Viewer Guide: Chinatown and The Driftless Area

October 25, 2019 | Richard Peña

Chinatown (1974)


This week’s classic is Chinatown, the 1974 neo-noir detective mystery written by Robert Towne and directed by Roman Polanski.

Although the film noir genre actually encompassed a wide range of subject matter, for most audiences it was best epitomized by iconic detective movies like The Maltese Falcon, Murder, My Sweet and The Big Sleep. Falling out of favor in the revolutionary 60s, the film noir made a powerful comeback in the 1970s in contemporary reboots like The Long Goodbye and Night Moves. And while the revitalizing genre was referred to as “neo noir,” there was very little actual “noir” to be seen now that color film had long replaced black and white. But just because everything was in color didn’t mean the plots and characters weren’t as dark as ever, with relaxed studio censorship allowing the inclusion of story lines that would have been unthinkable during Hollywood’s “Golden Age.”

Even though screenwriter Robert Towne set his screenplay in  1937, this new era of 1970s permissiveness is very much on view in Chinatown. In one of his career signature roles, Jack Nicholson stars as J.J. “Jake” Gittes, a private investigator whose career has exposed him to just about every sordid human indiscretion imaginable. Jake finds himself increasingly embroiled in the strange case of a woman claiming to be Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray, who’s convinced that her husband Hollis is having an affair. But Hollis Mulwray isn’t your average straying husband: he just happens to be the chief engineer for the LA Department of Water and Power, an agency of enormous importance in arid southern California. And when the real Mrs. Mulwray in the form of Faye Dunaway turns up in his office, Jake knows there’s far more to this case than meets the eye. To say much more would only spoil the fun. One of the film’s special treats is an incredible performance by legendary director John Huston as Evelyn’s wealthy father, the increasingly sinister Noah Cross. And keep an eye for director Roman Polanski in a cameo appearance as a hyperactive thug with no patience for nosy people.

Screenwriter Robert Towne had originally envisioned Chinatown as the first in a trilogy of films dramatizing how the natural resources of Southern California had been abused in the development of Los Angeles. While Towne’s script incorporates standard film noir elements, it also took inspiration from historical figures like the actual LA Water and Power chief William Mulholland, combining factual characters and incidents to create a scenario with convincing period authenticity. Towne wrote the character of J.J. Gittes specifically for Jack Nicholson, with producer Robert Evans persuading Roman Polanski to return to LA to direct even though it had only been four years since the shocking murder of his wife Sharon Tate by the notorious Manson family. Polanski proceeded to edit Towne’s lengthy script, eliminating a voiceover narration and re-ordering the action so that both Gittes and the audience would uncover the central mystery simultaneously. But the duo clashed over the ending, with Polanski overruling Towne’s intention for Noah Cross to be killed off, insisting instead that Evelyn’s death become the dramatic climax. Despite the overall excellence of Towne’s screenplay, I think Polanski’s revision of the ending helped turn Chinatown from a very good film to a great one.

Nominated for eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and winning for Towne’s screenplay, Chinatown became Polanski’s final American film before he fled to Europe in 1978 in the aftermath of sexual assault charges against a 13 year-old model. Robert Towne’s long-delayed sequel titled The Two Jakes was finally released in 1990, with Jack Nicholson not only reprising his role as J.J. Gittes but also directing. However, the troubled production failed to connect with critics and audiences, effectively cancelling Towne’s contemplated final installment, Gittes Vs. Gittes, which was to center around Jake’s own divorce case in 1968.

The Driftless Area (2015)


This week’s indie is The Driftless Area, an offbeat romantic crime drama from 2015 based on the novel by Tom Drury and directed by Zachary Sluser.

Taking its title from the geographic intersection of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois, “the Driftless Area” is an atypically mountainous region of the Midwest, so named because it somehow escaped the flattening spread of prehistoric glaciers. Clearly, something strange happened here, and as the film will show, strange things continue to happen there. This quirky four-corners landmark is home to the similarly quirky Pierre Hunter, a deadpan misfit played by Anton Yelchin, a bartender whose brief escape to attend college was cut short by the untimely death of his parents…as well as running out of money. Hitching a ride, he gets picked up by Shane, played by John Hawkes, who quickly reveals a mean, violent streak. After an altercation, Pierre is thrown out of Shane’s car, but moments later the sound of screeching tires and banging metal indicate that perhaps some divine retribution has played out against Shane. What Pierre finds in Shane’s car sets him and the story off in a direction that no one—least of all Pierre—was expecting. Soon after, a succession of eccentric characters enters Pierre’s life, starting with Stella, an occasional ski instructor played by Zooey Deschanel who seems, well, out of this world. Ciarán Hinds plays Shane’s partner in crime, along with Aubrey Plaza as their nonchalant accomplice. Alia Shawkat plays Pierre’s high school friend Carrie, and Frank Langella appears in a cameo role as a solitary older man who somehow seems aware of an unknowable grand plan.

Filmed on locations around Vancouver, The Driftless Area made its premiere at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. The film is a good example of a contemporary tendency among American indies to mix and match genres within the same film: from film noir to romantic comedy to supernatural mystery and then back again. Anton Yelchin, who stars as Pierre, was born in Leningrad to Jewish parents who were figure skating stars of the Leningrad Ice Ballet. Although his parents qualified for the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, for reasons that were never made entirely clear they were denied participation by Soviet authorities. Immigrating to the United States with his parents as an infant in 1989, Yeltsin began his acting career as a child actor in various films and TV series, including Hearts In Atlantis and Curb Your Enthusiasm. But it was his recurring role as Starship Enterprise navigator Pavel Chekov in the 2009 big screen reboot of the Star Trek franchise that vaulted Yelchin into the upper ranks of a new generation of promising young Hollywood stars. Tragically, Yelchin was killed in a freak accident in 2016, after he had parked his Jeep Grand Cherokee on the steep driveway of his house and the vehicle rolled back over him due to a gearshift malfunction. After the Yelchin family filed a lawsuit, the case was confidentially settled out of court in 2018.

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