauma, in microcosm, in Terrence Malick’s shattering 1973 classic, “Badlands.” Set in the American West of the 1950s, it’s the story of two young people on the run: Kit, who works on a trash truck and tries to model himself after James Dean, and Holly, a high-school baton twirler with a strange blank stare, who thinks Kit is the handsomest boy she’s ever seen.

These two moonchildren run off together after Kit tries and fails to reconcile Holly’s mean, smiley-sign-painter father (Warren Oates) to their relationship. Then, plumb out of arguments, Kit shoots him dead and burns his house down. It’s probably Kit’s first murder; he’s such a weirdly polite guy that it’s hard to envision it otherwise. But soon he develops a taste for slaughter. And he and Holly embark on a savage cross-country trek by stolen cars, one that includes the massacre of many people, including Kit’s best (only) friend Cato (Ramon Bieri).

Kit appears to be killing not out of need or fear, but out of some perverse pleasure he gets from pulling the trigger and making a soul disappear from a body. “He was the most trigger-happy person I’d ever seen,” says Holly, in her flat, unemotional voice.

Kit and Holly are played by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, the first lead roles for either of them.

Kit and Holly are played by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, the first lead roles for either of them. They are a couple of beautiful but amoral (at least in Kit’s case) American eccentrics who seem to have gotten most of their ideas about love and romance from the movies. Kit keeps constructing his own dream world, even as the real world is falling apart below their feet. They build tree houses, they dance at night by the lights of their stolen car to Nat King Cole’s achingly romantic ballad “A Blossom Fell.”

Kit and Holly were inspired, to a degree, by real people: serial killer Charles Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. The pair went on a murder spree in 1957-58 and wound up killing 11 people, some of them with a cruelty that surpasses anything we see in Malick’s movie.

Kit is a born killer and we’re probably more afraid of him than any of the jolly Barrow gang.

“Badlands” was also inspired by Arthur Penn’s 1967 masterpiece “Bonnie and Clyde,” another movie where unsavory real-life characters, the Clyde Barrow-Bonnie Parker gang, become likeable and sympathetic, even glamorous. Bonnie, Clyde, Kit and Holly are stunningly attractive, which is a cinematic short-cut to sympathy and something we see in other films like the 1950 film noir classic “Gun Crazy,” directed by Joseph H. Lewis. But Clyde is more of a businessman who’s chosen crime as a profession; Kit is a born killer and we’re probably more afraid of him than any of the jolly Barrow gang.

There’s something else that “Badlands” and “Bonnie and Clyde” share: a true, piercing sense of the rough-hewn beauty of the American landscapes and of the American physiognomy. And while Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway have A-list knockout looks (the kind of faces moviemakers use to draw us to the screen and what the movies themselves sell) Sheen and Spacek have a different kind of good looks: an outsider sexiness, a tender and beguiling charm.

Kit and Holly were inspired serial killer Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate.

Sheen and Spacek are alluring, and so is the film: a series of gorgeous landscapes, images that can fill us with delight and awe. (“Badlands” went through three camera artists: Tak Fujimoto, Brian Probyn and Stevan Larner.) In his next film, “Days of Heaven,” Malick would also get incredible beauty in exterior shots. But “Badlands”— shot on a minuscule budget in what Malick has called an outlaw production — has something madder, freer. It’s a darkening vision of two naïve kids in love and flight, but it’s also the head-shot of a killer, picking out his targets. He’s there, smiling, with a gun in his hand, almost before you know it.

The question “Badlands” poses, like “Bonnie and Clyde,” is the riddle of which is more deadly: society or its outlaws. We think we know the answer, but we don’t. Both movies, made in the Vietnam era, are about the struggle between the establishment and its outlaws. Both deliberately blur the boundaries between what we see as good and evil.

“Badlands” is about the America and the people we think we know but really don’t, the people we hear about from afar. It’s about that car racing along the road against the night-sky, those twisted childlike lovers, looking for freedom but finding darkness and death, and the soft, fleeting sound of Nat King Cole on the car radio.

Criterion’s DVD and Blu-ray releases of “Badlands” include a number of outstanding extras.

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The Noir File: Beatty and Dunaway go gun crazy in ‘Bonnie and Clyde,’ Arthur Penn’s 1967 noir gangster classic

By Michael Wilmington & Film Noir Blonde

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir, sort of noir and pre-noir on cable TV. All movies below are from the schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

PICK OF THE WEEK

Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty are the noir lovers on the run.

Bonnie and Clyde“ (1967, Arthur Penn). Monday, Feb. 4, 8 p.m. (5 p.m.). It begins with a sexy small town pickup – a fast-talking ex-con named Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) talks a bored blonde waitress named Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) into taking a stroll, witnessing an armed robbery, and then taking a spin in a stolen car that he steals right in front of her. It ends with one of the most emotionally overpowering scenes in all of the movies. In between, we watch Bonnie, Clyde, Clyde’s cornball brother Buck (Gene Hackman), Buck’s wife Blanche-the-preacher’s-daughter (Estelle Parsons) and a wayward gas station jockey named C. W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), run amok in the south and middle west, often accompanied by banjo picker Earl Scruggs’ rousing “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” in one of the movies’ great crime sprees and gang sagas.

Among the inspirations for Robert Benton and David Newman’s script, which they intended for one of the ‘60s French New Wave directors, like Francois Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard, were the ’40s love-on-the run film noirs “Gun Crazy” and “They Live By Night,” two classics also based on the legend of The Barrow Gang. Director Arthur Penn, at his peak, turned the movie into an ironic blend of twisted love story, dark comedy, caustic social portrait and breezy romantic crime thriller, with Bonnie and Clyde as a pair of deadly innocents, caught up in the poverty of the Depression and the turbulence of the ’30s gangster period. The movie is shot by Burnett Guffey in a style reminiscent of Depression-era photographer Walker Evans.

Gun-toting Bonnie and Clyde are sociopathic criminals but attractive, likable, mostly unmalicious ones. (Beatty’s Clyde believes naively that they’re helping the poor by robbing banks that are foreclosing mortgages.) Bonnie and Clyde are also, in a way, counter-culture stars – creating their own real-life movie as they race along. What they’re racing toward, though – something poetess Bonnie realizes – is the end of the line. With Gene Wilder, Denver Pyle and Dub Taylor. Oscars went to Parsons (Supporting Actress) and Guffey (Cinematography). [Read more...]

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Masterpiece of neo-noir ‘Chinatown’ is an unmatchable blend of wised-up savvy and yearning romanticism

Chinatown/1974/Paramount/130 min.

“Chinatown” will screen at 9:30 p.m. Friday, April 13, at the TCM Classic Film Festival. Writer Robert Towne and producer Robert Evans will be at the event. This is the site’s second review of the movie; you can read FNB’s piece here.

By Michael Wilmington

Noah Cross (John Huston) tells J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) what’s what.

“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

Those are the last words, chilling, evocative, cynical, of Roman Polanski and Robert Towne’s Chinatown – that great dark tale of politics, murder and family secrets in ’30s Los Angeles. No matter what you think of Polanski and his arrest and extradition problems, the director’s 1974 private-eye classic “Chinatown” is still a masterpiece of neo-noir. The movie, one of the big commercial-critical hits of its era, was a career peak for director Polanski, the matchless screenwriter Towne and the superb star team of Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston.

It’s a picture that seems close to perfect of its kind and one of the ’70s films I love best. Gorgeous and terrifying and sometimes funny as hell, “Chinatown” tells a romantic/tragic/murder mystery tale of official crimes and personal depravity raging around the real-life Los Angeles water scandal, with private sin and public swindles steadily stripped bare by J. J. Gittes (one of Nicholson’s signature roles), a cynical, natty, smart-ass shamus, with a nose for corruption and a hot-trigger temper.

Gittes is an anti-Philip Marlowe detective. He’s proud of taking divorce cases (Marlowe disdained them), and he’s not too queasy about selling out. He’s also much less sexually reticent than Raymond Chandler’s knight of the mean streets, though he cracks just as wise. Fundamentally, Gittes is a survivor.

He likes his nose, he likes breathing through it. But he finds it increasingly hard to keep it unbloodied and out of rich L. A. people’s business as he keeps digging deeper into what starts as a simple infidelity investigation and then broadens to include a vast conspiracy, intertwined with the deadly history of immaculately evil nabob Noah Cross (played by the devilishly genial Huston) and his desperate, wounded daughter Evelyn Mulwray (Dunaway). It’s a nasty web that includes Polanski himself as the cocky little fedora-topped thug (with a Polish accent) who calls Gittes “Kitty-Kat” and slices up his proboscis for a memento mori.

“Chinatown”– with splendid Richard Sylbert production design, gleaming John Alonso cinematography and a haunting Jerry Goldsmith score – wafts us back to LA’s downtown and Silverlake in the ’30s: the era of the Depression. It was also the heyday, of course, of the hard-boiled, high-style thrillers of Dashiell Hammett and Chandler, fiction that Towne, at his absolute best, pastiches to a fine turn and that Polanski, at his best makes shatteringly alive.

Gittes puts in some extra time with client Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway).

The movie has great dialogue, great acting, great direction and an unmatchable blend of wised-up savvy and yearning romanticism. The bleak ending (Polanski’s idea) cuts you to the heart. Temper-tantrum virtuoso Nicholson has some of his best blowups.

And the supporting cast members – Polanski, Burt Young, Diane Ladd, Perry Lopez, Dick Bakalyan, Roy Jenson, James Hong, Bruce Glover, Joe Mantell and John Hillerman (at his smarmiest) – are wonderful too.

In fact, this is a movie that – not counting Gittes’ slit nose – has no perceptible flaws: a classic you can’t and won’t forget. “Chinatown” reminds you of how Nicholson almost single-handedly, shifted the ground of the movies, and changed our conception of what a movie star was. It reminds you of how vulnerable Dunaway could be, of what a sly old movie fox Huston was.

It reminds you how great films can be when they have really wonderful, beautifully crafted, verbally agile scripts (like Towne’s here). And it reminds you that Polanski is a filmmaker who’s maybe faced such terror, darkness and despair in his own life – from the Holocaust to personal tragedy – that he can, brilliantly and memorably, turn fear into art.

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Noir in a tube: Gloss in Crime, Mystery, Thriller, Genre, Chase

Chinatown in Crime is a hot pink.

On the 1974 movie “Chinatown,” by director Roman Polanski, Faye Dunaway reportedly touched up her makeup between every take. Bee-stung lips are a bit high-maintenance. Too bad she didn’t have a Chinatown Glossy Pencil from Lipstick Queen, $20.

The easy-to-use pencils combine vibrant, subtle color and super-sheer texture. The moisturizing gloss feels light on your lips with zero stickiness. And it comes with a sharpener.

The Chinatown line was inspired by Polanski’s movie as well as the fact that the company’s New York office is near the Canal Street subway. Colors include: Crime, Mystery, Thriller, Genre and Chase.

Poppy King

“I wanted lipsticks that gave me the look of the 1940s,” says founder Poppy King, a Melbourne native who started her first lipstick brand in 1992. She was 18 at the time, having finished high school with “lackluster grades and 101 ways to get out of phys ed.”

My kind of girl.

To buy the product, look under Stores and find one near you – if you order directly from the Lipstick Queen site, you may get frustrated as it seems many items are out of stock.

Product Source: From my own collection; I did not receive product or compensation from Lipstick Queen.

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‘Chinatown’ mixes classic intrigue with ’70s cynicism

Chinatown/1974/Paramount Pictures/131 min

A nervous femme fatale with a slight stutter. A stocky PI with a hot temper and a bandage plastered on his face.

Perhaps not the most promising characters at first glance; in fact they are among noir’s finest. Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson deliver knockout performances in 1974’s “Chinatown,” a neo-noir that ranks as one of the greatest films ever made. Certainly, it’s among the top 10 movies of the 1970s.

With an Oscar-winning screenplay by Robert Towne, directed by Roman Polanski, and produced by Robert Evans, “Chinatown” clearly has roots in classic noir, but also reinvents and subverts the tradition. The movie’s intelligence, artistry and uniquely dark vision elevate it beyond a simple homage.

Set in 1937 Los Angeles, “Chinatown” tells a story of corruption both personal and public. Nicholson stars as J.J. ‘Jake’ Gittes, a cynical ex-cop turned private investigator with a penchant for shiny, cream-colored suits, matching hats and spats, and a tendency to fly off the handle. One day, Gittes gets a visit from a black-clad blonde (Diane Ladd) who claims that her husband Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) of the water and power company is cheating. She wants Gittes to provide proof, despite his urging that she let sleeping dogs lie.

Roman Polanski called on memories of his mother when creating Faye Dunaway's stunning look in "Chinatown."

But it comes to light that the real Mrs. Evelyn Cross Mulwray (Dunaway) is the daughter of multimillionaire Noah Cross (John Huston). And she wants Gittes off the case – or she’ll sue. But when Mulwray’s body is found in an empty water reservoir, Evelyn wants Gittes back on her side. Once there, Gittes uncovers lots of facts that don’t add up – for instance, in the middle of a drought, water is being dumped. At the core of the mystery is a struggle for control of LA’s water supply.

There’s lots of money to be made and power to be gained if you can dry out vast patches of land, then buy them on the cheap. (The California water wars, a fight that started in 1898 over water rights between LA and other areas, including the Owens Valley, influenced Towne’s story.)

Gittes has his work cut out for him. The cops, led by Lieutenant Escobar (Perry Lopez), give him grief. Russ Yelburton (John Hillerman) and Claude Mulvihill (Roy Jenson) of the LA Water and Power Company don’t like him. A menacing man with knife (a cameo by Polanski) warns him not to be so nosy – and just to drive home the point, he slices off a bit of Gittes’ schnoz.

Once he’s cracked the case, though, Gittes can’t play the hero to the dishonesty, greed and perversion that surround him. The evil continues, unchecked. “As savior and restorer of a moral order, [Gittes is] a complete washout, a genre first,” writes Foster Hirsch in “Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir.”

So why is this a great work of art? First, it looks so striking—vintage LA, poised to become a big city—and Polanski’s voyeuristic camerawork (from the viewpoint of a standing onlooker) lends dark sophistication. The bleak themes of betrayal and corruption give the film enormous power.

Then there’s Jerry Goldsmith’s score and of course Towne’s smart, sexy and funny dialogue. In an interview for the 1999 DVD re-release, Towne explains that he wrote the part with Nicholson in mind and was inspired by the actor’s temperament, manner and the way he uses language.

And despite the fact that Gittes’ character has roots in earlier screen detectives, such as Philip Marlowe, Towne says, “I tried to draw characters from life, not from film.”

Private investigator Jack Gittes is one of the best performances of Jack Nicholson's lengthy and prestigious acting career.

Some of my favorite Gittes’ lines:

“I goddamn near lost my nose. And I like it. I like breathing through it.”

“He passed away two weeks ago and one week ago he bought the land. That’s unusual.”

“You’re dumber than you think I think you are.”

Huston, avuncular and charming, and Dunaway, delicate, otherworldly and aloof, turn in resonant, affecting performances. (Ali MacGraw and Jane Fonda were also considered for the part of Evelyn.) Polanski recalls on the DVD interview that between every take Dunaway touched up her makeup. Her thin eyebrows and Cupid’s bow mouth was a ’30s look he helped Dunaway create; it was inspired by memories of his mother.

Though alluring, glamorous and dressed to a T, Evelyn Cross Mulwray is not a femme fatale. As Towne says in the interview, Evelyn sets up the expectation of being a black widow, but she is the heroine of the movie, the one person in the film who is operating out of decent and selfless motives. [Read more...]

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‘Chinatown’ quick hit

Chinatown/1974/Paramount Pictures/131 min

Few films rank as one of the best of their decade but that’s the case with “Chinatown,” a neo noir, set in 1937 California. Of the many things there are to admire, No.1 on my list is Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of private eye Jack Gittes. Secrecy and sex, profit and power, specifically control of the LA area’s water supply, are pieces of a potentially deadly puzzle that lands in his lap.

Also on the admiration list: performances from Faye Dunaway and John Huston, razor-sharp writing from Robert Towne, the mood of cool menace, and Roman Polanski’s directorial flair.

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