Film Noir Series: Chinatown (1974)
Chinatown is at the vanguard of the modernist neo-noir, part of a movement within American cinema to revive and refashion the tropes and styles of film noir for a new historical period. Although most if not all of the film noir we have seen so far has been set in either the present or immediate past, this is a period piece. Rather than being a direct commentary on present social conditions or psychological stresses, neo-noir becomes concerned with defamiliarizing the past. Polanski’s film simultaneously romanticizes and criticizes the milieu it adopts. On the one hand, it lavishes attention on the period detail of its setting: Jake Gittes’ dandyish suits and new Venetian blinds, sleek black cars with running boards, erotic red interior decorations in restaurants, and magnificent mansions all form part of its appeal. In its visuals, it celebrates the darkness and destabilization of the classic noir while adding color. Characters’ faces are often broken by sharp shadows, including from those requisite Venetian blinds, and compositions tend to deny us full information in favour of creating a sense of paranoid dread. This sense is familiar for Polanski, whose films, from Chinatown to The Pianist, often work wuit a sense of mounting frustration and confinement.
Andrew Spicer’s read on this newly invigorated breed of noir is that it was part of a broader “neo-modernist” intellectual movement in the late 1970s and early to mid-1970s. This was a period that, “looked back to the great period of experimentation with film form in the 1920s but was much more prepared to engage with popular culture and demonstrated a ‘cooler,’ more detached and ironic attitude toward the possibilities of radical change” (133). A rapidly shrinking film industry coincided with the rise of a more academic treatment of film history, as well as the new rating system, producing a diffuse but powerful movement of new “auteur” filmmakers who employed formal innovations and experimentations with tone and story content. For Chinatown, this is evident in some of the strange cuts, Steadicam shots, and alienating wide shots that contrast with tightly packed interior locations. It is also a product of the 1970s, and its narrative can be interpreted as an indictment of the nation that could produce the Watergate scandal. Instead of looking boldly to the future, it contemplates the present and searches for its origins, explaining the present through the lens of a somewhat romanticized past.