Sunday, May 11, 2014

Don't Make a Scene: Chinatown

The Story:   Chinatown is director Roman Polanski's film noir from 1974.  It's a detective story with a wave at some real events that built and transformed The City of Angels (tarnished or not), Los Angeles, though highly fictionalized.  And although it takes place during a scorching drought-dry Summer with searing bright days, there are plenty of scary things that go "bump" in the night.  Those scary things can come in all packages, big and small, like the vanilla-suited knife-wielding weasel that performs an impromptu rhinoplasty (before it became popular in L.A.) on P.I. Jake Gittes.  Unnamed in the script by Robert Towne except for the descriptive "Smaller Man," the role is played by the diminutive Polanski himself, as the director likes to insert himself into his pictures, and the character must have had some appeal.

Like all the characters in Chinatown, he is written distinctly with a unique patois ("Hey there, kitty-cat!"),* even if the particulars of the character (besides his stature, nervous tics, and temper) are left unexplored.  He and Claude Mulvehill are just another pair of mismatched goons that fill out a villain's back-up in your standard film noir.  They are flunkies sent to give warning, roust a doubter into knowing what's good for him, and in general, do the footwork that the kingpin will not soil himself to do.  They are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, spear-carriers, that is all.

Polanski plays the part in his heavily accented English and tough guy manner learned from pictures of the period—a combination of silly and sinister.  He makes an impression, and reveals himself, like Hitchcock, as one of the most personal of filmmakers; no matter what caper is on-screen, his films have a sub-text, much like the carved message at the cave-entrance to the Oracle at Delphi:  "Know Thyself."  Enter the theater at your own risk.

The Set-Up: After having been set up by a false client resulting in the death of the city's head of water and power, private detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is investigating a lead on a related mystery—why is water being diverted in Los Angeles during a particularly withering drought.  In the middle of the night, he is waiting for a scheduled water-dump when a gunshot forces him to take cover in a nearby sluice.



Then he's inundated with a rush of water which pours over him, knocks off his hat, carries him down the channel, banging into its banks, as he desperately tries to grab some of the overgrowth to hang on and pull himself out. But the force of the stream batters him and carries him with it until he's brought rudely to the chain-link fence. It stops him cold. He's nearly strained through it.
Swearing and choking, he pulls himself out of the rushing water by means of the fence itself.
Drenched, battered, he slowly climbs back over the fence and makes his way toward his car.
He fishes for his car keys, looks down -- one shoe is missing.

GITTES(grumbling) Goddam Florsheim shoe, goddammit.
He starts to get into his car but Mulvihill and a SMALLER MAN stop him -- Mulvihill pulling his coat down and pinning his arms -- holding him tightly. The smaller man thrusts a switchblade knife about an inch and a half up Gittes' left nostril.
SMALLER MAN (shaking with emotion) Hold it there, kitty cat.
GITTES Hello, Claude...
GITTES Where'd ya get the midget?

frozen, the knife in his nostril, the street lamp over-head gleaming on the silvery blade.
THE SMALLER MAN You are a very nosey fellow, kitty cat... 
THE SMALLER MAN know what happens to nosey fellows?

The Smaller Man actually seems to be trembling with rage when he says this. Gittes doesn't move.

SMALLER MAN (continuing) Wanna guess?
SMALLER MAN  Okay. They lose their noses.
With a quick flick the Smaller Man pulls back on the blade, laying Gittes' left nostril open about an inch further. Gittes screams. Blood gushes down onto his shirt and coat. 
Gittes bends over, instinctively trying to keep the blood from getting on his clothes. Mulvihill and the Smaller Man stare at him.
SMALLER MAN (continuing) Next time you lose the whole thing, kitty cat
SMALLER MAN I'll cut it off and feed it to my goldfish, 
SMALLER MAN ...understand?
MULVIHILL Tell him you understand, Gittes.

Gittes is now groveling on his hands and knees.

GITTES(mumbling) I understand...

Gittes on the ground can see only his tormentor's two-tone brown and white wing-tipped shoes -- lightly freckled with his blood.

comes up and lightly shoves Gittes into the ground. the SOUND of FOOTSTEPS RETREATING, Gittes gasping.


Words by Robert Towne

Pictures by John Alonzo and Roman Polanski

Chinatown is available on DVD from Paramount Home Video.

* Which reminds me of a line from another brilliant film noir, Out of the Past: "The cheaper the hood, the gaudier the patter."

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