The greatest detective movie ever?

Sam Wasson, The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood. New York: Flatiron Books. 2020. 397 pages.

Chinatown is arguably the greatest mystery/detective movie ever made.  The 1974 production had the Midas touch: an unrivaled power to bring out the very best from every star.  Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston gave no better performances.  Lesser known actors, from Perry Lopez to Burt Young, were as exemplary in their roles as they are remembered ("You can't eat the Venetian blinds, Curly").  The best also came from everyone involved in Chinatown's production.  Jerry Goldsmith's lush theme haunts us still.  Writer Robert Towne, with help from assistant Edward Taylor, penned the platinum standard dialogue, while Sam O'Steen's editing exacted the precise.  The efforts of producer Robert Evans and the directing by Roman Polanski (a "fugitive from justice," Wasson notes) were first-rate (329).

Small wonder that Chinatown received eleven Oscar nominations (Towne won for best original screenplay); the Golden Globes gave it the Best Motion Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Screenplay awards.  The list goes on.

As does the tribute.

Author Sam Wasson's latest work, The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood, lends incisive commentary with breezy eloquence to explain the film's success and its place in silver screen history, as something more than gumshoe noir and nothing less than great existential cinema.

Much like the book, Chinatown is an ode to time and place: 1937 Los Angeles...

It was the old Los Angeles story, gold, bandits, fool's gold, fools. (19)

For most of the twentieth century, Los Angeles was America's default paradise — more so for earlier migrants.  Sun and surf against the corral of mountain vistas, pre-war Los Angeles was the pinnacle of promise, the last stop for the American Dream.  What was then a city of less than one and a half million people (today: nearly four million), the sheer sprawl of the southland defied projected growth, even by American standards:

Other American cities have gone through a boom phase and then entered upon a period of normal growth. But Los Angeles has always been a boom town... (68)

Yet, differences in weather and topography notwithstanding, Los Angeles was not at all different from, and in fact, is tragically akin to every other populated place on Earth.  The loom of evil is everywhere and ever-present.  The early 1970s saw evil as center story in its finest films.  Benchmarks for excellence in cinematic achievement came with the release of The Godfather (1972) and The Exorcist (1973).  Still, one could easily be drawn to, distracted, even, by the operatic self-indulgence of the former and the outré special effects of the latter.

Towne's screenplay invests in Chinatown the spare aesthetic of evil's progressive degeneracy from colossal avarice to civic coffer-raiding (water siphoning) and then murder — against a backstory of the unspeakable: incest.  Add to this the prospect of meager recourse — neither revenge nor rite was present — and Wasson aptly highlights that one is left to toil with all the hope of Sisyphus.  Echoing Albert Camus, Wasson notes:

Chinatown is a condition. The condition is the terrible awareness of one's helplessness ... [w]hat Towne had always called 'the futility of good intentions.' (271)

If resignation and endurance were the film's philosophical takeaways, Chinatown was Stoicism with style.  Towne's screenplay, his "elegy to Los Angeles" (141), is really an elegy to the mythical, hard-boiled 1930s Los Angeles of mystery master Raymond Chandler (1888–1959).  Chandler's romanticism idealized a Los Angeles he longed for, as we read in his 1949 novel, The Little Sister:

I used to like this town…[a] long time ago. There were trees along Wilshire Boulevard. Beverly Hills was a country town. Westwood was bare hills and lots offering at eleven hundred dollars and no takers. Hollywood was a bunch of frame houses on the interurban line. Los Angeles was just a big dry sunny place with ugly homes and no style, but goodhearted and peaceful.

Towne, a Los Angeles–area native, read Chandler; he was Towne's muse:

I realized that I had in common with Chandler that I loved L.A. and missed the L.A. that I loved. It was gone[.] (60)

Gone but memorialized.  Chinatown is Chandler harder-boiled — think The Big Sleep 2.0.  Chandler's moody novel (1939) and hit movie (1946) resonate through Towne's work.  As they do Wasson's book.  

Wasson too read Chandler.  The ghosts of Wilshire Boulevard are also his.  The title, The Big Goodbye, is but a play on Chandler's most famous novel and movie.  Wasson opens the book with the most Chandleresque of quotes, revealing a sensitivity to history and locale, both of which make The Big Goodbye such an inviting read.

From the outset, the reader senses in Wasson a love for movie classics and Chinatown especially.  For the author, it may very well have been the last hurrah of Hollywood's pre-digital Golden Age — as so much care went into Chinatown's production: "500 pages of outlines, notes, character details" (102) informed "340 pages of script" (118).  Writer and director worked ten-hour days (134) to finalize a script that saw Towne attending to every detail — even spending weeks on Catalina Island (115).  In Wasson's words:

He walked around the Catalina Yacht Club, tanned by years of dust. Shielding his eyes from the summer sun, he walked past the tiny clapboard ranch houses that dotted the hillside, untouched for fifty years, and he walked down to the shoreline and caught the friendly tang of eucalyptus in the salt air. The old days, California. (115)

The old days Wasson channels in this recommended farewell to a Hollywood no more, and to a Los Angeles that never was, save for what the imagination summons.

Tim Weldon teaches philosophy at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Illinois.

Sam Wasson, The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood. New York: Flatiron Books. 2020. 397 pages.

Chinatown is arguably the greatest mystery/detective movie ever made.  The 1974 production had the Midas touch: an unrivaled power to bring out the very best from every star.  Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston gave no better performances.  Lesser known actors, from Perry Lopez to Burt Young, were as exemplary in their roles as they are remembered ("You can't eat the Venetian blinds, Curly").  The best also came from everyone involved in Chinatown's production.  Jerry Goldsmith's lush theme haunts us still.  Writer Robert Towne, with help from assistant Edward Taylor, penned the platinum standard dialogue, while Sam O'Steen's editing exacted the precise.  The efforts of producer Robert Evans and the directing by Roman Polanski (a "fugitive from justice," Wasson notes) were first-rate (329).

Small wonder that Chinatown received eleven Oscar nominations (Towne won for best original screenplay); the Golden Globes gave it the Best Motion Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Screenplay awards.  The list goes on.

As does the tribute.

Author Sam Wasson's latest work, The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood, lends incisive commentary with breezy eloquence to explain the film's success and its place in silver screen history, as something more than gumshoe noir and nothing less than great existential cinema.

Much like the book, Chinatown is an ode to time and place: 1937 Los Angeles...

It was the old Los Angeles story, gold, bandits, fool's gold, fools. (19)

For most of the twentieth century, Los Angeles was America's default paradise — more so for earlier migrants.  Sun and surf against the corral of mountain vistas, pre-war Los Angeles was the pinnacle of promise, the last stop for the American Dream.  What was then a city of less than one and a half million people (today: nearly four million), the sheer sprawl of the southland defied projected growth, even by American standards:

Other American cities have gone through a boom phase and then entered upon a period of normal growth. But Los Angeles has always been a boom town... (68)

Yet, differences in weather and topography notwithstanding, Los Angeles was not at all different from, and in fact, is tragically akin to every other populated place on Earth.  The loom of evil is everywhere and ever-present.  The early 1970s saw evil as center story in its finest films.  Benchmarks for excellence in cinematic achievement came with the release of The Godfather (1972) and The Exorcist (1973).  Still, one could easily be drawn to, distracted, even, by the operatic self-indulgence of the former and the outré special effects of the latter.

Towne's screenplay invests in Chinatown the spare aesthetic of evil's progressive degeneracy from colossal avarice to civic coffer-raiding (water siphoning) and then murder — against a backstory of the unspeakable: incest.  Add to this the prospect of meager recourse — neither revenge nor rite was present — and Wasson aptly highlights that one is left to toil with all the hope of Sisyphus.  Echoing Albert Camus, Wasson notes:

Chinatown is a condition. The condition is the terrible awareness of one's helplessness ... [w]hat Towne had always called 'the futility of good intentions.' (271)

If resignation and endurance were the film's philosophical takeaways, Chinatown was Stoicism with style.  Towne's screenplay, his "elegy to Los Angeles" (141), is really an elegy to the mythical, hard-boiled 1930s Los Angeles of mystery master Raymond Chandler (1888–1959).  Chandler's romanticism idealized a Los Angeles he longed for, as we read in his 1949 novel, The Little Sister:

I used to like this town…[a] long time ago. There were trees along Wilshire Boulevard. Beverly Hills was a country town. Westwood was bare hills and lots offering at eleven hundred dollars and no takers. Hollywood was a bunch of frame houses on the interurban line. Los Angeles was just a big dry sunny place with ugly homes and no style, but goodhearted and peaceful.

Towne, a Los Angeles–area native, read Chandler; he was Towne's muse:

I realized that I had in common with Chandler that I loved L.A. and missed the L.A. that I loved. It was gone[.] (60)

Gone but memorialized.  Chinatown is Chandler harder-boiled — think The Big Sleep 2.0.  Chandler's moody novel (1939) and hit movie (1946) resonate through Towne's work.  As they do Wasson's book.  

Wasson too read Chandler.  The ghosts of Wilshire Boulevard are also his.  The title, The Big Goodbye, is but a play on Chandler's most famous novel and movie.  Wasson opens the book with the most Chandleresque of quotes, revealing a sensitivity to history and locale, both of which make The Big Goodbye such an inviting read.

From the outset, the reader senses in Wasson a love for movie classics and Chinatown especially.  For the author, it may very well have been the last hurrah of Hollywood's pre-digital Golden Age — as so much care went into Chinatown's production: "500 pages of outlines, notes, character details" (102) informed "340 pages of script" (118).  Writer and director worked ten-hour days (134) to finalize a script that saw Towne attending to every detail — even spending weeks on Catalina Island (115).  In Wasson's words:

He walked around the Catalina Yacht Club, tanned by years of dust. Shielding his eyes from the summer sun, he walked past the tiny clapboard ranch houses that dotted the hillside, untouched for fifty years, and he walked down to the shoreline and caught the friendly tang of eucalyptus in the salt air. The old days, California. (115)

The old days Wasson channels in this recommended farewell to a Hollywood no more, and to a Los Angeles that never was, save for what the imagination summons.

Tim Weldon teaches philosophy at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Illinois.