Wednesday, March 24, 2010
By Eric Jessen 3/24/2010
Watching the end of Roman Polanski's new movie The Ghost Writer this past weekend, seeing a car abruptly accelerate as our ghost crosses the street carrying a 600 page manuscript, suddenly hearing screeching brakes, seeing nothing but an empty street then a flurry of papers scattering in the wind, I was immediately reminded of Chinatown. In particular its ending, seeing the two police detectives fire at Mrs. Mulwray's car then hearing the sound of the car horn.
It kept beeping and beeping. Finally we were told it was all just Chinatown. But what do I ask is it today? Is it Cape Cod, Tony Blair and George Bush, the American government and the CIA, all of which seemed to play a part in killing our ghost?
Maybe Polanski is living in the past. With Chinatown was it really Nixon, the Vietnam war, the assassination of JFK...? Is he living in our country's past? The ending to Chinatown could be seen as a reflection of the times - like Bonnie and Clyde bouncing about to the dozens of bullets piercing their skin, Michael Corleone closing the door on his wife, and Howard Beale being killed for having lousy ratings all rolled-up into one.
Or is it instead that Polanski is still dragging around his own checkered past? And his movies are a reflection of his tainted view of the world. With the personal tragedies he's suffered can we even blame him?
Whether it be Polanski's inner demons or a sign of overall disillusionment with government in America during the late 1960's and early 70's, it is important to note that Chinatown wasn't always supposed to have such a bleak ending. Robert Towne, who wrote the screenplay, originally intended to end the movie with Jake killing the sadistic Noah Cross then helping Mrs. Mulwray escape to Mexico with her daughter. It was in fact Roman Polanski who suggested the change in ending – as with The Ghost Writer, Rosemary's Baby, or any other he had to add his ghoulish macabre touch.
Then again that's crucial to its charm – its tawny varnished, morbid, mythic lyricism. Chinatown will always be an essential film noir of the color age.
Times sure change fast. At one point not long before Chinatown was released morbid film noirs were black and white, and blood a dark gray. They usually ended with the good guys and bad guys aligned, fitting the “crime doesn't pay” message. Another classic The Big Sleep might be an example of this. However can you even dare to say Howard Hawks' film is about good guys and bad guys? Is there really anything important on the screen but Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall's steaming chemistry? The Big Sleep is just an extension of To Have and Have Not spiced up by Raymond Chandlers' feel for the burlesque and salacious and biting dialogue by an all-star cast of writers – William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman. Who among even Chandler himself can shuffle the plot enough to differentiate the good from the bad – as long as Bogart and Bacall are the last ones left standing, as Hawks probably thought to himself when he made the film.
Can you imagine Bogart as Philip Marlowe tussling with Faye Dunaway's Evelyn Mulwray or Jack Nicholson's Jake Gittes with Lauren Bacall and the thumb sucking Carmen (Martha Vickers)? I'm sure they could both hold their own. Who knows, maybe Bogey could have given Polanski his first film with a happy ending.