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No. 37: “Chinatown” (1974)

Private detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) would have us believe that he’s unflappable, as arch as the one-liners he slings at his she-done-me-wrong clients and the cops who snub their noses at him. “You’re dumber than you think I think you are,” he cracks to Lt. Escobar (Perry Lopez). Comments like this might peg him as a real hardnose if not for his pesky moral code. He wants to ignore it, but he can’t, and it’s the reason he gets swept up in too many tangled stories that don’t end happily.

Truth be told, it is Gittes’ nagging conscience that makes “Chinatown,” Roman Polanski’s gorgeously shot, densely plotted love letter to film noir, more than just a rigorous exercise in mental gymnastics. The fact that this investigator, with his steely, seen-it-all eyes, can’t pull back emotionally from his cases separates him from the pack. That gets him in trouble often enough, and if not the curiosity shows up to finish the job. Since Gittes can’t leave a hunch unexamined, he’s intrigued when a woman (Diane Ladd) shows up in his office convinced her husband, Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), chief engineer of L.A. Water and Power, is having an affair. Gittes decides to tail Mulwray and sees fresh water being dumped into the Pacific. Peculiar, since there’s a serious drought. Gittes snaps some money shots of Mulwray and his mistress, and when they wind up front-page news the second bomb drops. The real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) barges into his office, and she’s understandably enraged that Gittes took the case under false pretenses. Gittes, in turn, is none too happy that he’s become someone’s puppet, and he’s hell-bent on finding out who’s pulling the strings.

There is more, much, much more, to “Chinatown” than this. Polanski’s twisty plot continues to uncoil itself slowly, almost languidly. From this point, we, like Gittes, sense that Evelyn is hiding something, possibly something sinister or shameful, and that this Mulwray scandal goes far deeper than the ocean the water’s been dumped into. When Mulwray’s body turns up, lungs filled with salt water even though he was pulled from a freshwater reservoir, that much is clear. Now there’s a scandal and a murder, and the cast of POIs expands to include Evelyn’s millionaire father Noah Cross (John Huston), a man who serves Gittes a head-on fish for lunch and reveals himself to be a man as menacing as he is rich. The pieces start to come together toward the end of Gittes’ topsy-turvy investigation. Or do they? Scriptwriter Robert Towne unloads not one but two shockers, both of which force us to double back and scrounge around for clues we missed. And that’s when we realize Gittes wasn’t the only one trapped in an unpredictable cat-and-mouse game.

Not many scripts can draw in viewers the way Towne’s does. This is complex, captivating writing that manages to keep us guessing until the final moments, and even when the answers are provided, they aren’t necessarily easy or satisfying. Every revelation here is hard-won. Somehow Towne also manages to capture the spirit of 1930s film noir, with its femme fatales (Dunaway in this case), terrible misdeeds of the past and how they infect the present, the detective who’s in over his head but won’t back down. It’s all there, and it’s all executed flawlessly.

“Chinatown,” however, isn’t just a masterpiece because of the script — Polanski’s direction, his keen eye for the shadows-and-fog atmosphere, that sense of weariness, is impressive in the way it recreates 1930s-era L.A. and does so in color, not black-and-white. Mastery exists in the performances of Huston, Dunaway and Nicholson. Huston, with his towering presence, exudes the effortless menace of a man unaccustomed to having his whims questioned; he dictates and it becomes so. Dunaway’s Evelyn is equal parts fragility and untapped rage; she is exactly as mysterious as she needs to be, and not a drop more. Nicholson’s Gittes is a character for the books. The actor hits a career best here, demonstrating cracks in the armor. He makes Gittes the moral compass and the heart of “Chinatown,” the kind of man who not only can’t forget what he’s seen but doesn’t want to.

Review: “Eyes of Laura Mars” (1978)

Susan Jane Gilman, in her book “Kiss My Tiara,” spends one chapter bemoaning the fates female protagonists face in motion pictures, and one of her sharpest observations applies well to Irvin Kershner’s hyper-stylish thriller “Eyes of Laura Mars.” The Laura Mars (Faye Dunaway) of the title fits into the category of Women Who Fall for Psychotic Murderers Because Boy Are They Handsome. Dunaway has no choice but to play along, even though the part requires her to clutch her head and wail like a banshee. Oh, the harrowing drama of high fashion photography in the Big Apple.

Revealing Laura Mars’ type means pains must be taken not to give away the Twist Ending … which doesn’t amount to much surprise for anyone paying attention. So on the subject of plot I will tread gingerly: Laura Mars is an N.Y.C. photographer whose violent artwork has ignited a firestorm of controversy about the subject matter. She dresses her subjects in runway frocks and arranges them for shock value, using provocative poses and staged violence to express her vision. Critics, reporters and the public argue endlessly about her work: Is photography itself a viable form of artistic expression or a sign that painting is hopelessly outdated? Do Laura’s photos glorify violence or comment on it? Laura likes to think she draws attention to mankind’s savageness and her work has little effect beyond that. Her flamboyant assistant (Rene Auberjonois) could care less about perception as long as Laura keeps her schedule. Yet the photos may be the reason a murderer begins picking off people in Laura’s circle and posing the victims just as she does in her shoots.

“Eyes of Laura Mars” would be a garden-variety whodunnit save for one detail: Laura, through psychic or supernatural visions, can see the killer commit each crime. These visions come on suddenly and are never wrong, prompting cop John Neville (Tommy Lee Jones, in top form), who’s investigating the killings, to bring Laura in as a witness. Sure enough, she’s surrounded by potential murders. Both her alcoholic ex-husband Michael (Raul Julia) and her driver Tommy (Brad Dourif, bless his shifty eyes), an ex-con with a lengthy rap sheet and a nervous expression that indicate all’s not well in his mind, initially look good for the crimes. However, one of the film’s most glaring flaws is the setup of Michael, Tommy and others as suspects; immediately after meeting these men it becomes apparent they aren’t guilty. Is a little subtlety, a little intrigue too much to hope for in a psychological thriller? Must these characters be drawn in such thick magic marker strokes? Hence the transparency of the ending, at which point “Eyes of Laura Mars” devolves into an orgy of weeping and yelling and and more weeping — all of it done tolerably well by Dunaway. She may be prey, but there’s nary a shiny hair out of place.

This attention to style is where the movie accumulates points. The makeup and costuming are flawless and eye-catching, the epitome of high fashion, while nearly all the actors possess bone structure or some other feature so startling it’s a shame Michelangelo wasn’t around in the 1970s to paint them. In terms of visuals, “Eyes of Laura Mars” is a singular and striking film. Laura’s visions, too, are handled impressively — they resemble a peep through a dirty camera lens, and when Laura has them they inspire genuine unease. The visions, though, are never explained, and we’re left to wonder why. Perhaps this is a conscious choice the director makes to make them seem more “secretive,” or perhaps it’s an oversight caused by fashion overload.

Even more frustrating than these baffling visions is seeing Faye Dunaway relegated to a part so devoid of nuance (“Mommie Dearest” aside, she is capable of nuance). John Neville is a character of true mystery whose story we want to know. Laura Mars, though? Dunaway tries but she can’t create much intrigue for a character meant to fit the bill of Everyvictim. Maybe John Carpenter, who co-wrote the screenplay, learned an important lesson from this, a lesson he used in “Halloween”: A heroine’s not much of a heroine if she can’t think on her feet.

Grade: C