There were so many great crime movies that came out of the ’70s that it would be something of an endeavor to compile a list of the best. But chances are, if you had a bunch of people get together and do just that, Chinatown would be near the top of most of them. This modern take on classic noir is beloved to the point where it’s the sort of thing that gets studied in film classes, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s got iconic moments, a legendarily despicable villain in land developer Noah Cross (John Huston), Jack Nicholson giving a solid leading performance that isn’t as showy and distracting as his later stuff and it’s put together by the trained eye of a master director. But it also has a number of readily apparent flaws that make it questionable as to whether or not it should stand shoulder to shoulder with the greatest movies in cinema history, as many people claim that it does.
Another great crime film from the same era is The Long Goodbye, a sort of subversion of the noir genre that embraces its tropes but updates its setting to the laid back, alternative medicine-embracing culture of early ’70s Los Angeles. Unlike Chinatown, this isn’t the sort of film that has grown in popularity over the years. It has its fans, and it might show up on some of those “Best of the ’70s” lists if the people you’re surveying are big into the era or big into the crime genre, but if you question the average Joe on the street about this strange, meandering movie, chances are they’re not going to know it—even though it was reportedly a pretty big influence on everyone’s favorite movie, The Big Lebowski.
What do they have in common?
Here’s a match-up that doesn’t need all that much explanation. Both Chinatown and The Long Goodbye are detective stories. They’re neo-noirs even, if you want to get specific with genre. They’ve each got hard boiled detectives as their protagonists. In Chinatown we’re introduced to Nicholson’s JJ Gittes, and The Long Goodbye gives us Elliott Gould’s portrayal of legendary detective Philip Marlowe. Both films are set in Los Angeles, and, perhaps most importantly, both are made by two of the most important directors of the New Hollywood movement of the ’70s. Chinatown is a Roman Polanski joint, and The Long Goodbye comes from Robert Altman. If you haven’t heard of those guys for some reason, just know that they’re kind of big deals.
Why is Chinatown overrated?
Chinatown contains a good deal of strong filmmaking. Likely it’s not necessary to go over all of the stuff in there that works, yet again. But there’s also some stuff in there that’s just silly, and that keeps it from looking like top-tier filmmaking. It’s true that even The Godfather has that infamous scene where James Caan whiffs during his curbside assault, but every single hand-to-hand assault sequence in Chinatown is just so cheesily fake looking that, for a brief moment, they take you out of the noir moodiness and make you feel like you’re watching the Indiana Jones stunt show at MGM Studios.
And Faye Dunaway’s overacting is completely out of control throughout the entire film. Sure, she’s playing a fragile character who’s supposed to be projecting a history of abuse, but she didn’t need to project it like she was playing to the back row of the Super Bowl. Try to watch that pivotal scene where Nicholson’s character finally slaps the truth of her and not view it as a relic of outdated filmmaking sensibilities. It’s just not possible. The more psychological, more bleak movies of the early ’70s were changing the definition of what a studio picture could be, and there’s a whole lot of that going on in Chinatown for sure, but there are also moments that call back to the schmaltzy studio stuff of the past.
Plus, it just takes too long for Chinatown’s mystery to build. Once the young girl shacking up with Dunaway’s character gets introduced, things start to get a lot more interesting, but that’s an hour and a half into the film. There’s the scene where Polanski shows up wielding a switch blade and the scene where Nicholson runs afoul of some misguided farmers that add a smidge of danger and stakes to the film before that, but in general the entire first half of Chinatown consists of listening to people talk about dirty water dealings and the science of irrigation. Who has time for that? Get to the freaky shit already.
Why is The Long Goodbye underpraised?
The reason The Long Goodbye is so successful is that it’s all freaky shit. Every moment of this movie is packed with personality, and Altman puts the focus there instead of on the underhanded dealings and double-crossings going on. The plot stuff gets pretty intricate, and the dialogue can include a lot of exposition, but it’s all so disconnected to what you’re actually enjoying that you tend to tune it out. And the characters tune it out as well, trailing off and getting lost in asides. While Chinatown introduces characters that play like noir archetypes, The Long Goodbye is populated with unique eccentrics who are wildly interesting and find themselves trapped within the framework of noir tropes.
Truthfully, there doesn’t even end up being much of a mystery—there’s just the illusion of one—and it appears because the characters are prisoners of Altman’s experiment. The Marlowe character himself, who had been appearing in mystery stories for decades, exists as a sort of anachronism here, sucking everyone he encounters into the swirling whirlpool of noir degradation along with him and bringing the sins of the past into the present. But still, he has a comfortable and casual enough reaction to everything happening around him that it’s a great joy to soak up the film’s mood and spend time with him. Gould’s Marlowe is exactly the sort of sad sack who you’d love to have as a drinking buddy.
He makes for a damned interesting movie protagonist as well. Whereas Nicholson’s Gittes is the sort of world-weary cynic who’s already seen it all and ends up getting swept up into a mystery that he continues with just because he’s curious to see it solved, Marlowe is taking the mystery he’s swept up in personally. There are life and death things going on involving people who he cares about, and he’s letting it get under his skin. That gives the film stakes, and it ends up sending the protagonist on a personal journey that ends up fundamentally changing him. Everywhere the guy goes he’s surrounded by dogs, but he just wants to find his cat. That’s a sad story.
Evening the odds.
There’s no question that Chinatown is a strong movie over all, and that it can stand next to most of the big noirs from the original era of the genre, but it feels like its reputation gets a little bit inflated because of a couple of lines that have entered into the pop culture lexicon. How many people know about the my sister/my daughter exchange, or can quote the, “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown,” line, and what percentage of those people can actually name what the thing they’re quoting is from? If only we could get a little bit of media traction behind one of The Long Goodbye’s better lines, maybe it could have become a legend too. For my money, “Yeah, I even lost my cat,” is just as good as anything else in the history of cinema.