[I had planned to feature this week a pre-Memorial Day series on blockbuster films. But with the ongoing and very necessary WGA strike, I’ve decided to share instead a handful of older posts which have focused on films with particularly perfect screenplays. I’d love your thoughts on these as well as your nominees for other great screenplays and writing—in any medium—for a crowd-sourced weekend post of solidarity!]
On a classic film noir mystery that’s also a pitch-perfect historical fiction.
I don’t think I need to use too much space here arguing for the greatness of Chinatown (1974). By any measure, from contemporary awards (ie, nominated for 11 Oscars and 10 BAFTAs and 7 Golden Globes) to historical appreciations (named to the National Film Registry by the Film Preservation Board in 1991) to ridiculously obvious criteria (a 2010 poll of British film critics named it “the best film of all time”!), Roman Polanski’s film noir (although it feels at least as right to write “Robert Towne’s film noir,” since the screenplay is to my mind the greatest one ever filmed and of course Polanski is now a rightly disgraced figure) about a world-weary private detective and pretty much everything else in 1937 Los Angeles is one of the most acclaimed and honored American films. It stars Jack Nicholson at the absolute height of his career and powers; features a pitch-perfect supporting cast including legendary director John Huston as one of the great villains of all time; centers on a multi-generational Southern California familial and historical mystery that would make Ross MacDonald proud; is equal parts suspenseful, funny, sexy, dark, and emotionally affecting; and has the single greatest final line ever (not gonna spoil it or any main aspect of the plot here). If you haven’t seen it yet, I can’t recommend strongly enough that you do so.
On top of all of that, I think Chinatown is one of the very few hugely successful and popular American films that is deeply invested in complex and significant American Studies kinds of questions (interestingly, it lost the Best Picture Oscar to another such film: The Godfather Part II). By the 1970s it was likely very difficult to remember—and is of course even more unfamiliar in our own Hollywood-dominated cultural moment—just how unlikely of a site Los Angeles had once been for one of the nation’s largest and most important cities; despite its close proximity to the Pacific Ocean, LA is more or less built in a desert, and by the turn of the 20th century, when the city’s population had just moved past the 100,000 mark, it seemed impossible for the city to provide enough water to support that community. It took the efforts of one particularly visionary city planner, William Mulholland, to solve that problem; Mulholland and his team designed and constructed the Los Angeles Aqueduct, a mammoth project that, once completed in 1913, assured that the city could continue to support its ever-growing (especially with the rise of Hollywood in the 1920s) population.
But if that’s the basic historical narrative of LA’s turning point, an American Studies perspective would want to push a lot further on a number of different factors and components within that: where the water was coming from, and what happened in those more rural and agricultural communities are a result of the aqueduct’s creation; how much of the money involved was public, how much was private and from whom, and if the project benefited the whole of the city equally or if its effects were similarly linked to class and status; what role LA’s significant diversity—even in those early years it already included sizeable Mexican, African, and Asian American populations, for example—played in this process; whether the city’s built environment, its architecture and neighborhoods and streets and etc., shifted with the new availability of water, or whether there were other factors that more strongly influenced its planning; and so on. And perhaps the most impressive thing about Chinatown is that it manages at least to gesture at almost all of those questions and issues, without becoming for even a moment the kind of (forgive me) dry historical drama that they might suggest.
Next great screenplay tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other great screenwriting you’d nominate?