Chinatown

Dir: Roman Polanski, 1974. Starring: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston. Mystery/Thriller.

This movie is not ranked on the top of AFI’s "Greatest American Movies" of all time for nothing. Every single aspect and element of this film - from its direction, cinematography, script development, performances, editing, to its art direction - is outstanding. When you take a director such as Roman Polanski, add a writer like Robert Towne, and have actors such as Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, it’s almost a done deal. What leads this film to excel beyond excellence is its profound content and complex, multi-leveled storyline. Its underlying historical significance concerning the 1930s water rights in Los Angeles has also earned the film to be selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1991.

The story is set in the 1930s. J.J. “Jakes” Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson, is a Los Angeles private investigator hired by Evelyn Mulwray to spy on her supposed cheating husband, who is the city’s chief engineer for the water department. Soon after the initial investigation, Gittes finds that this woman is an impersonator of Evelyn Mulwray. He plunges into the case to discover the complex twists and turns of a murder involving incest and municipal corruption, which somehow all relate to the city’s water supply. How far do people in power go to keep themselves in that position? Follow Gittes’ investigation to find out.

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Posted by:
Tiffany Huang
Jun 11, 2009 3:44pm

Dirty Pretty Things

Dir: Stephen Frears, 2002. Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Audrey Tautou, Sophie Okonedo. Mystery/Thriller.

Who the hell is hounding you in the BMW
How the hell he find you, 147'd you
Feds gonna get you
Pull the strings on the hood
One paranoid youth blazin' thru the hood 

– M.I.A. “Galang”

In the introduction to his published screenplay of Chinatown Robert Towne considers the depressing state of contemporary cinema in a Hollywood decades removed from Chinatown and the New Hollywood of the 1970s. For him it's the overload of expository dialogue meant to move the plot along and wooden, one-dimensional quality of characters in current films that kills any suspense or drama.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Sep 10, 2013 8:26pm

Earthquake

Dir: Mark Robson, 1974. Starring: Charlton Heston, George Kennedy, Ava Gardner, Genevieve Bujold, Richard Roundtree. Action.

EarthquakeJump started by the success of the movie Airport in 1970, the “disaster movie” was a 1970’s cultural phenomenon, taking the soap-opera mold of Grand Hotel and putting a bunch of actors, ranging from big stars to has-beens all eager to cash their checks, into a dangerous situation with now cornball special effects. The best was The Poseidon Adventure and the biggest was The Towering Inferno (which inexplicably got a Best Picture Oscar nomination). But the most ambitiously awkward may’ve been Earthquake. The film was originally released extra loud in something called "Sensurround” and featured cameramen shaking cameras while Styrofoam bricks fell on extras. It was directed by Mark Robson (Valley of the Dolls) and written by Mario Puzo (yes, that’s right, Mario–the Godfather–Puzo, and he’s not the only major talent slumming here), though someone named George Fox also got a screenwriting credit as well, the only film for which he’s credited. Earthquake may not have been very good but as a cultural curiosity it’s fascinating, as a travelogue of mid-70s Los Angeles it’s invaluable, and as a piece of ridiculous pop-junk it’s totally entertaining.

The goofball introduction to the characters goes something like this... hunky architect Stewart Graff (Charlton Heston) is in a dead marriage to Remy (Ava Gardner) and having a boring affair with a young struggling actress, Denise (Genevieve Bujold, a sorta less sexy 70s version of Audrey Tautou), who is a single mom with an annoying son, Cory (the terrible actor but cool...

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
May 23, 2012 6:41pm

The Crying Game

Dir: Neil Jordan, 1992. Stephen Rea, Jaye Davidson, Miranda Richardson, Forest Whitaker. Mystery.

In his introduction to the published screenplay of Chinatown, Robert Towne wonders if there’s anything left to do with noir. He wonders if the aesthetics and thematics and poetics of noir are simply outdated in the information age, where a sense of mystery is harder to come by. Sensibly, he shrugs off this worry and points to The Crying Game as an example of how noir can still say new things to us as a modern audience. The thing I admire so much about the film, though, is that it manages to be both a deeply personal love story as well as a morality play about modern day political crime in Britain. It’s an IRA story with terrorism, assassinations, and a queer love story at its center. Somehow it all makes complete sense.

The first third of the film is told in flashback. Fergus, played by Stephen Rea, is an IRA operative who feels immense guilt for having had a role in the death of a hapless British soldier, Jody, played by an overbearing and overacting Forest Whitaker. Whitaker’s character gets to know Fergus after he’s nabbed and before the inevitable happens, Jody makes Fergus promise to check in on his girlfriend, a London hairdresser named Dil, after he is gone. The story goes from IRA thriller to blue neon Brit noir when Fergus goes to London, haunted by the tragic fate of Jody. He looks in on Dil as promised and quickly becomes infatuated with her. Dil is a cool London chick and a transgendered woman (with a penis) though Fergus has no idea. Fergus isn’t saying who he really is and Dil isn’t saying who she really is. Once nature takes its course and Fergus discovers the truth about Dil he doesn’t handle it very well. But because of the fact that he actually has a conscience, and his genuine confusion over his feelings towards Dil, he doesn’t ever really leave her. The IRA is never truly going to let him go, though, and his loyalty to them becomes a liability for someone in the throes of a curious new relationship.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Apr 10, 2014 10:49am

The Maltese Falcon

Dir: John Huston, 1941. Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Elisha Cook Jr. Film Noir.

Like John Ford & John Wayne or Scorsese & De Niro, John Huston & Humphrey Bogart's work together as director and star will be forever linked in audiences' subconscious. After years of being a happening screenwriter, Huston got his chance to direct his own adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's crime novel, The Maltese Falcon. The film would help make Bogart a leading man, would lead to a 50-year career for Huston, and set the standard for detective films to come.

Like many detective and crime films of the 1940s, The Maltese Falcon is often improperly lumped in with the Film Noir genre. At best, The Maltese Falcon could be deemed a kick-starter to the genre that actually peaked in the post-WWII years. With the exception of a femme fatale or a detective it has little in common stylistically with the best of Film Noir (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Out Of The Past, etc.). That's not to say that the film (and the book) were not hugely influential, they were.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jan 6, 2011 6:32pm
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