A tale of two modern classics

Second Take

A tale of two modern classics

Two long-awaited films on Blu-Ray are finally here, Midnight Cowboy and Chinatown, and it is a pleasure to see them in these high definition transfers. The colours in Chinatown are deep — the green lawns, the brown landscapes — and the soundtrack is superb. Midnight Cowboy still looks a little grainy but is just as rewarding.

It is hard to believe that this very seamy New York movie was British director John Schlesinger’s first American film. Starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, this is a sad, bitterly funny movie about loneliness, failure and friendship. While Chinatown, a modern noir classic, eerily and presciently anticipates the current climate of drought in California!

Voight is Joe Buck, a tall, handsome man from a small American town who feels his calling is to be a stud, a gigolo. He’s had such sweet success with the ladies in his town. He’s going to New York because he’s heard that there are swarms of rich, lonely, sex-starved middle-aged women who are looking out for a stud just like him. In New York, the women don’t even notice him. He is lied to, conned, jeered at and finds himself alone, friendless, with a terrible sense of failure hanging over him. And then he meets Ratzo (Dustin Hoffman), a poor street-wise tramp, also down on his luck.

Schlesinger’s gritty drama, based on James Leo Herlihy’s small classic, comes closer to portraying loneliness the way we Indians experience it than Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver does. Scorsese’s hero, Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Nero, is essentially a loner. That’s why he’s lonely and even turning psychotic. Midnight Cowboy’s stud Joe Buck is not a loner — he’s lonely. He’s your regular guy who finds he’s defeated, friendless and a failure in a big city because of what people can be sometimes. Many scenes are hilarious because they are so achingly tragic.

Midnight Cowboy belongs to that classic literary genre of the tragi-farce. The funniest scene is also the most painful: Buck is tricked by Ratzo and taken to a neurotic Pentecostal preacher, except Buck doesn’t know it and thinks he’s there as a gigolo to please some desperate woman. Before Buck knows it, the crazy, holy-roller preacher has Buck on his knees, insisting Buck pray with him. Buck’s confusion is damm funny but when he realises he’s been betrayed by someone he took to be his friend, it’s pretty sad. In Taxi Driver, there are few things about the hero we can identify with, but with Buck, played so sweetly and poignantly by Voight, we see our own experiences of  failure, betrayal, and loneliness mirrored there. By the way, it’s in this film, in the limping, stuttering Ratzo role, that Hoffman began to develop his ticks and mannerisms that to this day, to our peril, he has not shaken off.

Sometimes hard-boiled detective films, with their familiar plots and flashy style, bring a sense of deja-vu as they unfold, but with Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, it’s the opposite: no matter how many times you see it, it feels like the first time. It’s so multi-layered and taps into the darkest human corners so effectively that there are new things to discover about it with every fresh viewing. Los Angeles in the 1930s. Jack Nicholson is Jake Gittes, a private investigator specialising in divorce work who gets tricked into a case involving diversion of valley water during a drought in order to make the land available for development. Mixed into the plot is rape, murder, incest, and political corruption.

It’s a terrifying vision, full of corrupt behaviour, including greed of virtually every type. Among the many remarkable things about Chinatown is how it’s able to use the classic conventions of the private eye genre without resorting to parody or camp. Robert Towne’s script has the genius to push the limits of this genre without straining it. But it does ever so niftily turn it on its head with its shattering, tragic denouement when Nicholson watches with stupefied horror at history repeating itself (‘once again he is helpless as fate destroys the one person he tried to save’) and his ex-partner says — as though it were sufficient explanation: “It’s Chinatown”. 

As in all seedy private eye movies, the detective is the sucker — except here Jake Gittis is “not suckered by any dame but by Dame Fate”. Chinatown signifies more than just a section of the city: it’s a state of mind, a fear, a place where things once went wrong for Nicholson in the past and now “represents a kind of Neighbourhood of Doom”. It’s Nicholson’s best performance: all the chutzpah and assuredness is present, but without the ticks, without the mannerisms. John Huston’s performance as the arch-villain gets under your skin and stays there. And Polanski was absolutely right to choose the tragic ending over Towne’s happier one — because of it no one who sees Chinatown ever forgets it.

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