Those 70s movies (Part Two)

Chinatown (1974)

director: Roman Polanski. starring : Jack Nicholson.

I always hesitate to pin the label “film noir” (always a problematic definition) on to anything made after the the early 1950s. Whether an homage, a pastiche or a genuine attempt to add to the genre the end result, invariably, is “noirish” or “neo-noir” & those are two things that we really don’t need. Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” satisfies all the necessary criteria to be film noir. It then adds layers of modernity which place the film firmly in the vanguard of ground-breaking 1970s cinema.

Released at the height of Watergate a story of paranoia, conspiracy & political corruption, though set in the 1940s would always resonate with the contemporary mood of the USA. Robert Towne’s script, the most celebrated in Hollywood, is a seamless mix of the cinematic & literary. It is a private dick story nuanced by the faction which passes for  history in Los Angeles. A combination which has served the novelist James Ellroy so well in recent years. It is to Polanski’s credit that he took such a rich source & in the process of transferring it to the screen more than matched it’s quality.

Jack Nicholson had played notable parts before Jake Gittes but the private detective is his breakthrough into the mainstream. Gittes is Bogart cynical but not Bogart tough. It is an emotional & moral involvement which keeps him on the twisted trail of the amoral, even evil, Noah Cross, played to perfection by John Huston. No film about L.A. can avoid self-reference (& reverence). The sublime example in “Chinatown” is an attack on Gittes which leaves him with a dressing on his nose and a resemblance to Donald Duck ! The thug who inflicts the wound is played by Polanski himself. There are few finer examples in Hollywood of a director letting the audience know who is in charge & that he knows what he is doing.

I am not going to analyse the labyrinth of “Chinatown”‘s plot. It is enough to say that the film has an almost unsurpassed coherence of script, direction & cast pitched perfectly to deliver a complex package which satisfies on all levels. Polanski has never again worked so closely with the Hollywood film industry. It is a pity because this remains his masterpiece & there may have been others to follow.

The Godfather (1972)

director: Francis Ford Coppola. starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duval.

Coppola’s saga about the Corleone family has become so ubiquitous that it would be facetious of me to attempt any original thought about this film. I would just like to endorse the following idea. When the most visible of the “movie brats” were given an opportunity to direct big budget movies they reached back to their childhood for inspiration. Spielberg took a giant rubber shark and he really made his mark with an inflated B picture. Lucas parlayed his infatuation for the space and adventure serials of his youth into more money than you can shake a stick at with Star Wars and Indy. Childish or child-like ? You make your own choice. What is indisputable is that these films opened the door to the mega-buck blockbuster which has come to so dominate the industry.

Some 8 years older than these two, Coppola looked to the gangster films of his own youth. Edward G Robinson, James Cagney & Bogart had become stars in these tough guy roles but there had not been a “proper” Hollywood mob movie for some time. “Point Blank” was made there but looked to Europe for it’s style. The French, they made a heap of gangster flicks in the 60s. Francis, like us all, had seen these films on TV. We were shocked by the violence & loved the anti-heroes even if the got their just desserts in the end. He did not want to make a film for big kids. He made a mob movie for modern times charting the transition from concepts of  honour and respect to a more cruel and rational outlook. In doing so he created an epic which exposed America as mich as it did the Cosa Nostra.

He got Brando, who appeared to have given up, to give one more scintillating performance, dominating any scene in which he appears with his quiet authority. An ensemble of ready for prime time young guns all took their chance as the next generation of Corleones. The contrasting characters of these four adds a depth to this film that few others can emulate. A word too for Nino Rota’s score which gives credence to the director’s claim for an operatic influence.

“The Godfather” is entertainment for adults, you know those people who now take their kids to the cinema to see the new Pixar construct and hope that they have been included. Coppola tried always to make this sort of intelligent film and, on a few occasions he succeeded. If  this film had failed there would have been no “Apocalypse Now”, no “Goodfellas”, no “Reservoir Dogs”. He took the 1930s blueprint for a tough guy movie, resuscitated it and added plenty of flourishes which have become a new blueprint. A high water mark in American cinema.

The clip is 17 seconds long…you have time for that.