Author Paul D. Marks won the 2013 Shamus Award for White Heat, a mystery-thriller set during the LA riots of 1992. White Heat left me wanting more. I liked it a lot. He wrote this Chinatown piece exclusively for me, and I'm extremely grateful for it. Jerry Goldsmith's Chinatown score gets a lot of play in my car while driving around LA. I especially like listening to it as the sun begins to set, "golden hour" as Paul refers to it in his terrific book. - Stephen Jared
You may think you know what you're dealing with, but, believe me, you don't.
by Paul D. Marks
I'm a movie guy. Love movies. I'm fascinated on so many levels. From the idea of creating fantasy worlds to trying to recreate reality. Love old movies from the 30s and 40s. And later films from Hollywood's Second Golden Age in the 1970s. Movies like The Godfather and Godfather II (even better than the first one), The Conversation, Taxi Driver and a ton of others.
But only one of them did I see twice in one week, the first time I saw it. Chinatown.
Chinatown (1974) is like an old film noir, but with a modern sensibility. Watergate was 1972, Viet Nam was winding down. We'd been through a decade of civil rights turmoil and assassinations - there was the feeling that the idealism of the 60s was gone, replaced by a jaded view of the world - power corrupts. So Chinatown is like those old Bogie movies and film noirs, but with the veneer of civility ripped off. Metaphorically, Chinatown is like the opening of David Lynch's Blue Velvet, where everything is pleasant valley Sunday, peaches and cream, and then we go under the grass to see the bugs fighting, killing and devouring each other, just below the surface.
Yes, the original noirs saw the seedy side of life, but Chinatown took it to another level, dealing with taboo subjects like incest and adultery - and not white washing them like is done in the Bogie version of The Big Sleep, where the younger Sternwood sister's indiscretions are glossed over and the reference to gays in the book were ignored in the movie version. Sure, some movies from the 50s and 60s dealt with harsh subjects, but even when they did it was almost in a sanitized way.
One filmic phenomenon that happened in the later 60s was Easy Rider, an independent film that seemingly broke all the rules. And people hopped on that bandwagon to make films that, even if they weren't independent, had the flavor of independent movies. I think Chinatown comes out of this trend. No more heroes in white hats. The white hat is a little dusty, maybe from the slime the "hero" or anti-hero has to crawl through. Movies like Chinatown came out and the good guys and bad guys were no longer so easy to distinguish.
In Chinatown, Jack Nicholson portrays P.I. Jake Gittes with panache and just the right amount of insouciance and insolence. The plot intrigues. The dialogue sparkles (to use an overused superlative). The characters crackle. Do I sound like I'm writing some puff piece review? Maybe I am - I love this movie.
As I say, on the surface, it seems like a throwback to the noir films of Bogie, The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon and others. But it doesn't just deal with murder, it deals with bigger issues ... like water, the lifeblood that made L.A. possible. Water stolen from other parts of the state to feed the growing beast that was and is L.A. Where is that water coming from? Who's profiting from it? That's the overarching story. But then there's the personal story of Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), Gittes, Noah Cross (Mrs. Mulwray's father) and Katherine (Mrs. Mulwray's daughter). The story starts out as a semi-sleazy detective trying to track down an adulterer and blows out from there.
And who are the bad guys? Is Noah Cross a bad guy? Well, he wants to bring water to L.A. and that will give L.A. life. But how he does it isn't exactly above board. And what he does with his own daughter, well, that certainly colors him in a different light. And what of Gittes himself? Is he the white knight on the glorious white steed or a flawed hero/anti-hero, who does what he can to try to make sense of the world?
On a more personal level, Chinatown didn't make me want to be a writer - I was already on that path. But it made me want to be a better writer and up my game. I've now seen the movie and read the screenplay many times. These days it's easy to find copies of the screenplay online. But in prehistoric days it wasn't so easy. You had to know someone. These things were kept under tight wraps by Hollywood. But I managed to wrangle a copy and I read and reread it. And watched it on tape. And then on DVD. And on streaming. I have a poster of it up in my living room (luckily my wife likes it, too). And while, back in the day, I used to have stacks of scripts from movies I liked, I eventually gave all of them away, leaving only two: Casablanca and, you guessed it, Chinatown.
When I started out to be a writer, I didn't have a particular style or image in mind. I tried a little of everything. Was good at some, not so good at other things. There were certain novelists that I liked, the usual favorites like Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Also Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge. Dumas' Count of Monte Cristo. Some of the modern existentialist writers. All of whom influenced my writing. And I loved old black and white mysteries and noir films. But I wasn't reading the writers those films were based on yet.
But one day, after watching The Big Sleep, I found a copy of that book at my mom's house. Read it and was hooked on Chandler. In my mind no one touches him as a mystery writer. From him I branched out to other classic mystery/crime writers, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane, Patricia Highsmith and Dorothy B. Hughes, among others. And more modern ones like Walter Mosley, when he came along, and James Ellroy. (If you're ever feeling a little nuts go to one of his signings, you'll see how un-nuts you are, at least by comparison.)
But I also started paying more attention to who wrote the novels that some of the old movies I liked were based on. Dark Passage turned me onto David Goodis. Out of the Past (based on the book Build My Gallows High) to Daniel Mainwaring/Geoffrey Homes, Double Indemnity: Cain. Later on The Getaway and The Grifters turned me onto Jim Thompson. And while Chinatown isn't based on a book, its antecedents are clearly authors like Chandler and Hammett and movies like Double Indemnity and Out of the Past. I felt an immediate attraction to the noir genre in the books I was reading and in the old black and white movies I was watching, and Chinatown revived the genre and brought it into the forefront again, with a modern twist.
Chinatown's sharp dialogue and characterizations gave me something to focus my writerly ambitions on. I didn't want to imitate it, but it did give me a jumping off point for a style of writing I used in both screenplays and prose. A lot of my characters are a combination of Bogart characters and Nicholson from Chinatown, as the inspirational basis for those characters.
I write in a variety of styles, but mostly mystery-noir type stuff. And when I do, Chinatown, among others, gives me something to strive for both in terms of content and style and, most importantly, quality. Chinatown is as close to a perfect script as you can find.
One particular spec script I wrote that got some play back in the day, but ultimately didn't get produced - story of my life optioning things that don't get produced - was an updating of the noir genre with the main character a definite hybrid of various Bogie characters and Jake Gittes or Jack Nicholson. One of these days it will be the outline for a new novel and, believe me, the character in the novel will still be a cross between those two.
Another script that got a lot of play, was about a Gittes/Bogart-like detective, but set in modern times - an old-style detective who didn't even use computers. It dealt on one level with the conflict he had between the traditional world and the modern world, the old vs. the new. I had a scene set in Union Station and a major Hollywood agent read it and couldn't believe anybody would take trains anymore. He missed the whole point that it was to contrast the old with the new.
Chinatown inspired me to be a better writer, because I wanted to write as well as that screenplay. And maybe as I wrote White Heat, my Shamus-Award winning novel, it was there in the back of my mind, keeping me focused on the writing and inspiring me to make it as good as I could. Making me strive for the best work I could come up with at the time. Hopefully I'm a better writer now than then, and when I sit down to write the next thing the ghosts of Chinatown will be there, once again, competitively guiding me and pushing me to be the best I can be.
And perhaps Chinatown was one of the films or books that opened the door to dealing with more serious subjects in entertainment pieces. So, therefore, in the context of a mystery-thriller, White Heat could also deal with serious issues such as racism and stalking.
Chinatown probably couldn't get made today, at least not without major changes. But I don't think it would hurt today's filmmakers to take another look at it and learn from it and make movies that deal with character more than CGI explosions and comic book characters. But that's probably a pipe dream. So as in the movie, I guess I'd better just:
"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."