Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Evil That Men Do: Chinatown and L.A. Confidential

Los Angeles has always had a knack for attracting men (and it's almost always men) who saw an opportunity to take the City of Angels and try to remake it in their own image. These self-made men also didn't get to that position by being kind, or by doing the right thing. In fact, they rarely possessed any kind of moral compass; often they were sociopaths if not downright psychopathic. I'm speaking of people like William Mulholland, William Randolph Hearst and other 'captains of industry.' These titans, these monstrous icons, would later have streets, buildings and cities named after them, but their crimes, the terrible things they did, would largely be forgotten. Of course, this is a familiar story of any big city. Toronto, for example, has a street and various schools named Jarvis. But you wouldn't want to pull back the veil of the Jarvis clan in the 18th and 19th centuries because you might not like what you would find. The hothouse climate of LA, though, seems to attract an inordinate number of them.

Inevitably, when these guys went about their business, other people, often innocent people, paid dearly. It is even said by some that the tragic Elizabeth Short may have been killed by famous men who used her for their own ends and then disposed of her. (Short, whose nickname was Black Dahlia, is a famous-in-death young woman who came to Hollywood in 1946 looking for fame and all she found was murder by dismemberment in 1947. Short's murder has never been solved and has become the basis of many books and films, including Ulu Grosbard's interesting, but flawed 1981 picture True Confessions and Brian De Palma's reviled 2006 The Black Dahlia.) Besides the Dahlia story, Hollywood has rarely had the cojones to tackle stories about these men right in L.A.’s own backyard. But over the years, filmmakers like Philip Kaufman – in his 1993 film Rising Sun – and Robert Altman – in his 1973 picture The Long Goodbye – have all addressed what these legendary giants do either directly, or indirectly. But it wasn’t the prime focus of those works. Two great films, however, both of which I consider masterpieces, have confronted these men straight on: Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974) and Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential (1997).

Both pictures look at the subjugation of public good for private greed. The fact that one is set in the 1930s and the other in the 1950s tells you much about how this cycle of moral turpitude keeps repeating itself. (Altman's picture, set in the 1970s, and Kaufman's film, set in the 1990s, continued this cycle. It could also be argued that Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, set in 2019 LA, pushes this cycle forward into our future.)

John Huston as Noah Cross
Set in 1937, Chinatown tells the story of J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a former LA cop who, because of a tragedy in the city's Chinatown in the past, quit the force and set himself up as a private detective. Gittes tends to spend his days following around adulterous husbands or wives for cuckolded spouses. It's dull work, but it has clearly been lucrative because he dresses in sartorial splendour, employs two operatives and a secretary and drives a top-end car. Into his office walks Evelyn Mulwray (Diane Ladd), a wealthy woman whose husband, Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) she thinks is having an affair with a much younger woman. Gittes takes the case. He follows Mulwray, but is stymied at first by finding no evidence of Mulwray having an affair. Instead, Mulwray seems obsessed with water and its wastage in L.A rather than a woman. Gittes eventually finds clues of this alleged affair and he photographs Mulwray with a young woman. But after he hands over the pictures, and they shortly appear in the newspapers smearing the name of Mulwray, he discovers that he is actually the head of the city of L.A.'s water and power department.

In Gittes' office the next day appears the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) denying she ever hired him. Gittes quickly determines he's been duped and decides to figure out what is going on. Shortly after, Hollis Mulwray is found dead and Gittes' investigation brings him into the orbit of Noah Cross (John Huston), Evelyn's father and formerly Hollis' business partner in the water works. Control of L.A.'s water was originally held in private hands, the private hands of Cross and Mulwray, but Mulwray had a conscience, and he managed to have the control of the water turned over to the city, much to the anger of Cross. 

Cross can come across like a 'hail fellow well met.' He uses his shark-like charm on you just before he (figuratively) slits your throat, rapes your wife and steals your property (then he'll still smile and clap you on the back). The deeper story of what Cross does, personally and professionally, becomes horrifying – and Polanski doesn't sugar coat anything in the film. Who Cross is and what he's done is revealed in “all its glory” by Polanski. Screenwriter Robert Towne wrote a “happier ending” which Polanski insisted on changing. Coming just five years after the slaughter of his wife, Sharon Tate, by another psychopath/sociopath attracted to California, Charles Manson, Polanski did not believe in happy endings (plus he is also a Holocaust survivor). The good guys don't always win (if they did, there would be fewer Mulholland Drives and more Albert Schweitzer Streets in L.A.) and monsters do go unpunished. The people destroyed or damaged by Cross and his ilk are legion.

James Cromwell as Dudley Smith
Hanson's L.A. Confidential (both this and De Palma's The Black Dahlia are based on novels by James Ellroy), set in 1953, is not as brutal and dark as Polanski's vision, but it still packs quite a punch. We watch as the moral compass of the picture's three main characters swing left and right investigating several ultimately interlinked crimes. Our guides through this corrupted landscape are three LA officers: Bud White (Russell Crowe), a thuggish cop who breaks heads at his boss's behest; Jack Vicennes (Kevin Spacey) who is in the back pocket of both Hollywood and a scandal-sheet publisher, Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito); and Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) who is a supposedly incorruptible cop and a hustler who is willing to do whatever it takes to climb the ladder in the LAPD. After a long set up, a mass killing occurs at the Nite Owl greasy spoon restaurant – amongst the victims is White's forcibly retired partner, Dick Stensland (Graham Beckel). The slaughter at first seems cut and dried. Three African-American youths are arrested and charged with the killings. But this false lead pushes open other doors, including stolen drugs and money; prostitutes who have undergone plastic surgery to look like Veronica Lake (a woman named Lynn Bracken played by Kim Basinger who White falls for), Lana Turner, and Rita Hayworth (amongst others); plus layers upon layers of police and political corruption.

What makes this film so forceful is the underlying tone laced throughout society that if the head authority is corrupt, then nobody thinks twice about getting in on a piece of the action: Vicennes is constantly taking bribes from Hudgens (Hudgens take photographs for his tabloid rag, Hush Hush, of Vicennes busting young up-and-coming stars and starlets); White is recruited as muscle by Dudley Smith played by James Cromwell, the Chief of Detectives, to beat information out of whomever he's told to; and the seemingly incorruptible Exley who let's the upper management use him as much as he uses them in order to gain advancement. In this world, we really aren't very far from the edges of Nazi Germany. It is well known that Hitler and his gang would never have come to power if not for a lot of “good” people turning a blind eye, or letting their palms be greased in some way as a means to forget what they knew was going on.

David Stratharin as Pierce Patchett
The 'Noah Cross' in this particular story is divided in two. On the one hand, we have the pragmatic Smith who uses his Irish leprechaun-like charm to convince anybody to do anything for him, including killing gangsters and stealing their drugs. On the other, is his silent partner, the filthy rich developer Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn). Patchett is both the owner of the prostitution ring, and a successful L.A. captain of industry. At one point late in the picture, he is seen in a brief sequence cutting the ribbon for the start of construction of the Santa Monica Freeway. What is left unsaid in this sequence is just what he did to acquire that land in order for the freeway to go through. Undoubtedly, his actions would have made Noah Cross smile. As with Cross, he doesn't think he is doing anything wrong, whether it's with running the prostitution ring or probably stealing land from unseen people, in order to build his highway.

It is said that the progress we now experience – open highways, urban sprawl, better gadgets such as this computer I'm writing this blog on, access to almost anything we desire (the cut-line on Patchett's prosti ring business cards is “Fleur-de-Le – Whatever You Desire”) – was because of what men like Noah Cross, Dudley Smith and Pierce Pratchett did. We then turn around and give these corrupting monsters the keys to the city, or at the very least name streets and public buildings for them after they've died. And as the now completely corrupted Ed Exley does at the end of L.A. Confidential, he covers up the evil deeds of Dudley Smith in the name of protecting the rest of the city fathers' reputations.

What these two pictures essentially say is: This is the world we live in. Because of the psychopaths in our midst, the ones who occupy the corner office, we can now live in comfort and luxury thanks to their previous evil deeds and the rub is we never have to look too closely at what price we may have paid to live the life we live now.

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information (where you can order the book, but only in traditional form!). And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.

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