At the Vivian de St. Vrain Theater, also known as the bedroom, pleasurably supine on what Italians call the letto matrimoniale, we watch films from all decades of cinema history. The new technologies deluge us with riches. Films arrive by mail, by download, and on TCM and MGM and Encore Classics. It's all so remarkably easy.
We especially enjoy unplanned, spontaneous juxtapositions. Two nights ago, for example, we re-re-re-rewatched, on Encore, a film that must be on everyone's top ten list, the great noir classic Chinatown. Dazzled we were, once again. And then, last night, courtesy of the U. S. Post Office and Netflix, along came Carol Reed's masterpiece, Odd Man Out. There was, trust me, no plan to follow the one with the other -- but what a stroke of good fortune!!
Chinatown (1974) gives us a fully-realized Los Angeles in the 1930s. The plot is complicated but not confusing. J. J. Gittes, a bored, compromised detective, is smart enough to unravel the plan to steal the water and smart enough to identify the murderer but nevertheless too innocent to grasp the unspeakable corruption at the heart of the of Mulwray-Cross family. Odd Man Out (1947), which also manages to make its Belfast setting as real as real, offers only the slightest plot -- Johnny McQueen's desperate attempt to escape his city. Yet what a remarkable story and how ably peopled with a variety of characters. It becomes almost picaresque in organization as Johnny reels from adventure to adventure, encountering Irish samaritans good, bad, and traitorous. On the surface the films are miles apart --Los Angeles all bright colors and fancy clothes, awash with prosperity, Belfast dark dark dark and gloomy. And yet the two films seemed oddly similar.
The overlaps and echoes were such that we decided to investigate. Here's what we discovered, via the wikipedia entry on Chinatown. "Filmmaker Roman Polanski (the director of Chinatown) has repeatedly cited Odd Man Out as his favorite film. 'I still consider it to be one of the best movies I've ever seen and a film which made me want to pursue this career more than anything else.... I always dreamed of doing things of this sort or that style. To a certain extent I must say that I somehow perpetuate the ideas of that movie in what I do.'" So our speculation about the similarities was validated. Unquestionably, Polanski had Carol Reed in mind while making Chinatown.
Let us cut to the chase and (spoilers coming, so watch out!) concentrate on the two films' last scenes. Johnny McQueen, badly wounded, is trying to make it down to the docks get himself out of Belfast. He's helped by his girlfriend Kathleen Ryan. For a hopeful second, it appears that he's going to escape, but the police surround him. He can no longer see, but he asks Kathleen, "Is it far?" Kathleen replies (and you have to be made of stone not to drop a tear), "It's a long way, Johnny, but I'm coming with you." She shoots at the police and they respond with "deadly force." It's suicide by cop -- a sad emotional love-death Romeo and Juliet ending. The ending of Chinatown is much more hopeless. Evelyn Mulwray tries to escape her father, corrupt and powerful Noah Cross. She drives away with her daughter but a fusillade of police bullets kills her. Evil, malevolent Cross wins everything -- the money, the land, the water, the child. (Polanski even altered the original ending to make it darker, more like Odd Man Out.) "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown" -- i.e. inexplicable, impenetrable.
More on Polanski here.