The Noir Season

Re-visiting Chinatown via its new DVD leads you to re-confirm a couple of points : that it is,indubitably,the very best detective noir that...

Written by Shubhra Gupta | Published: December 12, 2009 1:52:33 am

Re-visiting Chinatown via its new DVD leads you to re-confirm a couple of points : that it is,indubitably,the very best detective noir that Hollywood has produced,and that it has,arguably,one of Jack Nicholson’s purest performances.

Jake Gittes is a sharply dressed private eye,and employs two legmen and a pretty secretary,but his Los Angeles could very well be the town of the more down-at-the-mouth Philip Marlowe—full of crevices and canyons and peroxide blondes and dodgy men. The film was made in 1974,but it’s set in the late Thirties,when LA was still being colonised: it has that feel of a just-coming together place,where greed and need jostle.

Director Roman Polanski was still making films in America at that time (he fled to Europe soon after),but some of his own moral ambivalence colours the film,which is about murder and deceit and old and new crimes. Befitting its genre,it is full of layers and complex emotions: you can’t go out for a bathroom break,for fear that you will have missed something crucial.

Nicholson,who hadn’t still become a star,and who appears in most of the film with a large bandage across his nose,channels his fictional alter-ego superbly: he is not prissy and understands the need to cheat,but he is,beneath the veneer,a real man. And Faye Dunaway keeps him great company,in this stunning,still fresh-as-paint film.

If Chinatown is classic sleuth noir,LA Confidential is top-notch cop noir. This is Los Angeles of the Fifties,20 years ahead of events in Chinatown,but it has the same combination of glitz and sleaze. A handful of policemen (Kevin Spacey,Russell Crowe,Guy Pearce) run up against crimes committed by the rich and powerful in Hollywood—mobsters,politicians,bent cops. The film unspools with an edgy,jagged rhythm,much like the novel by James Ellroy that it’s based on.

Spacey plays a cop who so loves his turn on a popular TV show that he will rat out his partner when he is threatened with being thrown out,but he will still live by his code of honour. Crowe is a toughie who has the hots for a gorgeous hooker (Kim Basinger) and Pearce,who was even lesser known than his fellow Aussie Crowe at the time the film was made (1997),plays a coldly ambitious fellow who will do anything to get ahead,except ditch his spectacles.

Nothing predictable about this gripping tale,just one surprise after another.

Goodfellas takes the mob movie and turns it upside down: it’s told from the point of view of a foot soldier who climbs his bloody way up the ladder. Ray Liotta plays Henry Hill,a youngster who is fascinated by all things Mob,and whose ambition is never to have to do a nine-to-five boring job where you have to stand in line to be served. Accompanied by Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci,Liotta vaults through bloody heists and killings and comes to a pass in his drug-sodden life where he has to between leading the dull life he disdained,or stop breathing.

The ‘making of’ segment talks of how Goodfellas influenced a whole generation of future filmmakers: Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya was an indirect homage.

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