So Roman Polanski is in the news again. I don't feel like writing a post about that, because, yuck, but here's something I notice about Chinatown: not only is it somewhat atypical of Polanski's career, it's also somewhat atypical of Robert Towne's career.
Towne's script is often taught in screenwriting classes and books as a model of the well-made screenplay. Most of Towne's own scripts (apart from the many he doctored, like Bonnie and Clyde) are messier and less heavily plotted than Chinatown; his excellent script from the year before, The Last Detail, is more the kind of film he usually wrote.
As for Polanski, his style is all over the movie, not just in the nihilistic ending he insisted on, but the sense of creepy dread he brings to every scene. The movie would not have worked if it had been given to another director, because any other director would have treated it as an old-fashioned crime movie, and it would have become an exercise in nostalgia. (The Robert Altman Long Goodbye option, to contrast old movie ethics with modern living, wasn't available here, because of the period setting.) Polanski insisted on shooting it in color and in Panavision, to make sure that it would not be mistaken for a pastiche of old movies, and as usual he made the movie look beautiful and feel terribly unsettling, so the audience couldn't sit back and keep their distance from the story.
And yet it's not exactly a Polanski project: he didn't write it (Rosemary's Baby was another project handed to him by Robert Evans, but he wrote it himself), and it's not a type of movie he usually made; the underlying theme of the movie almost seems to be Polanski trying to figure out how to make himself interested in a genre he doesn't usually go for. The story that seems closest to Polanski's '60s films is Evelyn Mulwray's story, but the nature of the script means that that story has to be peripheral, something we only learn about in dialogue (and, in the "my sister/my daughter" scene, pretty campy dialogue at that).
In many ways it seems like the person of whom this movie is most "typical" is Robert Evans. Not only because it was his first movie as a producer (as opposed to studio executive) and so he had a lot riding on it, but because it's the kind of thing he loved to work on in his Paramount years: he showed a great fondness for period pieces (The Godfather, The Great Gatsby) and modern takes on old-school movies (Love Story). Evans was successful as head of Paramount because he knew how to steer a middle ground between Old and New Hollywood, making Old Hollywood genre movies informed by the New Hollywood style. Chinatown was his attempt to do for film noir what he'd done for tearjerkers and gangster movies. Though as with The Godfather, the director took it to places Evans might not have expected, and he was smart enough to go along with that.
I've never been able to embrace Chinatown completely because I feel like, because Polanski brings that creeped-out style to everything he does, there's a too-limited emotional range to this movie. Polanski's little cameo is my favorite scene in the movie because it's funny as well as scary, one of the few funny moments in a mostly humorless movie (and much funnier than most of The Fearless Vampire Killers, which is supposed to be funny-creepy and mostly isn't). For one minute, Polanski is venturing out of his comfort zone and doing something a little different. But the movie is so brilliantly made and haunting that I can't really fault it too much for not being something it isn't.