"You may think you know what you're dealing with, but believe me, you don't."
Noah Cross, Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974, Paramount)
There is a famous shot in Chinatown that moves along Jack Nicholson's naked arm, stopping when it reaches his face resting on a pillow. At left of frame, Faye Dunaway watches his post-coital satisfaction. The scene is lit so that their skin seems golden, so that we bask in the beauty of their present moment. But, characteristically for the film, this moment is in thrall to an opaque past.
Dunaway asks Nicholson about his past as a beat cop, when he patrolled the streets of L.A.'s Chinatown. It is a painful memory: Nicholson's character, J.J. Gittes, tried to save a woman from getting hurt. By involving himself, he ensured that she was.
In Polanski's paean to the film noir, the space of Chinatown stands as a metaphor for the unknowable, the uncontrollable. But it also has a contemporary relevance which may not be immediately obvious.
Writing in Movie, Ed Gallafent observed that, "Chinatown is a locale rather than a human population, a context in which Americans find themselves in circumstances not of their own choosing and in which their actions and dreams are frustrated, but for reasons that cannot be made accessible, because the underlying order cannot be understood or represented. In this respect, we may take Chinatown exactly to anticipate the cycle of late 'seventies films overtly set in the Vietnam of the war, with their inability to articulate Vietnamese culture other than as an obscure background to American lives and actions."
It is only in the concluding scenes of the film that we reach Chinatown, and it is in this space that the tragic events of the finale play out. These fatal moments repay a promise that the film has made us - that Chinatown is inescapable, that while Gittes may think he has left his grubby past behind him, forgetting is futile and indeed impossible.
The Oriental space as maze features in a number of Hollywood films of the 80s that do not explicitly reference Vietnam - I am thinking specifically of Hammett (Wim Wenders, 1982, Zoetrope) and Big Trouble in Little China (John Carpenter, 1986, Twentieth Century Fox). These movies, far pulpier than Chinatown, evoke the Victorian anxieties of Sax Rohmer. Orientalist representation ensnares their all-American heroes in variant San Franciscos, depicting cities within cities where the rule of law is imposed by sons of Fu Manchu.
I was surprised to see a similar process at work in Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss' Sherlock. In the second episode The Blind Banker (written by Stephen Thompson), the Baker Street duo found themselves in London's Chinatown. One of the precepts of the 2010 series was its assumption that viewers were 'in on the game'. We were supposed to congratulate ourselves for recognizing the references to Rohmer and to the 1977 Doctor Who serial The Talons of Weng-Chiang.
But Sherlock collapsed through its failure to justify a coherent world. If we are to understand that the appeal of the show lies in Sherlock's interaction with the modern world, why are these hoary old Si-Fan cliches cluttering up the place? The internal logic, and metaphorical weight, of Chinatown was missing. Only the stereotype remained, a small echo of a once-rich imagery.
Forget it, Jake...