I don’t remember the first time I saw Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, but I’m pretty sure this was only the second time. Whenever I saw it previously, it was most likely on VHS, certainly never on the big screen, and, as such, seeing it in a way that felt almost like the first time on a 42 inch plasma screen was certainly a treat. The film is shot beautifully, but it’s also a brilliantly acted absorbing film. Much has been made of where this film came in Polanski’s career and whether his personal life had an effect on the darkness of the story. Personally, I think his work was awfully dark before but, for the uninitiated, here are the details of his life that may or may not have scarred him in a way that turned him into a brilliant filmmaker. As a boy, he lived in WWII occupied Poland where his mother was murdered by Nazis. Only a few years before this film, his pregnant wife was murdered in his own house in Los Angeles by the Manson Family. I won’t get into his legal troubles as that all happened after this film. At the very least, he certainly seems capable of telling a story where one can’t depend on those whose job it is to protect us from evil in the world. In many ways, this is a faithful genre piece, set in the ‘40’s and, if you knew nothing about Polanski’s troubles or that the U.S. was going through a period where the authorities seemed less and less deserving of trust, it would stand on its own against all the best Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, etc. hard boiled detective movies. And yet, within this frame, the film always feels vital and alive. At the center of this great film is yet another brilliant Jack Nicholson performance. Nicholson is Jake Gittes, the aforementioned private dick at the center of all stories like this. A plot synopsis would be both too time consuming for me and likely confusing for anyone reading this. But that doesn’t mean it’s not fascinating. Polanski wisely chose to excise the voiceover that was in Robert Towne’s original script. Though it may be a convention of the genre, the removal of it allows for a more intelligent audience, one that can figure things out along with Jake rather than having Jake spell it out for us. Polanski reportedly clashed with Towne over the ending, lobbying for a happy ending. Some accounts blame Polanski’s personal tragedies on the ending, but I’m inclined to believe that his brilliance and truth as a filmmaker very well might have driven him to push for the ending he gave us. The powers that be, represented in John Huston’s richer and more powerful than God character, Noah Cross, emerges at the end of the film victorious, while his daughter Evelyn(Faye Dunaway), who bore his incestuous daughter/ granddaughter dies, leaving her sister/ daughter to likely the same fate. As Jake wanders out of the wreckage, a friend mutters to him the now famous line, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” The fatalism matches the genre, Polanski, and post Camelot Vietnam era America.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time with The Longest Yard. It’s very likely one of the best performances Burt Reynolds has ever given. It may even be, as many have said, the best football film ever made. It just wasn’t for me. I’ll admit that I don’t like sports. And maybe I should have someone like my friend Daniel to help me with this one and explain to me why I should like it more. I have actually seen a number of films in the world of sports that I found very watchable and enjoyable. But this one wasn’t one of them. I should also add that it’s a prison movie, and, on the Clooney list spectrum, not as entertaining as Cool Hand Luke and likely more entertaining than Papillon. It is certainly much higher quality than some of the other cheese Reynolds became known for later into the decade and beyond, but the writing and direction overall just seemed mostly adequate. Also, it seemed like the final game consumed something like the last 40 minutes of the film. I could do somersaults and twist myself in knots cherry picking the merits this film has, which it no doubt does. I just don’t feel up to it. I’m fine with this being all I have to say about it.
Matt B. not only joined me for The Taking of Pelham 123, he was kind enough to bring along his own personal copy of it. I had never seen it, but was certainly aware of it, especially as there was a big budget Hollywood remake of it only a few years ago. This is another film with great NYC locations and takes what would seem to be an absurd premise. What if someone hijacked a New York City subway car? The movie moves along at a great pace and, though the humor sometimes borders on cheesy, is a great deal of fun. Walter Matthau plays the transit cop trying to get to the bottom of it all and Robert Shaw is the mastermind behind the heist. The film is filled with great and believable performances but I’m going to focus on these two. I mentioned earlier that Shaw has been a real find for me on this list. He’s a much smarter character here than he was in The Sting and, most likely, more dangerous. He doesn’t have to say much or even really raise his voice for you to know that he is to be taken seriously. This is Matthau’s third of four performances on the list, but his span from the beginning to the end. His performance here is solid and holds the movie together and is really responsible for selling the final moment of the film when he figures everything out. Ultimately, though this certainly shows the seedier side of New York when it was at its seediest, Matthau actually is convincing as a good New York cop who takes his job seriously and makes justice prevail.