So, why are they always mentioned together? Well, mainly it’s because they’re both neo-noir films, and damn good ones at that.* They’re remarkably different in many other respects, meaning they make good comparative subjects. Chinatown is a Roman Polanski creation of 1974, when neo-noir was just getting into its stride as a genre of its own. Jack Nicholson plays protagonist J.J. “Jake” Gittes, whose crude arrogance makes him a likably flawed hero. Layer upon layer of mystery unfolds as we follow Gittes’ investigations into the murder of a wealthy engineer whose death is somehow linked to the crippling Los Angeles water shortages. Only, we don’t follow this private detective mindlessly. Polanski repeatedly undermines this hero, a lack of judgement or an unlucky coincidence leaving Gittes looking rather foolish. In fact, the director takes matters into his own hands as he appears in a cameo performance and splits Gittes’ nose, leaving him with a ridiculous bandage which remains as an obvious visual indication of his fallibility for the rest of the movie.
Compared to the characterisations in Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential though, Gittes seems a straightforward creation: Kevin Spacey is Detective Sergeant Jack Vincennes, with a love of the Hollywood limelight and a skewed approach to policing; Guy Pearce plays the slimy, intelligent and irritatingly ambitious Detective Lieutenant Edmund Jennings “Ed” Exley; and Russell Crowe is the simple-minded, damsel-in-distress-defending muscle. The thing is, not one of them is the same by the end of the movie; in fact, we actually start to like them. At first these men scramble over each other to find glory, but soon their search for truth and justice supersedes all, a shift which plays itself out alongside their realisation of their identity and purpose as policemen. It’s not as cheesy as I’m making it sound though. Actually, it’s all rather manly, what with the frequent violence and Kim Basinger’s embodiment of “sexual content”.
Whilst I attributed these films to their directors, their strength actually lies more in their scripts. With L.A. Confidential this is fairly obvious as Hanson and co writer Brian Helgeland adapted the screenplay from James Ellroy’s celebrated novel. To give them their due, they whittled the plot down to a more manageable length, cutting out more than half of the main storylines, and yet still remained true to the essence of Ellroy’s work. Moreover, a novel doesn’t translate easily into a screenplay, despite how frequently it’s attempted. There were several occasions where I physically jumped to my feet, pointing, with a facial expression impressively similar to the well known emoticon (:O), so it’s hats off the two screenwriters; congratulations on the Academy Award. Just to keep these two films neck and neck, Robert Towne won the Academy Award for Best Original screenplay for Chinatown, and deservedly so. The plot is based on the California Water Wars of the 1930s, and ingenious allegories permeate the script. Besides the intelligent plot-twists and layered symbolisms, Towne has created some of Hollywood’s most popular quotations: "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown!".
Perhaps at this point I should mention that Chinatown doesn’t take place in Chinatown, save the very last scene. I don’t think there’s any Chinese characters, even. It’s all very confusing. Let me explain: Gittes is a former policeman, who used to work Chinatown. The complexities of the culture and crime there baffled the police to the extent that the official line was to interfere as little as possible. When Gittes finds himself trapped in the intricate web of intrigue and corruption surrounding the water board it’s all too similar to his experiences in Chinatown. It all becomes symbolic of the fruitless search for truth and justice. Life, society and crime are not simple. With a typically depressive Polanski finish, Chinatown despairs at corruption and unrealistic hope.
L.A. Confidential isn’t quite so pessimistic. The truth is as distorted as in Chinatown, primarily through the corruption in the police force, but the gossip magazine Hush-Hush (which is based on the real-life Confidential) crawls beneath the barriers and divulges all in truly sensational journalism. I suppose there is a feeling that ‘the truth will out’, but justice is not so simple a concept. Whilst it’s not so elusive as in Chinatown, justice is not a stable idea. What counts? This instability is reflected everywhere in the movie: Basinger won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, as a high-class prostitute made to look like a Hollywood superstar. Is it enough that she looks the part? Where’s the line between prostitution and Hollywood?
In short, these two films are unbelievably good, each on their own account. At first I wasn’t overwhelmed by Chinatown, I must admit. However, on digging deeper online and uncovering layers I wasn’t able to see for myself, I came to realise it really is a work of genius. As for L.A. Confidential, well I wasn’t able to stay on my seat and sometimes that’s enough of a review.
*(Very) basically, what “neo-noir” means is that the plot revolves around crime and mystery with a main hero-type character, but is a modernised version of “film noir” in that it’s usually more aware of larger social issues and is generally more self-conscious of itself in film history. But that’s as inadequate as saying Formula 1 involves driving.