Reel Rumbles: “Chinatown” vs “The Late Show”
The P.I.: tired, poor, and curious. The dame: tall, dark, and dangerous. The place: the City of Angels.
The time: well, about that.
The 1970s saw a rebirth of film noir. “New Hollywood” directors like Roman Polanski and Robert Altman, who had built reputations on risqué, irreverent, darkly psychological, proudly “modern” movies like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and MASH (1970), suddenly decided to turn the clock back. They plucked classic characters like Philip Marlowe from late-night television, where the old movies still aired behind Abbott and Costello and Frankenstein repeats, and brought them back to the big screen.
Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), starring Elliott Gould, was an improvement on the little-seen 1969 effort Marlowe starring James Garner. The latter had been the first Marlowe movie in over 20 years. Later in the 1970s Robert Mitchum played the character twice. In that same decade the other great noir detective, Sam Spade, was revived after a 26-year slumber for a Maltese Falcon sequel, a Pink Panther movie, and the well-liked 1976 comedy Murder by Death.
Among this wave of neo-noir, two movies won instant critical acclaim. Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) is set in 1937 Los Angeles and follows a brand new P.I., J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson), as he investigates a case of civic corruption. Robert Benton’s The Late Show (1977), produced by Robert Altman, is set in present-day Los Angeles but follows an elderly, old-school detective (Art Carney) as he tries to solve one last case.
Chinatown has entered the classic film canon, but is The Late Show a superior contemporary ripe for rediscovery? Let’s consider the facts.
Round 1: The Crimes
Nicholson’s Jake Gittes makes his living tailing unfaithful spouses. One of them, a civil engineer for the Los Angeles water department, turns up dead, and the widow (Faye Dunaway) hires Gittes to find out why. The answer involves not only the history of L.A.’s rapid growth and development, but a terrible family secret that could never have been included in a 1940s film noir script. Chinatown offers swaggering pulp entertainment, astute historical storytelling, and shocking transgression. It captures the macro and the micro with equal finesse.
The relatively comic tone of The Late Show is set in its opening moments – not when detective Ira Wells’s partner turns up at Wells’ boarding house with a fatal bullet wound in his gut, but at the ensuing funeral, when a groovy ‘70s girl named Margo (Lily Tomlin) asks Wells to find her kidnapped cat. That’s beneath Carney’s surly Wells, who’s effectively retired. He tells Margo that in old Los Angeles, his female clients (“dollies”) were no less crazy, but they were a lot tougher. Yet there’d be no movie if he didn’t take the case and if it didn’t involve a bunch of colorful crooks and unexpected twists. Much like the classic noir The Big Sleep (1946), though, the plot of The Late Show is secondary to its relationships: the focus is on Carney and Tomlin’s unlikely chemistry.
Winner: Ties of blood and water, Chinatown
Round 2: The Detectives
Gittes is cocky, bombastic, and crude, but dogged. He gets his nose sliced open and doesn’t even consider dropping the case. Those traits are familiar enough from the classic noir era, but when Gittes’ relationship with Dunaway’s character deepens, he reveals new layers. He develops genuine feelings for her, and these awaken painful memories of a relationship that ended badly. What exactly happened is unknown except that it happened in Chinatown. Gittes emerges as a complex, powerful character ostensibly ripe for prequels and sequels, but he’s a victim of his own success; Chinatown gives him such a strong arc from beginning to end that there’s no way for future installments to improve him. The 1990 sequel The Two Jakes, which Nicholson directed and Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne penned, is generally considered decent but unnecessary.
The Late Show is a vision of what Gittes, Spade, and Marlowe would become if they lived long enough to need hearing aids. It’s a noble picture, but not a romantic one. Wells lives alone in a rented room, watches TV, and has health problems that scare him more than he likes to let on. He hasn’t changed his style of clothes or his manner of speech, which were urbane and professional in the 1940s but mark him as conservative and crusty in the 1970s. Margo, his pacifistic, dilettante, post-hippie client, has no qualms about explaining what’s wrong with him, and he responds in kind. Both, of course, are correct. Yet what purpose is served in analyzing Wells – that is, analyzing Spade and Marlowe and all their ilk – by the standards of an era they were never meant to see? Most of the neo-noirs of the 1970s, though grittier than their predecessors, are set in the 1930s or ’40s when the detectives are in their natural element (1978’s modern-day remake of The Big Sleep is an exception.) Placing a prewar detective in the 1970s puts him at a disadvantage physically, socially, and economically, with excellent results for the film’s plot and stakes. It also allows screenwriter Benton to critique contemporary society from the point of view of the past — something rarely done outside of science fiction and fantasy.
Winner: Art Carney as Ira Wells, The Late Show
Round 3: The Clients
Chinatown has two immortal lines of dialogue, both of which justify a SPOILER warning, and both of which concern Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray. The final line is “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown,” spoken after Gittes has lost another lover to the lawless neighborhood. The other line is spoken by Dunaway and kicks off the third act: “She’s my sister and my daughter.” Evelyn is, like Jake, the perfect noir figure and also something more. She walks into Jake’s office in a vintage suit and hat just like a Mary Astor or a Lauren Bacall would have done, with every bit of their gravitas and mystique. But her secrets are darker and stranger than theirs would have been, and so is her fate.
Tomlin’s Margo is a distillation of the middle-class counterculture. She wears flared pants, sells pot to pay the bills, decorates her flat with beads and curtains and her own paintings. She deploys pop psychology against Wells (“Did you know that most men who play with guns are impotent?”), which he largely ignores except for the occasional raised eyebrow. Once the shooting and car-chases begin in earnest, though, Margo finds herself attracted to the dangerous life of the private detective. She and Wells are a classic odd couple with a predictable arc, but the highly specific pairing of a ‘70s free-spirit with a hardboiled ‘40s gumshoe has not been done better, and it speaks directly to the cultural context of neo-noir.
Winner: Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray, Chinatown
Round 4: The Heavies
The gold standard of noir baddies is the duo of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. Lorre was creepy in an unspecified way, while Greenstreet was a self-interested sophisticate: intelligent, charming, and wealthy. If only he could possess the valuable item, there would be no need for such Lorre-like barbarities as guns and threats and torture. Chinatown’s Noah Cross (John Huston) is the worst of both worlds. When it comes to his pocketbook, he’s a Greenstreet. In his personal life, he’s a Lorre. He’s greedy and depraved: the total package.
John Considine and Eugene Roche are the classic bad guy duo. Consadine plays Lamar, the leering muscle man, but he’s vain and craven. Roche is Ronnie Birdwell, the brains and financier of the operation, who gives away cars as bribes and rewards. They treat Wells with the same sardonic camaraderie that Lorre and Greenstreet once extended to Bogart, and watching the tables turn between the three of them is a delight. Still, there is nothing new in these antagonists, and they are a less significant part of The Late Show’s success than their predecessors were in classic detective flicks like The Maltese Falcon.
Winner: John Huston as Noah Cross, Chinatown
The last noir standing is Chinatown, which takes this matchup 3-1! Much like last week’s Rumble, the better-known film comes out on top. Yet The Late Show is likely to find many fans among admirers of Chinatown, and could surpass it among viewers who prefer their noir on the light side.
Chinatown stats on Flickchart:
- Globally ranked #50
- Wins 60% of matchups
- Ranked by 23490 users
The Late Show stats on Flickchart:
- Globally ranked #5976
- Wins 45% of matchups
- Ranked by 108 users