How Roman Polanski’s beloved neo-noir classic influenced Rian Johnson’s directorial debut
One film released before 1980.
One film released after 1980.
A deep dive into both films to discover the thematic similarities and cinematic influences between the two.
Director Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (watch the trailer here), released in 1974, has gained a reputation as one of the most beloved classics of its era. Many consider it the last great film noir, though that claim can be and is argued by many film fans. One thing that generally is not argued, however, is the quality of the film’s script. Robert Towne’s screenplay is considered a gold standard of screenwriting and has even become a teaching tool for many wannabe-screenwriters trying to learn the craft. Polanski’s cinematic interpretation of the script is in many ways an homage to classic film noir of old Hollywood. The exact definition of film noir may differ depending on who you ask. Roughly, the genre of film noir refers to the stylish Hollywood crime films of the 1940s and 1950s. The genre mostly features hardboiled crime stories with a cynical inclination that lends a particular type of atmosphere and aesthetic to the genre’s films. Many movies considered to be film noir have some semblance of a detective story with a main investigator protagonist attempting to uncover some grisly and dark crime that involves powerful individuals behind the scenes. The “femme fatale” prototype in American cinema mostly evolved from film noir, and many of the genre’s films feature a mysterious female antagonist/love interest who leads the male protagonist deeper into the dark criminal underworld he is investigating. Since Chinatown was technically made after the film noir era, it is generally considered to be a neo-noir film. That said, because the genre focuses so much on atmosphere, mood, and aesthetics, the genre can really be set in any time period and made at any point in time.
The story of Chinatown follows private investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), who’s hired by a mysterious woman named Evelyn Mulwray to look into potential adulterous acts committed by her husband Hollis Mulwray, the chief engineer of the L.A. Department of Water and Power. Jake soon learns that the mysterious woman actually was not the real Evelyn Mulwray, but instead an actress hired by an unknown person to impersonate her. This revelation, revealed to Jake by the real Evelyn (Faye Dunaway), shifts the investigation to potential enemies of Hollis after his dead body is discovered in a water reservoir. Jake soon finds himself pulled into a dark criminal conspiracy involving misdeeds, corruption, and murder at the highest levels of the powerful water companies disputing land rights in southern California. Much of the film’s plot focuses on the drought-plagued area surrounding Los Angeles, a city so many associate with dreams of fame and fortune. The deep price that people are willing to pay for this fame and fortune, and the power that comes with it, is one of the underlying themes of the film that leads to a shocking conclusion.
The legacy that Chinatown left on Hollywood is rightfully far-reaching. The film was referenced in many films that came after it (including animated features like The Simpsons and Pixar film Inside Out), and the story beats of the detective story have been found in many modern day thrillers. Perhaps most memorable of all is the film’s bleak and ultra-dark conclusion (watch in full here). Shockingly and seemingly out of nowhere, the ultra-taboo topic of incest emerges from the central mystery of the film. It’s revealed that Evelyn’s father, the wealthy and powerful Noah Cross (John Huston), raped Evelyn as a teenager, which led to the birth of Katherine (Belinda Palmer)— who is both her sister and her daughter. Far from being a happy ending, Chinatown concludes with Evelyn’s murder by police as she tries to flee from her father with Katherine. Noah is the ultimate victor and retrieves Katherine from the car as Jake looks on from afar. Despite his attempts to save the two innocent women, his failure leads to a sense of despondence as he walks away from the tragedy he witnessed first-hand and hears the famous line of the film.
Chinatown is often featured on lists of the greatest films ever made, and whether one agrees with that ranking or not, it’s hard to deny the cultural impact the film has had on the industry. The neo-noir style is one many filmmakers try to replicate in their own form, and the film features iconic performances from the two leads Nicholson and Dunaway, two actors with significant filmographies to their names. Though the 1990 sequel (The Two Jakes) and the subsequent controversial legacy of Polanski threatened to derail the film’s reputation, it has lived on as a gold standard of the neo-noir genre.
Writer-director Rian Johnson has reached a point in his career where he has effectively made films that greatly vary in terms of budget, scale, and expectations. He has recently written and directed an entry in arguably the biggest franchise in the world (The Last Jedi), a sci-fi thriller starring one of Hollywood’s most iconic action stars Bruce Willis (Looper), and a star-studded modern day murder mystery (Knives Out). Before he could seemingly make whatever film his heart desired, Johnson was making quirky and small budget films that developed huge fan followings not because of name recognition but because of their sheer high quality. His directorial debut from 2005, Brick (watch the trailer here), perhaps best represents this phase of his career. Set in a California suburb, the story follows a group of high schoolers who speak as if they’re straight out of a hardboiled detective novel from the 1920s. The detective of this story is Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who navigates his high school’s criminal underworld as he investigates the death of his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin).
Johnson’s style of filming is clearly an homage to film noir of the past and a love letter to classic hardboiled detective novels. All the high school characters speak in dialogue that does not fit their modern setting and many of Brendan’s classmates fit film noir archetypes (i.e. femme fatale), with Brendan taking on the role of private eye featured in so many films of the genre. Brick gets its name from a block of heroin that could arguably act as the film’s McGuffin — the sinister symbol of the high school drug ring that draws Brendan in to solve the mystery of his beloved ex-girlfriend’s death. Throughout the film, Brendan confronts numerous classmates to get to the bottom of Emily’s disappearance and ultimate death. Rarely does an adult character appear on screen, as the high schoolers reside in a fantasy-like world where they make the rules and break them at their own risk.
Brick was not a huge hit upon release, but it has since become a beloved cult classic to many film fans, leading to a devoted fan base of Johnson’s filmography. There’s really not any other film quite like it, a neo-noir murder mystery featuring a cast made almost entirely of teenagers speaking a hardboiled argot that’s nearly unintelligible without subtitles. While it’s clearly an homage to the film noir genre of classic Hollywood, the film also offers a commentary on teenage life and the vulnerability prevalent in many teens’ experiences. Shot in only 20 days, Brick represents grassroots filmmaking at its finest. Johnson filmed the movie in his hometown of San Clemente, California, using local high school students as extras. The special effects were made cheaply through practical means and his film crew was made up of some personal acquaintances, including his composer cousin Nathan Johnson. The film is a symbol of what can be achieved through sheer will power and an auteur filmmaker whose vision is wholly unique.
Johnson’s directorial debut is a film that people return to over and over again, especially as the director’s career continues to climb to a legendary level. It can be viewed outside of the film noir context as simply an intriguing murder mystery, but it can also be a wonderful scavenger hunt of references to the beloved genre. Brick also features a talented cast of young actors, many who would go on to significant careers in the film industry. It’s difficult to encounter a cinephile today who does not have some sort of opinion on the film — a sign of the enormous talent behind it.
Homage to film noir
Both Chinatown and Brick fall outside the traditional era of film noir (1940s-1950s), so they are considered by many to be of the neo-noir genre. The themes of both films align well with those of classic Hollywood crime films and feature many similar plot dynamics and character archetypes.
Both films follow the story of a private investigator — Jake in Chinatown and Brendan in Brick — as he attempts to uncover a mysterious death. The private eye’s investigation leads him down the rabbit hole of a seedy criminal underworld, revealing that behind all great fortune is a great crime. In Chinatown, this great crime involves the powerful Noah Cross, who Gittes discovers killed Hollis Mulwray as part of his quest to irrigate and develop the Northwest Valley into Los Angeles. If this corrupt and murderous revelation doesn’t villainize Cross enough, he’s further proven to be a monster with the shocking twist revealing the rape of his own daughter Evelyn.
In Brick, the great crime in question involves the unhinged Tug (Noah Fleiss), who murdered Emily after discovering she may be carrying his unborn child. However, her murder seems tied up with a criminal drug ring run by The Pin (Lukas Haas) — and potentially related to a “brick” of heroin that was stolen and returned contaminated. This is where the femme fatale homage comes into play.
The femme fatale character archetype is used to great effect in both films, though in drastically different ways. Despite their differences, both films feature an overarching theme: all is not what it seems with the central female character. In Chinatown, Polanski reconstructs the femme fatale archetype with the portrayal of Evelyn Mulwray. Traditionally, the femme fatale’s intentions are sinister and her web of lies throughout the film is meant to ensnare the male protagonist by using her seductive powers to control men. However, Evelyn’s web of lies are only meant to conceal her secret of an abusive relationship with her father. Further, she is trying to protect the innocent life of Katherine, who is both her sister and her daughter. That said, she still tries to control Jake by taking on the role of hapless victim who is seemingly unaware of the dark happenings of her father and husband’s corrupt businesses. But Evelyn knows much more than she puts on, leading Jake down a rabbit hole he’s unprepared to handle.
In Brick, the femme fatale is more traditional with the character of Laura (Nora Zehetner). Laura’s character arc is arguably the opposite of Evelyn’s in that she goes from seemingly having good-natured intentions to being revealed as the conniving mastermind pulling all the strings behind the scenes. Laura consistently appears to Brendan throughout the film, especially when he is in duress, and always expresses her support of his investigation. Just like with Evelyn and Jake, Laura and Brendan share a romantic and sensual connection and end up sleeping together near the conclusion of the film. Unlike Evelyn’s web of lies, Laura’s gestures of good faith are revealed to be a front for her role in stealing and contaminating the “brick” of heroin. Though Tug was the actual murderer of Emily, the victim’s blood is on Laura’s hands, who set her up to die in order to take the fall for the stolen heroin.
The title as metaphor
The themes of both Chinatown and Brick can be found by dissecting the title of the respective films. The title of Polanski’s film may appear on the surface to refer to the Los Angeles neighborhood where Jake used to patrol as a policeman. However, the film rarely takes place in the Chinatown neighborhood outside of the film’s bloody ending. Rather than being about a specific place, the term “Chinatown” is really a state of mind — a cynical way of viewing the world and the sense of being powerless to stop terrible crimes from happening. Jake overwhelmingly experiences this feeling upon witnessing Evelyn’s death in the neighborhood — a tragedy seemingly without any purpose or meaning that did not need to occur.
The title of Johnson’s film can initially be confounding to viewers since the “brick” of heroin in question never appears on film and is only tangentially related to Brendan’s investigation. However, upon further investigation, the brick serves as a symbol for the dark side of a world of drugs, leading to a life of self-destruction and ultimate death. A sole object — a compressed block of heroin — brings out the worst intentions in people striving for power and leads to many unintended consequences, including the death of Emily and others. It’s both absurd and entirely believable that such an object could have such an enormous impact on so many, a contradiction that fits with the dangerous yet lucrative world of drug dealing.
Visual cues — the plight of the anti-hero
Brick contains so many visual cues that were influenced by Chinatown that it’s best to separate the cues into two categories. The first involves the dangerous predicaments the anti-hero of each film experiences throughout the story. In both films, the private eye is bloody and bandaged for the majority of the runtime. In Chinatown, Jake has to heavily bandage his nose after it gets sliced by a water company henchman (Polanski in a cameo appearance) during his investigation of a reservoir. Watch the scene here.
In Brick, Brendan repeatedly gets beaten to a pulp by Tug, a high school jock, and others as he tries to investigate Emily’s disappearance and death. Similar to Jake’s violent encounter with a henchman, Brendan is chased through his school’s campus by a knife-wielding man seemingly hired to send a message to stop his investigation (watch the full chase here). The banged up appearances of both characters symbolize the dangerous underworlds they are navigating to try to find the truth.
Though many of the visual cues represent the dangerous path the private eyes are investigating, there are others that subtly portray their manipulation by the femme fatale archetypes. In Chinatown, Evelyn drives Jake through the California countryside — a visual cue representing her power over him as he remains uninformed of the dark situation he’s stumbled into. The powerful visual is repeated when the two end up in bed together, a seemingly romantic image that features a sense of unease underneath the surface.
In Brick, the visuals of the femme fatale character displaying control over the male protagonist are constant. Laura essentially serves as Brendan’s driver throughout the film, even tending to his wounds from the front seat. The two end up having sex after Laura comforts Brendan when he shows vulnerability over Emily’s death. Just like Evelyn’s power over Jake, Laura shows an intimate interest in Brendan that may be genuine but is ultimately the result of her manipulation.
Visual cues — wide California vistas
Since the 2005 release of Brick, Rian Johnson has hinted that many of the visual cues of the California suburb setting were inspired by the wide-open flat spaces featured so prominently in Chinatown. Both films are set in the Los Angeles area of the state and notably feature bodies of water (or lack of water) that are quite important to the respective plots. In Chinatown, Jake investigates the dry water reservoirs that he finds Hollis Mulwray frequenting, who is later found dead in one.
In Brick, the most prominent location is the eerie water tunnel where Brendan discovers Emily’s dead body. Just like the reservoir in Chinatown, the tunnel is both a place that contains deep horrors that haunt the protagonist and a place where he must return for more answers.
The wide-open vistas are also represented in each film with sprawling shots of the California countryside in Chinatown and the prominent setting of the central high school’s football field in Brick. Both places represent settings where the private investigator learns answers to the mysteries confounding him throughout the respective films.
The beauty of noir as a genre is that it can be set in any time period and setting. This is clearly shown in both Chinatown and Brick, two of the most beloved homages to classic film noir in the past century. While Polanski’s film is considered by many to be a worthy entry into the film noir genre, Johnson’s film is considered to be an effective reconstruction of the genre. Their respective stories are timeless and the rough structure of each will be copied for generations to come. Noir is a genre that is meant to inspire future filmmakers to create great art, and these two films are perhaps the greatest examples of that.
I hope this entry of Modern Throwback has shown how cinema influences itself throughout time. If we are willing to reflect on the filmmaking process, it becomes clear that filmmaking is a revolving door of ideas and techniques that makes film an overall stronger art form.