“What’s your favorite movie?” is a question I’m often asked. It might come from a new acquaintance who has just learned that I teach film studies and have a special interest in the history of cinema. More often, the question comes from students in my classes. Usually, I deflect the question by saying that there are far too many great films to choose from and that I’d need to narrow the question by style, decade, and even country before my answer would be meaningful. Ask me my favorite French film from the 1930s in the poetic realist style, and I’ll say Port of Shadows straightaway (then add that Renoir’s The Rules of the Game is the greater masterpiece). Ask what’s my favorite screwball comedy from the Hollywood studio era, and you’ll get The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek without delay. But my favorite film over all others? That’s not a fair question. Still, if you catch me in just the right mood, I might tell you Chinatown beats them all.
Now, of course, that answer—and the one about poetic realism too—reveals my overall fondness for dark, fatalistic crime films as well as my inclination to “the-glass-is-half-empty” thinking. That aside, I find the film to be pitch-perfect—in writing, casting, performance, direction, cinematography, editing, production design, costumes, music. Is there anything to find fault with in Chinatown? Director Roman Polanski does regret one choice he made for the film—when Jake Gittes spies on Evelyn Mulray’s husband, we see the image of Mulwray reflected on Jake’s camera lens right-side-up, rather than upside-down as it should be. The error is too slight to disturb my utter enthrallment in the film’s bleak romanticism.
But I’m close to gushing, and that isn’t my purpose here. Rather, I want to address what to call Chinatown, besides a hard-boiled detective film, a period piece set in 1937 Los Angeles. For that, I need to start with the French term film noir—literally “black film.” As soon as I start talking about more than one film noir, I’m already on contested ground: are they “film noirs,” “films noir,” or “films noirs”? For the last two you won’t hear any difference in the French, though the different spellings will reveal how well you know that language. But whether to anglicize the term or retain the French original invites judgment from an audience and potential dismissal by one camp or the other. I usually go with what Merriam-Webster lists first, the anglicized version, pronounced “film nwär” (plural, “film nwärz”), but there are a great many film historians I admire who would insist on “feelm nwah” and “feelms nwah.” C’est la vie.
How to define film noir and then categorize examples of it brings me to even more zealously contested territory and a welter of subcategories: proto-noir, classic noir, film gris (gray film), post-noir, neo-noir (modernist and postmodern), and even pseudo-noir. For film historians who argue that film noir is a cycle produced in Hollywood from 1940 to the late 1950s, beginning with Stranger on the Third Floor and ending with Touch of Evil and Odds Against Tomorrow, dark crime films made earlier or later can’t be true film noir; and, of course, no color film, they say, belongs in that canon either. My favorite dismissal of post-50s noir comes from John Belton, Professor of English and Film at Rutgers, who wrote in his first two editions of American Cinema, American Culture (1994, 2005) that films like Chinatown are imitations of the real thing, in his words, “pseudo-noir.” If you’re interested in reading scholars who define film noir as a genre, and therefore not bound by historical period, see the work of Barry Grant and Mark Bould. They both present a compelling case that film noir has established distinct narrative patterns, character types, iconography, and themes that have established a tradition much like those for westerns and horror films.
“Neo-noir” has become a popular description for dark crime films and erotic thrillers produced since the 1980s, but as with many overused terms it glosses over important distinctions. Neo-noir usefully describes a certain type of hip, postmodern storytelling, like the Coen Brothers’ first feature film, Blood Simple (1984), and their later films Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001). All of these as well as many films directed by David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway), Quentin Tarentino (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction), and Brian De Palma (Femme Fatale, The Black Dahlia), wink as they play with classic noir conventions; like postmodern art in general, they are self-conscious re-workings of earlier models. All neo-noirs belong to the film noir tradition, but not every contemporary noir is a neo-noir.
Case in point is Sidney Lumet’s final film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007). Two brothers, driven by greed, plan a robbery of their parents’ suburban jewelry store. The heist goes terribly wrong, and the brothers’ guilt and fear of discovery drive the film to its climax. A complex, fractured timeline rounds out the noir conventions. The film is noir through and through, but it doesn’t wear that tradition on its sleeve, nor does it scream noir with self-reflexive touches. The same is true of the Coen brothers’ masterpiece, No Country for Old Men (2007), in which story arcs, character types, and even voiceover narration draw on noir conventions but are not self-reflexive imitations of them. Both films are the real thing, no neo- qualifier needed.
And that brings me back to Chinatown. When the film was released in 1974, “neo-noir” had not yet been coined. But audiences and critics alike understood that, as with so many other Hollywood films of that decade, it was a revision, even a deconstruction, of earlier conventions. Drawing from the European art cinemas of the 1960s, the film, from its opening scene to its bleak denouement, critiqued and revised the 1940s hard-boiled detective film: the cynical anti-hero, the femme fatale, the powerful antagonist, the overarching fatalistic despair were all updated in ways that embodied the cultural anxieties of the times.
Chinatown wastes no time in establishing its noir lineage: in the opening scene Jake tells his agonized client, Curly, not to eat his newly installed venetian blinds—a staple of classic noir set design and lighting effects. Then, in the scene that immediately follows, Ida Sessions masquerades as Evelyn Mulwray in an unmistakable parallel to the Miss Wonderly deception performed by Brigid O’Shaughnessy in the grand-daddy of hard-boiled detective films, The Maltese Falcon (1941). Jake may be more financially successful than Sam Spade, but he is not as astute in judging character, nor as capable, as we see by film’s end, in apprehending the guilty or protecting the vulnerable. Most significant, though, is that in the world of Chinatown, evil has corrupted every institution, personal as well as public. The streets that Jake walks down have never been darker or more treacherous. Chinatown is quite simply film noir at its best and, if you were to ask, my favorite movie in any category.