Jack Nicholson bears the scars of combat in Chinatown


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



24 June


The Aqua Traiana inaugurated, 109

On this day in 109, the aqueduct the Aqua Traiana was put into service. Built on the orders of the emperor Trajan, it supplied Rome with fresh water. Rome’s appetite for water was huge and among the things the Aqua Traiana did was: help deliver drinking water for Rome’s one millions citizens; water for countless public baths including the massive Baths of Trajan overlooking the Colosseum; spectacular fountains; and other leisure uses including the Naumachia of Trajan, a huge basin used for staging naval displays; not forgetting the importance of water as the motive force in Rome’s many flour mills. Running 40 miles from the Lake Bracciano area to the north west, running overground on spectacular aqueducts and underground in brick tunnels lined with waterproof cement, it was a prime target for those wishing to attack Rome. The Ostrogoths cut the supply in 537 when they laid siege to the city. However, it remained in service for centuries. It was the last great aqueduct built in Rome and its remains can be seen to this day in the city. Indeed there are special “Aqua Traiana” tours.




Chinatown (1974, dir: Roman Polanski)

Chinatown is an old-school film noir about a good guy in a bad world trying to get to the bottom of some murky business. It matters not what the murky business is, pretty much, in the same way that it wasn’t very important what animated Raymond Chandler’s detectives, as long as they were out in the world, righting wrongs and cracking wise. But in this case it’s water – in Los Angeles, a town built in a desert, the person who controls the water supply is going to make a lot of money. Jack Nicholson plays JJ Gittes, the besuited private eye hitting resistance at every turn as he tries to find out why someone has turned up dead with his lungs full of water in an otherwise bone-dry area. The resistance comes mostly in the shape of John Huston’s Noah Cross, an old school patriarch given to thundering, quick with the blandishments, a powerful man with a biblical name for a reason. As many people have pointed out, one of Roman Polanski’s triumphs with Chinatown is to have made a film that (now, at least) looks to be of a piece with the famous noirs of the 1940s – The Maltese Falcon, often credited as being the first noir, was Huston’s directorial debut in 1941 and Polanski surely took a few stylistic notes off the great director whose casting is something of a coup. And yet it’s also clearly a movie from the early 1970s – Nicholson in a suit, wearing the hat, driving the big jalopy you’d expect from a man doing virtue’s work back in the day. The drama is propelled by Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray, a damsel in distress, with Nicholson’s Gittes the white knight (when we meet him he is wearing a white suit, in fact) hoping to protect her reputation, but finding that in trying to fix something in the here and now, he’s unearthing something far grubbier back in the past.
Small details take on huge significance in this film – the way that a gangster (played by Polanski himself) sticks a knife up Gittes’s nose and slits his nostril, the fact that Noah Cross can never quite remember Gittes’s name, Evelyn Mulwray’s strangely fluttering behaviour, always nervous; what she’s nervous about we only discover right at the end of the film.
In any assessment of Nicholson’s career, this period, from Easy Rider in 1969 to The Shining in 1980 will always be seen as key: when he did his best work; before the mannerisms set solid. Chinatown was made about halfway in, a year after The Last Detail, a year before The Passenger (when he played a mysterious journalist on the run from something). Chinatown is Jack as a human first, an inquisitive operator second, a principled guy third, the last one jostling with the first two for position. Nicholson’s line readings are courtly, and it’s a logical yet different way of expressing the same character that Humphrey Bogart played – “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero”, as Raymond Chandler once put it. Chinatown is 1974’s definition of chivalry.
As with the man, so with the place: Polanski chooses his Los Angeles locations as carefully as costume designer Anthea Sylbert dresses her actors, with an eye for the ancient – in LA ancient means a few decades – with Nicholson driving through the last remaining art deco relics in a city that is always presented as dry, harshly lit, the sun baking its wide streets.
It is in short a beautiful, desperate and almost languid mood piece, Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne dropping in just enough exposition and colour to keep the thing moving along. Its ending, when everything unravels at breakneck speed, comes as something of a shock, yet it makes total sense – all the masks are suddenly removed and everyone is revealed for what and who they are.



Why Watch?


  • Noir, or neo noir, at its best
  • One of Jack Nicholson’s defining performances
  • The Oscar for Robert Towne’s screenplay (of 11 nominations)
  • Anthea Sylbert’s great costume design


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Chinatown – Watch it now at Amazon





Ten Films About Paedophiles

Kevin Bacon in The Woodsman




Paedophilia, or pedophilia if you prefer the spelling that’s probably going to win out, is not a pretty thing. In the media and in culture more widely it’s usually portrayed as a case of a rogue male preying on unknown children. In truth it’s much more likely to be about dad having sex with his little princess. For years. However, let’s not allow facts to get in the way of a decent bogeyman. Or boogeyman if you prefer the spelling that’s probably going to win out.



The Woodsman (2004, dir: Nicole Kassell)

Kevin Bacon plays the sex offender, fresh out of prison, whose temporary lodgings are right across the road from a school. Playing it as if everything in his life is tinder and could all catch flame at any minute Bacon gives one of those performances that mark him out as something special. Not many films ask us to feel sympathy for the child molester but in this muted, minor key almost-masterpiece we’re shown a man who craves normality, but is driven by uncontrollable urges, and we feel for him.

The Woodsman – at Amazon



L.I.E. (2001, dir: Michael Cuesta)

The acronym of the Long Island Expressway provides the title for Michael Cuesta’s debut, a film that patrols the line between “normal” and “abnormal” urges, focusing first on Paul Dano as a wastrel teenager whose agenda of light burglary brings him into contact with Big John Harrigan, played by Brian Cox with all the menace of Hannibal Lecter but loads more nuance. Does Big John want sex with the young man? We’re not entirely sure. Cuesta is dealing with the relationships that older men have with younger men, a territory society hasn’t been entirely sure about since the ancient Greeks.

 L.I.E. – at Amazon



Lolita (1962, dir: Stanley Kubrick)

This is not an unproblematic film but Kubrick’s Lolita does present a great opportunity to take a look at what happens when Hollywood gets cute. Vladimir Nabokov wrote the script but presumably had no choice in the casting – Sue Lyons plays Lolita as a young woman, not a young girl, and so the whole discussion about the appropriateness of a middle-aged professor (James Mason) lusting after a 12-year-old is all dissipated. Even so, how often have you seen this on TV, late night or otherwise, or even mentioned whenever Kubrick is discussed? Dangerous stuff, even on the back burner.

Lolita – at Amazon



Chinatown (1974, dir: Roman Polanski)

No, incest and paedophilia are not the themes of Chinatown, but the corrupting effect of power, the problems that arise when things that should be in the public domain but aren’t, they both are. So when Faye Dunaway delivers her “She’s my sister AND my daughter” line to Jack Nicholson’s detective Jake Gittes, and points the accusing finger at her dad, (played by John Huston), it’s a metaphor (he’s the man stealing the pure water from the good folk of LA, after all) and, let’s face it, the point where the film tips over into melodrama.

Chinatown – at Amazon



Precious (2009, dir: Lee Daniels)

Rape is not the theme of Precious (Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire) either. But it is just another sign that the life of our central heroine (Gabourey Sidibe) has hit special lows. Does this illiterate New York teen eat so much to make herself unattractive so dad won’t rape her again? The genre is misery memoir, the treatment almost 1950s in its “ripped from the headlines” megaphone approach. But some scenes are so potent – Precious’s mother trying to kill her daughter’s child because she’s jealous of it, and her daughter’s relationship with her man – that carping has to take a back seat.

Precious – at Amazon



Hard Candy (2005, dir: David Slade)

A revenge movie in which our heroine – her online name was Thonggrrl14 when paedo Lensman319 (Patrick Wilson) first got in touch – gets payback for “every little girl you ever watched, touched, screwed, killed.” Things do get a bit overblown, it’s true. And the film struggles to keep us from actually feeling sorry for poor Wilson as he’s put through the wringer by a young woman who’s much smarter, tougher, and possibly even nastier than he is. She’s played by Ellen Page, brilliantly. Wilson is unmissable too.

Hard Candy – at Amazon



Happiness (1998, dir: Todd Solondz)

Todd Solondz’s modern classic of discontent and perversity contains one of the creepiest father/son scenes ever committed to film (hats off to Dylan Baker), so shocking in fact that the film’s original distributor refused to handle it. And it’s the payoff to a film whose subject matter – what limit to the individual right to self-expression and happiness, as guaranteed in the American Constitution – is really tested to the limit. Even the title can be spoken as “A penis”. It’s a comedy. A funny, frightening, squirm-inducing one .

Happiness – at Amazon



Michael (2011, dir: Markus Schleinzer)

“This is my knife and this is my cock, which shall I stick in you?” the abductor asks the (roughly) ten-year-old boy he’s had locked in his basement for who knows how long. “The knife,” replies the boy. And he means it. Any Austrian film that is about a child being locked up in a basement by a paedophile is obviously going to bring to mind the Josef Fritzl case. The brilliance of Markus Schleinzer’s creepfest with the matter-of-factness of Let the Right One In is that he keeps us rooting for the young boy even as we slightly sympathise for the damaged older male.

Michael – at Amazon



Festen (1998, dir: Thomas Vinterberg)

Having announced the Dogme manifesto alongside Lars Von Trier in 1995, Thomas Vinterberg made the first film that stuck to its puritanical precepts (no music, no lighting, no budget, basically). His Festen (aka The Celebration) takes place at a gathering in honour of a family’s patriarch, now celebrating his 60th birthday, at which dark secrets from the past start to knock at the door and then break right through it. It’s a farce done straight, pretty much, Vinterberg forcing his family of shocked and shocking drunks to remain at an event when no real person in their right mind would .

 Festen aka The Celebration – at Amazon



The War Zone (1999, dir: Tim Roth)

Tim Roth’s only directorial effort so far is a tough watch – even the normally beautiful Devon countryside looks brutal through his eyes. Peeking into a dysfunctional family’s inner workings, it paints a more nuanced picture of incest than is usually the case, watching as the power relations between a brother and sister are pathologically distorted by the fact of their moody dad (Ray Winstone) secretly tupping the daughter. Why is she the favourite? That’s the unspoken question written on the sullen face of Tom (Freddie Cunliffe), while his sister (Lara Belmont, in a performance that seemed to promise a great career) uses her brother’s hurt as a “because I’m worth it” salve.

The War Zone – at Amazon


Plus one documentary:


Are All Men Pedophiles? (2012, dir: Jan-Willem Breure)

Netherlander Jan-Willem Breure’s documentary is more about how society deliberately conflates hebophilia (the love of the teenager) with paedophilia and why this has become more problematic in recent years. As a work of academic research it’s not perfect by any means – there are contradictory statements at every turn. But it is more thoughtful than its critics would have us believe, Breure isn’t just a guy who “thinks teenage girls are hot” as the blog Jezebel put it. Its talking heads do know what they’re talking about and at least the film does usefully start the process of unpacking what exactly we mean by such an inflammatory term and why we’re currently obsessed with it.

Are All Men Pedophiles? – at Amazon 


© Steve Morrissey 2013