The Ghost Writer: a straightforward story that deals fleetingly with the nature of US-UK relations

Roman Polanski, “The Ghost Writer” (2009)

Circumstances surrounding this film were peculiar enough in themselves: in travelling to the Zurich Film Festival as a special guest for the film’s opening, Polanski was arrested by Swiss authorities and held in house detention pending possible extradition to the US for evading jail time back in 1977 over unlawful sexual intercourse with an underage teenage girl. (I have reviewed a documentary on this case by Maria Zenovich, “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” elsewhere on this blog.) Polanski’s awareness of the corrupt conduct of the judge presiding over his case surely informs “Ghost Writer” with a substance the novel on which it’s based may not have. Both the film and book are based on recent events involving former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (1997 – 2007) which included his decision to join US President George W Bush in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, ostensibly to punish and remove that country’s president Saddam Hussein for continuing to possess chemical weapons.

Directed with Polanski’s usual aplomb, “The Ghost Writer” is driven almost entirely by its story and characters. It moves quickly and smoothly – maybe just a bit too smoothly – to its climax. Moments do exist where the action might seem a bit forced but the logic of the narrative and some thinking on the audience’s part assure their relevance. A mediocre writer (Ewan McGregor) is commissioned by a book publisher to ghost-write an autobiography for former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), reviled by the public the world over as a lapdog of the US and for taking his country into a disastrous invasion and war that cost hundreds of British soldiers’ lives and thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of other people’s lives. The ghost-writer, never named, discovers that a previous ghost-writer who worked on the autobiography recently died in very strange circumstances and that he has to pick up where this writer left off. He (our hero, that is) discovers various anomalies in Lang’s past history while researching and as he follows the trail of irregularities, he realises that his predecessor must have been murdered and that Lang, wanted by the International Court of Crimes for war crimes, must have been an intelligence asset for the US and the CIA which points to an important question: who recruited Lang and who was his handler?

The plot turns out to be straightforward and astute viewers will be able to finger the culprit long before McGregor’s writer does. It’s the actors who hold the audience spellbound throughout the film. McGregor plays a not-too-bright writer who initially is uncommitted in most aspects of his life: he broke up with his girlfriend years ago and drifts along; and if he had any misgivings about working for a war criminal, they were on semi-permanent vacation when he took on the job. However his basic decent nature and his curiosity drive him on, eventually his sense of justice is aroused, and he determines to uncover the truth. In short, in true Hitchcockian tradtion, the ghost-writer is an ordinary person like you and me thrust suddenly into an unreal world where good and evil can’t be distinguished from one another and he must choose one side or the other. The stakes are high and everything rides on making the right decision. As the ghost-writer delves deeper into the mystery behind Lang’s recruitment, dark forces begin to move against him. McGregor is surrounded by good actors who relish the opportunity to play ambiguous characters: Olivia Williams is good if a little histrionic as Lang’s estranged and dissatisfied wife and Tom Wilkinson is suitably creepy as the CIA recruitment officer. Brosnan injects a little Ronald Reagan into his portrayal of the Blair-like Lang and though he does not have a lot of screen time, this role might actually be seen in the years to come as one of his best if not the best in a career that’s mostly been full of Hollywood fluff.

With Polanski at the helm, the film employs plenty of black humour and viewers will notice deliberate parallels with Hitchcock plot elements: there’s a car chase, there are McGuffin characters and elements not important in themselves but which set the ghost-writer on his path and point the way, and there is a blonde woman who may or may not be on the side of angels. The music soundtrack carries a wry, somewhat amused attitude as if distant gods on Olympus are watching the little insects scurrying below them with interest and are placing bets on the likely outcome. Throughout the film there is a sense of paranoia and suffocation in the world that McGregor’s character has entered, and it’s also very insular: the man who assassinates Lang turns out to be a former soldier who appears at least twice earlier in the film protesting the loss of his son in one of Lang’s wars.

Due to the film’s emphasis on characters focused solely on their own self-interest and the small world which they inhabit, “The Ghost Writer” cannot deal with any larger issues arising from those it and its source novel touch. There is never any mention of the suffering of the Iraqi people or of the reasons the US, the UK and other nations combined to invade Iraq. The “special relationship” that exists between the UK and the US is never mentioned, let alone examined or criticised. Only McGregor’s character grows in moral stature and viewers are likely to warm to him as a future hero. Unfortunately this being a Polanski film, Polanski has a Chinatown-type ending waiting for the ghost-writer: that’s not very Hitchcockian!

Carnage: comedy of no-manners patronises Americans and diminishes its audiences

Roman Polanski, “Carnage” (2011)

Not one of his better efforts due to the nature of the original play but then again, a comedy from Polanski is almost as rare as teeth in a chicken, especially one as entirely dialogue and character-driven as this. Two school-age boys have scuffled and one has whacked the other in the face with a switch, breaking two of his teeth, so the culprit’s parents agree to meet the victim’s at his home. Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz), the parents of the miscreant, have jobs as investment banker and corporate lawyer respectively; the victim’s folks, Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C Reilly), are somewhat lower class where income is concerned but are more cultured, or at least Penelope is (or pretends to be). In attempting to call a truce and assign financial responsibility for the victim’s dental expenses, the two couples allow their personal lives to take over the conversation via their cellphone calls and their respective civilised veneers, loosened by too many glasses of scotch, fall away; before long, their hang-ups about their marriages, class differences, social consciences, general outlook on life, obligations to their families and a pet hamster explode into the open in the confines of the Longstreets’ apartment.

Polanski is wise to keep all the action based in one room (the Longstreets’ lounge-room) so as to allow the actors to fly freely with their characters. Foster and Winslet excel with their particular characters: Foster the socially conscious and caring writer-cum-artist activist is revealed as an ambitious, narrow-minded and controlling shrew who always has to be top dog; Winslet the high-maintenance trophy wife loses control of herself from drinking too much and vomiting. Reilly and Waltz have rather more limited roles with Reilly playing a mediator and failing dismally and Waltz a workaholic more interested in winning lawsuits on behalf of crooked corporate clients in order to avoid dealing with a failing marriage and a child affected by his parents’ fights and faults. We start to see why the children of these parents might have behaved the way they did: the Cowans’ son wants the attention his parents are not giving him and the Longstreets’ son may be a passive child vulnerable to bullying because his mother coddles him and his father is too laidback to show him how to stand up for himself.

There are incongruities in the characters: what Penelope, who more or less conforms to the popular “champagne socialist” type (socially conscientious, skimming the surface of art and culture so as to appear sophisticated), found attractive in Michael with his non-PC prejudices and cavalier attitude towards small animals is never explained though their differences provide plenty of laughs; and Nancy and Michael are equally mismatched (she a brittle upper class princess, he a dull one-dimensional corporate robot whose life revolves around work) and contemptuous of each other. It’s likely though that the common bonds between them are love of money and status and who married whom for the money is perhaps not too difficult to work out. Initially the conflict is between morally upright do-gooding Penelope and cynical Alan with Michael trying to calm down and jolly people along and Nancy performing her simpering debutante act. The action clearly takes place in a claustrophobic and labyrinthine hot-house apartment though the Longstreets refer to their home as a “house”; usually in Polanski’s films, such a setting reflects characters’ inner states of mind but in this movie the setting merely looks picturesque.

Although the actors are very capable and the comedy is fast-paced and well-timed, the plot itself ends up in a rut: the characters simply keep on finding new scabs to pick at and make bleed and the bickering becomes tiresome. Script-writers Yasmina Reza (who wrote the original play) and Polanski pile on one unpleasantry after another on the characters until they become caricatures of themselves and the action is forced to stop rather suddenly when Nancy petulantly flings flowers about. One presumes the film-makers discovered at the last minute that there were no custard pies in the Longstreets’ fridge.

What themes exist in the film – how the rapacity of Wall Street and corporate culture has found its way into the lives of people like the Cowans and reduced them to mean-spirited, hollowed-out shells who can’t connect with their son; the snootiness of self-styled “liberal” and “progressive” types like Penelope loudly proclaiming their new versions of the 19th-century “white man’s burden” by writing books about wars and poverty in Africa while perhaps ignoring the poverty in their own neighbourhoods; the redneck vulgarity of Michael – are treated in a patronising way. The audience is expected to laugh at these foolish Americans for their self-obsession and identity politics. Yet in laughing at them, we ourselves are diminished; aren’t we just as obsessed with our social identities, how we want people to view us and admire us, and aren’t we also just as unconcerned about the poor people in our midst while we express horror and concern for poor people in distant countries whom we hope we never have to see?

Interestingly the most important part of the film occurs right at the end where we see the couples’ sons being friendly as if nothing had happened between them earlier. This suggests the world in a microcosm: while the parents, self-important and materially wealthy but spiritually lacking, quarrel and treat their children like objects or trophies, the children themselves overcome any social differences and conflicts between them and become pals. If only our elites, obsessed with ideology, destructive economic growth and controlling the public, would just disappear and let the common people sort out the mess the world is in through working together and finding common ground, the planet will regenerate and humanity’s future would be bright indeed. Dream on.

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired – an examination of celebrity culture and corruption in US justice system

Marina Zenovich, “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” (2009)

On the surface this film is about Polish-French director Roman Polanski’s conviction for having sex with an underage girl, Samantha Gailey, in 1977, and the trial and the accompanying media circus that followed which culminated in Polanski’s flight to Europe, never to return to the United States and Hollywood; on another level, the film also examines the cult of celebrity and sensationalism that surrounded and continues to dog Polanski, and the miscarriage of justice that could have occurred in his case had he remained in the US and what it says about the attraction of fame and the pressure of maintaining an image or reputation, that individuals are prepared to waive fairness and justice and to ruin people’s lives to pursue or preserve their image. The film delves into Polanski’s past including his arrival in Britain to make his first English-language film “Repulsion” and his marriage to the impossibly beautiful Sharon Tate whose murder is also covered in some detail. A mix of archival newsreels, interviews with the people involved in the case (including the victim, Samantha Gailey-Geimer), sub-titles against a black background and snippets of Polanski’s films carries the details of the case in more or less chronological order.

At first the film jumps around from the court case as it starts to unfold, to Polanski’s early career in Britain and the US and his marriage to Tate, giving the impression of uncertainty as to what direction to follow. The effect of Tate’s murder on Polanski is described to some extent. The picture that emerges of the young Polanski is a man possessed of vitality and an appetite for life, and a desire to document injustice and corruption in society through his films; at the same time, he has a strong and unusual connection with death due to his unique experiences as a Shoah survivor. The film also examines the character of Judge Laurence J Rittenband who presided over the case: he emerges as someone susceptible to the blandishments of the cult of celebrity and concerned about maintaining his reputation as a tough “hanging” judge – in short, he’s not the judge you want to be in charge of a case like Polanski’s. Once the film dives into the chronology of the case, what Polanski was required to do after pleading guilty to the charges against him, the pace picks up and the film proceeds smoothly and determinedly all the way to the end. It makes clear that Polanski was willing to sit in jail for 90 days in spite of the danger the other inmates posed to him (he ended up sitting in jail for 42 days) and to undergo psychiatric evaluation above and beyond what California state law actually required in 1977. The film also shows the machinations that Rittenband got up to, to restore his image and reputation, after allowing Polanski to travel to Europe to work (and where he was photographed at an Oktoberfest celebration in Munich, sitting between two young women) and having to weather media criticism when the photograph starts appearing in newspapers.

Interestingly Polanski himself isn’t interviewed directly by Zenovich or a member of her crew; he appears rather as a character around which everything revolves. The really important people in the case other than Polanski – Geimer herself, Polanski’s defence lawyer Douglas Dalton and the prosecutor Roger Gunson – acquit themselves as the only sane people, surprised and not a little horrified at the shenanigans Rittenband got up to. Both Dalton and Gunson complained about Rittenband’s behaviour and had him removed from the case in 1978. Most interviewees talk of their association with Polanski and of what they knew of his life up to 1977; many of them are contemptuous of Geimer’s mother for allowing her daughter to go into a situation where she was taken advantage of. Zenovich does not interview anyone other than Geimer who defends the mother’s actions.

It’s the issues raised by the film that make it more than just a blow-by-blow account of what happened during Polanski’s trial, why he suddenly left the US never to return and the aftermath of the trial and the effect the whole affair had on Polanski’s subsequent career. The impact of Polanski’s notoriety as director of the horror film “Rosemary’s Baby”, the bizarre and violent death of Sharon Tate, Polanski’s association with Hollywood glitterati and the lifestyles they led (in contrast to the humdrum lives of most Americans) on the US general public is fairly clear: many people saw him as a sinister dark dwarf-like creature far removed from the cares of making a living. Doubtless Polanski’s fame and perceived privileged status encouraged Rittenband to want to punish him severely. There is a sub-text about the sanctity of American teenage female virginity and how it must be defended from foreigners like Polanski; I am not excusing Polanski’s actions but if they had been committed by a native-born US man with no connection to Hollywood, a Jewish background or anything else that smacked of a cosmopolitan and artistic outlook at the time, the outcome of the case might have been very different. The miscarriage of justice that would have occurred had Polanski stayed is made clear but there’s no examination of the US legal system that would show how such miscarriage is allowed to happen. Surely Rittenband wasn’t the only corrupt / corruptible judge in California at the time? If the film had shown whether the kind of justice Rittenband was prepared to dish out to Polanski was common or not, viewers would get an idea of how much the system itself encourages outlandish and extreme behaviour. Unfortumately the role of the media and celebrity culture in shaping public opinion and influencing the outcome of the case as a result is investigated very little.

The film makes no claim to being impartial and tends to be more sympathetic to Polanski than it should. A lot of emphasis is placed on Tate as a kind of angel come to save Polanski from his personal demons, as if to excuse the hedonistic life-style he later led after her death which forms the backdrop to the sex scandal. Viewers are left to decide whether Polanski has been dealt with justly or not and it’s clear from the film’s presentation that Zenovich believes he has been treated badly by the US justice system. Polanski and Geimer have suffered enough from the case and any future moves by the US government to arrest him are likely to have hypocritical motives attached, especially after the pressure it placed on Switzerland in 2007 to arrest and extradite him in the wake of the Union Bank of Switzerland’s refusal to reveal the identities of US citizens (not all of whom might have been trying to evade US tax laws) who had UBS accounts.

The Tenant: psychological study of alienation, paranoia self-repression and loss of identity and control

Roman Polanski, “The Tenant” / “Le Locataire” (1976)

A very good psychological study of a young man, bullied by others and trying to make his way in a society that is self-absorbed and indifferent to the needs and problems of individuals, this low-key flick is the kind of movie Polanski does best. Present in nearly every scene to the point of suffocation are claustrophobia and a strong sense of alienation due to the film’s spatial confinement to interiors with very few outdoor scenes. The plot revolves around main character Trelkovsky (Polanski himself) going about his daily activities and meeting with scorn, indifference, ridicule and people using him as a punching-bag for their neuroses nearly everywhere he goes. This blow-by-blow approach immerses viewers deep into Trelkovsky’s world so we feel and understand his paranoia and delusions even though we know there is no substance to them and many slights he experiences exist in his mind only; the situations that cause and feed his mental deterioration are so ordinary and ambiguous in nature that they are equal parts horror and comedy. The whole structure of “The Tenant” is of a series of black comedy sketches that build on one another to overwhelm their protagonist so that by the end of the film, his wacky behaviour is the only logical way of ending his nightmare.

Trelkovsky rents an apartment in an old building inhabited mainly by elderly residents who apparently have no other entertainment than to complain about the noise Trelkovsky supposedly makes, even though by nature he’s quieter than a mouse in a vacuum. The concierge (Shelley Winters) tells Trelkovsky the previous occupant of his unit – a girl called Simone – fell through the balcony windows and plummeted several floors to the ground. Trelkovsky tries to appease the landlord and other tenants and keep his head down at work but the constant grind of sniping attacks from his neighbours, teasing from co-workers, the indifference of police to a robbery and his entanglement with a kooky girl, Stella (Isabelle Adjani), and her bohemian friends wears him down. Add to that mix the mystery of Simone’s self-defenestration, which Trelkovsky comes to believe was a suicide attempt, and strange clues such as graffiti written in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics in his bathroom(!) and a tooth found in a wall, and tension and suspense build up steadily and slowly to a bizarre climax.

Of course the plot makes no sense and Trelkovsky is over-sensitive to all incidents inflicted upon him. All support characters are deliberately exaggerated for effect: Adjani’s character in particular comes over as a concentrated amalgam of the kooky middle-class girls who populate Woody Allen films. Winters does a marvellous job as the insulting, sneering concierge. I have seen reviews elsewhere that comment on how Muppet-like the support characters are (Adjani as Miss Piggy and the landlord and the concierge as Statler and Waldorf) and they do indeed appear very puppet-like! – which suggests that Trelkovsky in his own deranged way constructs his reality to revolve around his apparent “helplessness” which enables him to control and cope with his victim status.

However Trelkovsky’s need to fine-tune and update his status leads him to obsess that the neighbours are trying to drive him to suicide; at the same time, he chooses to adopt Simone’s identity to the point where he wears her dress, uses her make-up and buys a wig and high-heeled shoes. At this point, you wonder how much in control of his fantasy world he really is and whether he is acting out a repressed sexual fantasy or memory; for all we know, Simone might simply be a useful tool for Trelkovsky to act out and embellish his anger and frustration. Viewers may be put off by Trelkovsky’s cross-dressing (it does look very self-indulgent!) but as a visual indicator of how Trelkovsky succumbs to his delusions and repressions, it’s very hard-hitting and serves to increase the film’s tension.

Visually the film is in thrall to Polanski’s vision: the window and camera are deliberately dissolved into one, the window / camera as peep-hole into one’s soul and desires and as symbol of repressed sexuality, and there are many repeating images of people looking through windows or being framed by window or door frames. The look of the film is superficially realistic but camera shots and the use of panning emphasise the plot’s voyeuristic aspects. The music tends to be sparing and large parts of the film feature no dialogue. The outer appearance of people and objects contrasts strongly with their inner “reality” in Trelkovsky’s world; even Stella and her dotty pals get press-ganged into the neighbours’ supposed conspiracy.

The improbable plot is played as much for laughs as for suspense and horror, and that in itself is true horror: viewers can’t help but laugh at the final indignity Trelkovsky heaps upon himself as, convinced that everyone is out to get him, he insists on torturing and degrading himself once and then twice. The mystery of Simone’s accident becomes completely irrelevant, a mere McGuffin device Hitchcock would surely have applauded. Trelkovsky’s humiliation is that he imagines everything to excess, and excess overcomes any doubt or skepticism he may have had about the things that have happened to him. Repetition forms part of this excess and itself is overdone with numerous images of windows and people looking through them.

As a portrait of one man’s isolation / alienation from a hyper-individualised society and how his past experiences and background as an outsider without known close social ties help him (or not) to cope with the daily difficulties and upsets of Western life, and how these feed into his fears and control over a fragile self-image, “The Tenant” is at once creepy, hilarious and devastating. Compared with “Repulsion” and “Rosemary’s Baby”, it’s not quite as scary or as subtly layered and it does sag in its middle section but it’s still a worthwhile look at how Polanski mines his favourite themes of isolation, alienation, paranoia, mental breakdown, lack of social connections and loss of control over one’s destiny.

Repulsion: slow but very good psychological horror character study of sexual attraction / repression

Roman Polanski, “Repulsion” (1965)

A good psychological character study of a young woman suffering mental illness and falling apart while alone and isolated in her sister’s apartment, “Repulsion” was the English-language debut for both director Roman Polanski (his second full-length directing feature) and lead actor Catherine Deneuve who was 22 years old at the time she made the movie. The plot is a basic one that just manages to sustain the 105-minute running time though there are a fair few passages in the film that could have been edited for length. In much of the latter half of the film there is not much dialogue and Deneuve herself utters no words as her character gradually loses the power of speech.

Carole Ledoux (Deneuve) is a recent migrant working as a manicurist in a beauty salon in London and lives with her older sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux) in a busy part of London in the 1960’s. Their life is precarious: they are always behind with the rent payments and Helen is having an affair with a married man Michael (Ian Hendry). Michael moves into the apartment, much to Carole’s disgust. She has an aversion to men and there are hints throughout the film that she is both repelled by and attracted to men in ways she can’t understand or control; on top of that, men themselves are attracted to her because of her beauty and blonde hair and misinterpret her timidity and whispery voice as provocative come-ons. Michael and Helen go on a holiday to Italy, leaving Carole to fend for herself in the apartment. Losing her job at the salon, Carole is cut off from the world around her in the apartment: her social and physical isolation combine with her sexual fantasies, feelings, traumas and paranoias to bring 0n a full-blown mental breakdown which has catastrophic consequences when two men, a would-be boyfriend (John Fraser) and the landlord (Patrick Wymark), enter the apartment on separate occasions to confront her.

Deneuve does a great job carrying the film as the fragile Carole. Initially she is shy and dreamy and viewers see her discomfort in a world that has no time for dreamers and dawdlers. Indications of her disintegrating mental state come early with nail-biting, scratching, chewing her hair and repetitive actions suggestive of wiping or cleaning herself. The camera often focusses closely on Deneuve’s flawlessly sculpted face with its frequently blank expression and wide-open vacant stare. Something of British director Alfred Hitchcock’s influence might be seen in the opening and closing scenes of the film with the camera lingering and then respectively zooming out of or into Carole’s eye. There may be a mix of under-acting and 0ver-acting on Deneuve’s part throughout the movie but most of the time she has a blank look that does not over-strain for effect. Carole’s actions throughout the film are filled with horrific portent (and are sometimes blackly humorous with sexual suggestion as in a scene in which a co-worker at the salon sees a rabbit’s head sticking out of Carole’s hand-bag) but seem credible. One can almost believe Carole is capable of murder in her increasingly addled state. The support cast is very good if deliberately one-dimensional to emphasise the lack of empathy and the single-minded pursuit of pleasure and material goals among the people Carole lives and works with.

With most of the action taking place in Helen’s apartment, background details are important and as Carole descends into madness the apartment’s dimensions change from cosy and cramped to wide with cracked walls and floors. The cracks that suddenly rip across the walls have much blunt sexual symbolism as do the hands that reach out from the walls in the hall-way. Indeed the apartment’s floor-plan suggests the interior of the female reproductive system with rooms leading off from the hall-way which itself ends in the bathroom. Needless to say the bathroom ends up in a very sorry  state of mixed fluids.

The film can be slow in its early stages, setting up the social context in which Carole lives and works and building her character and the various social interactions between herself and others, and among the various characters. Women express disgust with men and their sexual aggressions and behaviours, men talk about women as if they are animals to be broken in and controlled roughly. With all this talk going on around Carole, it’s no wonder she decides to retreat from the outside world into her own world once Helen goes away. The problem though is that Carole’s inner world is filled with more horror than the outside world is: flashback memories or fantasies of rape and control play out over and over in her mind. The repetition can be overdone – we only need to see Carole’s rape fantasies twice perhaps to realise her mind keeps dwelling on them – and it’s not necessary for the camera to pause repeatedly over the rotting rabbit on the plate to indicate Carole’s forgetfulness and mental confusion over household routines. Suspense and tension exist but the film’s slow-ish pace, some over-long scenes and the repetition tend to dissipate the build-up of tension.

The soundtrack is significant in the film: bells, alarms, phone ring-tones and the sound of spoons being clapped by a group of wandering musicians pop up from time to time to remind viewers of real life as opposed to Carole’s “reality” and to measure the extent to which Carole recedes from the outside world.

“Repulsion” is well-named, there are several meanings here: repulsion as in rejecting and / or avoiding sexual urges and impulses, memories and fantasies of rape and assault, and the double standards of sexual behaviour that apply to men and women in 20th-century Western society. A lonely and alienated figure, made so by the consequences of those double standards perhaps, rejects this world for her own traumatised world in which memories and fantasies interact and play out over and over. Plus the more Carole withdraws from life, the more the outside world claws at her; even when she is unconscious, there is a suggestion that Helen’s lover Michael finds her sexually irresistible. This is Carole’s tragedy and the “comedy” of the film, that as much as she tries to resist her desires, fantasies, past traumatic events and men’s attention, she keeps ending up in situations where she can’t avoid them.

 

 

 

 

Chinatown: film noir addresses serious issues of political and moral corruption

Roman Polanski, “Chinatown” (1974)

Chinatown” was Roman Polanski’s foray into the private eye / film noir genre and his last major film for Hollywood. A few years after making this movie, Polanski was arrested and charged with having unlawful sex with an underage teenage girl; though what he did cannot be condoned, his situation was complicated by the excessive media attention at the time which put pressure on the presiding judge, anxious for his reputation as a “hanging”-type judge, to ignore the recommendations of both Polanski’s legal defence team and his victim’s lawyers that Polanski serve a short time in jail, submit to a psychiatric test and evaluation (both conditions which he fulfilled) and then do a year’s worth of community service. The judge determined to put Polanski away for a long time which would have wrecked the film-maker’s career and tarnished the reputation of the law in California where the offence took place – in short, the judge would have acted corruptly. No wonder then, at the first opportunity, Polanski fled back to Europe where he continued to direct movies but always with his reputation under a cloud.

No small irony then that “Chinatown” deals with political corruption: in particular, with the selfish monied interests of a wealthy elite versus the public interest over the allocation of a necessary resource (water) and how politicians and public servants can be bought by rich individuals while honest hard-working poor people and communities (farmers in a valley north-west of Los Angeles where the movie is set) face the loss of livelihood and an uncertain economic future. Though “Chinatown” takes place during the Depression years of the 1930’s, its central message about political corruption and the misallocation and mismanagement of land, water and other resources is still relevant to us, especially in an age where in many countries water and electricity are being privatised and their control is no longer subject to public scrutiny, and in which cities continue to grow, putting pressure on their surrounding hinterlands and the communities there to share or supply more water from diminishing sources.

Initially the plot is straightforward and spare: private detective J J Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by a woman (Diane Ladd) claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray to spy on Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), an engineer working in the Los Angeles city water department, and ascertain if he is having an affair. Gittes quickly discovers that Mulwray is indeed seeing a teenage girl and that he is opposed to the construction of a new dam. Gittes follows Mulwray and finds that Mulwray has unearthed a scam which involves the dumping of fresh water into the ocean even though Los Angeles is suffering drought conditions. After Mulwray’s “infidelity” is exposed in the newspapers, the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) brings a lawsuit against Gittes and Gittes realises he has been set up. He convinces Mrs Mulwray that he is an innocent party and she reveals that her husband and her father Noah Cross (John Huston) were former business partners who privately owned the city’s water department.

Hollis is later found murdered and Evelyn Mulwray hires Gittes to investigate her husband’s death. He does so and finds it connected to a land grab attempt by the LA city water department to force farmers to sell their land cheaply to the investors who bought land bonds. The “investors” are revealed to be residents of a nursing home who know nothing of what was done in their name – by none other than Noah Cross who owns the home through his Albacore Club. Gittes’s continuing investigations bring him into conflict with Cross who wants him to find Hollis Mulwray’s supposed teenage lover, put his life and career at risk, and culminate in a tragic climax in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles.

The narrow focus of the screenplay on Gittes’s investigations and Polanski’s smooth and sure direction give Nicholson plenty of space and freedom (and there is a lot of space in the movie, in the homes of the wealthy and their playgrounds, in the countryside, along the roads and the coasts of southern California) to develop his character as a louche and likeable private eye who, beneath the rakish and sometimes violent exterior, is actually a thorough, dedicated and morally principled man who observes the spirit of the law and justice if not their letter and who fights on the side of the weak against the powerful. Viewers quickly appreciate how Gittes has come to work for himself rather than continue working for the police. His relationship with Evelyn Mulwray becomes personal and complicated and partly because of this, by the end of the film he becomes a broken man. Nicholson’s performance as the multi-faceted Gittes is brilliant and convincing, flavoured with the actor’s own slightly raffish style. The rest of the cast provides excellent support, in particular Dunaway as the rich and sophisticated yet vulnerable wife hiding a terrible family secret, and Huston as her father, jovial and gracious, sinister and greedy. Polanski himself, perhaps in homage to the English director Alfred Hitchcock who sometimes played small cameo roles in his movies, plays a small role as a vicious thug who disfigures Gittes’s face.

The film might not look very film noir – it has a slightly soft yet clear look, there is plenty of blue sky and the surroundings look beautiful and clean (even the Chinatown district looks bright and not at all seedy in spite of rubbish in its streets) – but its surface appearance hides a rotten core and the film adheres to a number of noir genre conventions and subverts them as well. The hero is a disillusioned outsider with moral flaws often working on the wrong side of the law which is corrupt and which he comes into conflict with; he tries to save a victim, usually a beautiful woman who is both innocent and morally compromised somehow; and in pursuing justice, he gets roughed up by representatives of evil and corruption so that his further investigations become a test of his moral character and principles. His work may uncover yet more corruption. The world he moves in is morally dark and unsavoury. The hero might not succeed in beating back the forces of darkness, and so it is with “Chinatown”: the forces of corruption win and the hero realises his efforts were all for nothing. The victim turns out to be the teenage “mistress” of Hollis Mulwray and Gittes fails to save her from Noah Cross’s clutches. Cross is an interesting if repulsive character whose sexual abuse of his daughter Evelyn and what we can presume he’ll do to the young girl symbolise his utter disregard for what we might call “natural law” in pursuit of self-interest and immediate gratification, and parallels his greed for land and money and disregard of human-made laws.

The use of film noir and its conventions to address and investigate an issue of continuing contemporary political and social importance as well as Polanski’s other concerns about social justice and the place of outsiders in society, makes “Chinatown” a very powerful film that still packs a lot of punch. The surprising thing is that the plot is easy to follow, with no sub-plots, and includes a soap opera element. Polanski is faithful to historical detail in people’s dress, the cars and technology they use, the architecture and interiors of buildings, homes and offices, and the social and ethnic segregation almost to a fault; even his small role recalls the fact that many people in the underworld at the time were Eastern European Jewish migrants. His direction is plain, almost blank, and forces viewers to judge for themselves what the film’s events say about the world they live in. Some viewers may be unhappy that, by film’s end, nothing has been done to expose the water supply scam and that it’s a sideshow to the Cross family soap opera but Gittes’s failure is in keeping with the film noir genre and the film’s own logic. If an experienced and knowledgeable expert like Hollis Mulwray knew what was happening but was powerless to stop it and ended up being killed for his trouble, how could an outsider private eye with few resources other than his own intelligence and investigative skills succeed?

Rosemary’s Baby: does it reflect women’s oppression by modern life?

Roman Polanski, “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)

Who doesn’t envy young couples these days who dream of having a nice 3-bedroom house or apartment in the city close to work, shops and various cultural attractions, and of being able to rely on one or two incomes with steady and reliable weekly pay-packets that can cope with paying off a mortgage on low interest rates over 25 years and accommodate a major holiday every year and unforeseen expenses? Unfortunately too many such couples are being squeezed by some combination of miserly employers, governments hacking into health, education and social services to pay for expensive overseas wars, and greedy unforgiving banks wanting to maintain their profits in a depressed economy, among other things. Understandable then that some people might be willing to sell their souls or their first-born kids to the Devil or, in the case of this movie, hire out the missus as surrogate mum to the Anti-Christ if they thought such sacrifices were necessary to achieve their goals and dreams. Put yourselves in the shoes of Guy Woodhouse (played by John Cassavetes), husband of Rosemary (Mia Farrow), and ask yourselves: if I’d been a struggling actor for several years and now my one big chance of getting a career break and going to Hollywood depends on one actor, to whom I’m understudy, not being able to perform his role in a play, and that chance will never come again, wouldn’t I want to sell my wife to Satan if he agreed to toss that chance to me?

Over forty years ago when the movie was first released, the premise of a woman impregnated with the seed of Satan was so scary to many people that they spoke of the movie in hushed tones. Since then, the “horror”, which was probably talked up and exaggerated by the media at the time, has dissipated and what we have is a clever movie that starts out as a soap opera and turns into psychological thriller in which naivety, gender politics and isolation combine with fear of the unknown as a young woman experiences a major life transition (becoming pregnant, being a first-time mother) into paranoia and potential mental breakdown, and this is where much of the film’s “horror” actually derives. The fact that Rosemary’s fears and beliefs about her baby’s conception and identity come true is really neither here nor there; the baby, once born, is not so horrible after Rosemary has seen him and her memory of her difficult and painful pregnancy and the frustrations that came with it fades away.

Employing actors with proven track records on stage and screen in carefully selected or recreated urban settings and following the original novel closely result in a polished and carefully crafted film for the horror genre in which cheap sets, inexperienced starlets, hackneyed and melodramatic plots and sometimes slapdash direction used to be the norm in those days. In common with many of Polanski’s movies, a strange sense of humour is always present and this movie could be viewed as a black comedy. That perhaps is an injustice to Rosemary who is a naive though intelligent young woman whose fault is to have been born and brought up in a world where a married woman’s place is in the home tending to her babies and trusting in her husband, doctor and neighbours to look out for her safety. As Rosemary fears, these are the very people who give her up to Satan and endanger her health and life. (Interesting therefore, that the movie is based on the novel of the same name written by the same fellow, Ira Levin, who wrote “The Stepford Wives” which itself has been made into two movies. Levin obviously hit onto something about women’s oppression by modern life that university academics took up later.)

As investigations into being an outsider, paranoia, isolation and mental breakdown go, “Rosemary’s Baby” is not nearly as good or intense as some other movies Polanski made in the 1960’s and 1970’s – “Repulsion” and “The Tenant” spring to mind – but this is still a good movie about how even the most mundane and ordinary aspects of life that people take for granted can harbour evil. In a time when marriage and community still counted for something and kids were free to ride their bikes on the streets from sunrise to sundown and only show up for dinner and bed-time, the notion that your spouse and neighbours, and even the building you live in, could be part of an evil conspiracy must have been breathtaking. Unless you happen to be US-Japanese artist Yoko Ono whose husband John Lennon was shot dead in 1980 in front of the building, the Dakota Hotel, that appears in the opening and closing shots of “Rosemary’s Baby” and which viewers may assume is the building where the Woodhouses own their apartment. The apartment itself though consists of recreated sets as filming has never been allowed inside the hotel.

It’s perhaps also significant that at the time “Rosemary’s Baby” was first released, the civil rights movement in the US was on the rise and receiving much media publicity. The Black Panthers movement was also in the spotlight. The more governments granted equal rights to racial and other minorities, the more emboldened people became to raise issues of past discrimination and correcting history about how people had been treated in the past. With equal rights and the breakdown of racial barriers come racial inter-mixing and the possibility of white women having children with … non-white men? EEEEE-AAAAHHH-OOOHHH!!! … racial miscegenation, maybe that’s the real horror  “Rosemary’s Baby” hints at!