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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‘Partly Fiction’ is fully compelling, beautifully shot

Partly Fiction/2013/Adopt Films/77 min.

Partly Fiction posterAt 87 years old, Harry Dean Stanton is just as interesting to watch as he was 50 years ago, when he first started appearing on movie screens.

Perhaps that’s because the actor and veteran of neo noir has a look — like Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones — that ages for sure but never really gets old, no matter how many decades pass. Classically handsome, not so much but Stanton’s rugged, weathered face is singularly expressive. Or as Sam Shepard puts it in a wonderful new documentary on Stanton: “His face is the story.”

Directed by Sophie Huber, “Partly Fiction,” is an of-the-moment glimpse into an iconic actor’s oeuvre and a mysterious man’s heart. Through interview footage, clips from some of his 250 films and his own renditions of American folk songs, we see a loner, an artist and a Hollywood survivor. Stanton is someone who has been steadily successful on his own terms in a cut-throat industry famous for using, abusing and discarding talent. Maybe his secret is he doesn’t seem to take Tinseltown or himself too seriously.

At least that was my impression as Stanton discussed his early days, working with his friends, acting greats Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson. We see him at home and at a longtime hangout, Dan Tana’s in West Hollywood as he talks a bit about his roots in West Irvine, Ky., the craft of acting and a relationship that left him “broken-hearted.”

Offering their takes are on what makes Stanton tick along with Shepard are David Lynch, Wim Wenders, Kris Kristofferson and Debbie Harry. Seamus McGarvey provides luminous camerawork (black and white at Stanton’s home, color when he ventures out).

“Partly Fiction”’s  story is rich, resonant and real.

“Partly Fiction” opened Wednesday in New York. It opens today in LA with select cities to follow. Director Sophie Huber and Harry Dean Stanton will be doing a Q&A tonight (Friday, Sept. 13) following the 7:30 p.m. show at Landmark’s The Nuart in West LA.

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Classic Cain, power plays, Turner and Garfield in ‘Postman’

The Postman Always Rings Twice/1946/MGM/113 min.

In the opening of “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” a sign reading “MAN WANTED” flashes at us twice. This man, John Garfield as it happens, is really wanted. But you wouldn’t know it from Lana Turner’s imperious entrance.

She drops a tube of lipstick, then deigns to let him pick it up and return it to her. He decides to let her get it herself. She’s unruffled and he’s hooked. In a way, these first few minutes of the film foreshadow the sexual power play between Garfield’s Frank and Turner’s Cora.

The godless-like Cora, with her platinum hair, pouty lips and gorgeous curves, is arguably Turner’s most memorable role. One of film noir’s most famous femmes fatales, she is by turns a come-hither, passionate seductress and an icy blonde who likes to be the boss. Notice how often she wears white, sometimes from head to toe.

Lana Turner as Cora and John Garfield as Frank cook up trouble in the restaurant Cora runs with her husband.

Garfield as Frank gives her a run for her money, both in looks and attitude. Ephraim Katz writes of Garfield (born Julius Garfinkle, the son of a poor immigrant Jewish tailor): “[His] screen character was … not much at variance with his own personality – that of a cynical, defiant young man from the other side of the tracks, a resilient rebel with a chip on his shoulder who desperately tries to charm and muscle his way onward and upward.

“Despite the mediocrity of many of his films, Garfield’s boyish virility and his ability to project a soulful interior underneath a pugnacious façade made him an attractive star to many filmgoers. When given a proper vehicle, he proved himself a sensitive and solid interpreter.” (Garfield was later blacklisted for refusing to name friends as Communists in response to a House Un-American Activities Committee investigation.)

“Postman” more than qualifies as a proper vehicle. Frank, a hitchhiker at loose ends, stops at a roadside restaurant on the outskirts of LA and sees the MAN WANTED sign, posted by the owner, Cora’s chubby, cheerful, and much older, husband Nick (Cecil Kellaway). Nick persuades Frank to stay and work; not a bad deal considering that he also gets room and board.

Love on the rocks: Notice how often Cora wears white.

Before long, Nick and Cora become lovers and decide to do away with Nick so that they can start their new life together with a fat pile of cash. From there, things get darker and more diabolical. They botch their first attempt (death by electrocution) and their second try (they fake a car crash) results in charges being brought against them, which may or may not stick.

“Postman,” based on the James M. Cain novel and directed by Tay Garnett, is about as jet-black and unrelentingly bleak as they come. Harry Ruskin and Niven Busch wrote the script. There is no comic relief or guy-buddy subplot of the kind that you get in Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity,” also based on a Cain novel and written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler.

Also, the character of Nick gets a fair amount of screen time and, far from being a dire wretch of a husband (like the husband in “Double Indemnity,” played by Tom Powers), he’s affable and kind. He knows she doesn’t love him and even seems inclined to turn a blind eye if Cora and Frank want a romp in the hay. The dour vision of their betrayal, ill-fated reconciliation and their dogged determination to kill him feels far more uncomfortable – queasy even.

Because Garnett isn’t as visually stylish as many of the noir directors, “Postman” is a more blunt rendering than other essential noirs. But it’s also possible that Garnett, who was also a writer, was more interested in exploring the nuances of Cain’s book. Garnett and Cain grapple with the deepest issues of noir – for example, upending the myth that America is a classless society.

Cecil Kellaway (left) plays Nick, Cora’s husband, who is not bad as portly older husbands go. This lends his murder much gravity.

Only slightly less chilling than the violence perpetrated by the waitress and the manual worker, Garnett suggests, is the cavalier, snarky attitude of these two bourgeois buddies on the “right” side of the law (Leon Ames as district attorney Kyle Sackett and Hume Cronyn as defense lawyer Arthur Keats).

The case is nothing more than a game to them and they place a $100 bet on who will win. They’re not above using questionable methods to yield their desired results. Yet, they are considered upstanding members of society, whereas Cora and Frank are common criminals who must be punished.

Another point in Garnett’s favor: He gets excellent work from the leads and supporting players (also look out for noirista Audrey Totter). Cora and Frank are complicated parts that require range, depth and the ability to project irony.

Their love may be twisted, it’s true, but it goes through many incarnations and we sense that they are drawn to each other from mutual desperation and shared disappointment. As Frank tells her: “We’re chained to each other, Cora.”

Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange made a steamier version of the story in 1981, directed by Bob Rafelson.

To be sure, there’s no shortage of gloom. But, with leads as gorgeous and sexy as Garfield and Turner, every minute makes compelling viewing.

When Bob Rafelson remade the movie in 1981 with Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson, replete with raunchy sex scenes, Frank and Cora sizzled once more.

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Seeking ‘recline’ inspiration from film noir’s injured characters

I recently experienced a little setback: I fractured my toe (one in from the pinkie on the right foot). I didn’t teeter as I tried on Loubou’s or tumble on a treacherous chunk of pavement. Nor was I hang-gliding or training for a 5k run. Please. Have we met? No, in typical femme fatale fashion, à la Mae West, I tripped over a pile of men.

Sporting hideous footwear.

Of course I don’t mind being ordered by doctors to rest and relax. In fact, I relish the opportunity. And if ever there were a time to be waited on hand and foot, bark out orders and be completely catered to, honey this is it! I’m also grateful that the toe (underrated little body part that it is) wasn’t broken or more severely damaged – it should heal nicely as long as I’m patient.

But the thing I really miss is going to yoga. Feeling a little blue and kicking myself (pun intended) for not being more careful, I called my friend Anne who pointed out that what’s bad in life is good on the page. She suggested that as I recuperate I commiserate with noir characters – like nostril-impaired Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in “Chinatown” – who sustain and recover from injuries. (You can always trust a Gemini to come up with a creative approach.)

As I lounge on my sofa, I also find myself pondering existential questions, such as: Can I now fulfill my long-held fantasy of going to yoga and resting in child’s pose for the entire class? Will wine and ice cream provide the same benefits as shavasana? What about cupcakes? Does Susie Cakes deliver? Is it possible to dance while using crutches? How long can a girl go without shaving her legs?

Aah, more than my peabrain can process right now. So, with many thanks to Anne, here are my favorite mending moments of film noir.

Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe is temporarily blinded in “Murder, My Sweet.”

 

Phony, schmony. The dude still hobbled around on crutches: Fred MacMurray in “Double Indemnity.”

 

Decoy”’s Frank Armstrong recovers from the ultimate “accident.” Cold-hearted Jean Gillie sees a way to get her hands on a wad of cash by bringing her criminal boyfriend back to life following his visit to the gas chamber. Absurd? Absolutely. Still, it’s all in a day’s work for film noir’s toughest femme fatale.

 

“Dark Passage”: Unjustly sentenced prison escapee Humphrey Bogart undergoes plastic surgery to alter his looks. He co-stars with real-life wife Lauren Bacall.

 

Burt Lancaster sustains major injuries after a heist gets fouled up in “Criss Cross.” (In “The Killers” Lancaster plays a boxer whose career folded after hurting his hand.)

 

The Big Heat” contains one of film noir’s most famous violent scenes. Lee Marvin throws a pot of boiling coffee at Gloria Grahame and disfigures her face. She gets even in the end.

 

Jimmy Stewart is a photojournalist who watches his neighbors to pass the time (with gorgeous Grace Kelly for company) while his leg heals in “Rear Window.”

 

Jack Nicholson wears his bandage for most of “Chinatown.” Director Roman Polanski plays the menacing punk who cuts Nicholson’s nose.

 

“Misery”’s Kathy Bates is the nurse-from-hell to wounded writer James Caan.

 

Viggo Mortensen gets stabbed in his foot after fending off two thugs in “A History of Violence.”

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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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With its engrossing story, gorgeous cinematography and riveting performances, ‘The Conformist’ still compels

The Conformist/1970/115 min.

Is Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Conformist” – an art film classic regarded by many cinematographers as the most beautifully photographed movie of its era – also a neo-noir?

Well, it’s a movie, set in the 1930s, about those old noir standbys: romance, sex, murder, betrayal, guilt and political/police corruption. Adapted from the famous novel by Alberto Moravia, it has a psychologically divided and tormented central character, Marcello Clerici (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant of “Z” and “A Man and a Woman”), who is racked by Freudian desires and guilty secrets. The opaque-faced Marcello has homosexual leanings, which he tries to wipe out by marrying and becoming a good reliable government man. In 1930s Italy, this means being a good fascist.

Marcello is also involved in a messy triangle with his lovely, naive wife Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) and with the incredibly beautiful bisexual Anna Quadri (Dominique Sanda). In 1970, because of this movie, the ravishing blonde Sanda was often described as the most beautiful actress in movies. Sanda was also Bertolucci’s first choice to be Marlon Brando’s co-star in “Last Tango in Paris.” (She chose motherhood instead.)

Dominique Sanda and Stefania Sandrelli

“The Conformist,” though, made her a movie immortal. Sanda’s feverish onscreen tango with Sandrelli against an iridescent, gorgeously colored background, while Marcello watches, is one of the most justly famous erotic/musical set-pieces in all of cinema.

Bertolucci later went on to make celebrated and even notorious classics like “The Last Emperor” and “Last Tango,” but many aficionados still prefer “The Conformist” for its engrossing story, the savvy political background, the absolutely gorgeous Storaro cinematography (the color equivalent of a great noir black-and-white), and for the riveting performances by Sanda, Trintignant, Sandrelli, Pierre Clementi, Yvonne Sanson and the others. [Read more...]

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Noir greats at LACMA; a Nicholson noir night at the Aero

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has a particularly good lineup of classic and neo noirs this month.

“Rear Window” (1954) 1 p.m. Tuesday, July 12

“Pickpocket” (1959) 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 16

“Bay of Angels” (1963) 9 p.m. Saturday, July 16

“The Letter” (1940) 1 p.m. Tuesday, July 19

“The Honeymoon Killers” (1970) 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 21

Bette Davis stars in "The Letter" by director William Wyler.

“In a Lonely Place” (1950) 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 22

“The Long Goodbye”(1973) 9:15 p.m. Friday, July 22

“Mulholland Dr.” (2001) 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 23

“The Lady from Shanghai” (1948) 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 29

“The Conformist” (1971) 9:10 p.m. Friday, July 29

Tickets range from $2 for the matinees to $10 for evening double features ($5 for one film only). Discounts for LACMA members and seniors. For tickets, call 323-857-6010 or visit the web site; there is a $2 charge to buy online. For synopses of the movies, see LACMA’s listings. LACMA is at 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, 90036.

Additionally, the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica is running a “Jack Nicholson Noir” double bill on Saturday, July 23, starting at 7:30. The films are Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” and “The Two Jakes,” which Nicholson directed. The Aero Theatre is at 1328 Montana Ave. General admission is $11; members pay $7. Visit the American Cinematheque for the complete schedule.

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COL•COA welcomes Blier for ‘The Clink of Ice’ premiere

Guests mingle at a COL•COA reception before the film.

The Clink of Ice/2011/87 min.

In film noir, Fate bides its time and waits patiently for opportunity. In acclaimed writer/director Bertrand Blier’s new black comedy, Fate — in the form of cancer — barges in, bosses characters around and jumps into bed with them.

“The Clink of Ice” made its West Coast premiere on Thursday night at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles, as part of the COL•COA film festival.

“I have good news for you,” Blier told the audience before the film started. “My film is funny. It is about cancer.”

His deadpan preface was apt for this wry, contemplative movie.

FNB at the pre-film reception.

Dour, binge-drinking writer Charles Faulque (Jean Dujardin) has distanced himself from the people closest to him (his wife and son, for instance) and lives alone with his maid Louisa (Anne Alvaro). Her employer’s cranky demeanor is a draw and she fantasizes about sleeping with him.

Charles’ discontent morphs into full-on angst when a malignant doppelganger (Albert Dupontel) shows up and inserts himself into Charles’ life. Not long after, Louisa finds that she too has cancer that’s represented by a random interloper (Myriam Boyer). Nothing like evil twins to bring two people together, right?

But Blier’s upbeat, good-looking film, with its spare script and arresting mix of music, doesn’t dwell on prognoses or potential farewells. Instead, the disease takes a backseat to the characters’ inner lives and evolving relationships, before Charles and Louisa concoct a brilliant plan to banish it once and for all.

From left: Director Jon Amiel talks with Bertrand Blier and his interpreter Thursday at the DGA.

After the film, Blier was interviewed on stage by another director, Jon Amiel, who described Blier’s film as “a beautiful, profound, funny and ultimately deeply optimistic.” Blier revealed a bit about his process, explaining that there are no rehearsals before shooting in order to heighten spontaneity (he just asks actors to learn their lines). “I like to discover the story at the same time the actors do,” he said, also acknowledging that he wants them to hold precisely to the script.

The son of veteran French character actor Bernard Blier, auteur filmmaker Bertrand Blier has consistently elicited powerful performances from his actors, particularly in his 1974 box-office hit, “Going Places,” which helped launch the careers of Gérard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert.

Guests sipped St-Germain cocktails.

Blier, who had the idea for “Clink of Ice” 25 years ago, said he still thinks of Depardieu when he’s writing any character, man, woman or animal. Blier also praised American actors, such as Robert DeNiro and Jack Nicholson, adding that Nicholson plays more like an Italian or French actor, with an air of, “I’m Jack Nicholson and you’re still going to believe what I’m telling you.”

Before seeing “Clink of Ice,” I attended a lovely reception in the DGA atrium. Guests sipped St-Germain cocktails and nibbled on delicious savory fare from caterer WCEP (West Coast Event Productions, 323-930-6785) and, for dessert, authentic French macarons, which were all-natural, handmade and gluten-free, from Les Macarons Duverger.

Authentic macarons for dessert.

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Honey, your April horoscope is here …

Fate reigns supreme in film noir, but that doesn’t mean we don’t love us some zodiac fun. Hope your April is devoid of tiresome fools and fretting over taxes, and instead marked by spring’s sensual delights and adorable bunnies bearing baskets of treats. And happy birthday, Aries and Taurus! A special shout-out to Aries bad asses Bette Davis, Spencer Tracy and Gregory Peck (April 5), Francis Ford Coppola and Russell Crowe (April 7), Julie Christie and Sarah Michelle Gellar (April 14), Maria Bello (April 18) and Taurus mega-talents Jack Nicholson (April 22), Al Pacino (April 25) and Penelope Cruz (April 28).

Bette Davis

Aries (March 21-April 20): Just when you thought strong-willed Aries was aptly personified by Joan Crawford (March 26), along comes Bette Davis (April 5) to give Joan a run for her money. An actress, a fighter and a thinker, Davis was always ahead of her time. One off-screen example: When she co-founded and ran the Hollywood Canteen, a nightclub for WWII servicemen, she insisted that the venue be racially integrated, pointing out that in combat, “The black soldiers take the bullets the same as the whites.” This month, follow in her determined footsteps and, on the creative front, adhere to this Davis maxim: “Attempt the impossible in order to improve your work.” Meanwhile, live it up! Be spontaneous, sexy and silly, and don’t waste time on guilt.

Taurus (April 21-May 21): It might be high time for a spring shopping spree. But before you whip out your wallet, consider the singular beauty of a big fat bank balance; it is a sight to behold. Perhaps you could get by on last year’s haul or restrict yourself to one frugal purchase. Don’t forget to tap your crafty, ever-so-slightly conniving side to dream up a few clever April Fools’ jokes. You shouldn’t deny your adoring fans the chance to enjoy your terrific flair for fun. Be bold with your man the week of the 18th. Come to think of it, why wait till then? [Read more...]

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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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